AS we took early, uncertain steps towards lockdown survival a year ago, I posted this on Facebook:
“As a Guyanese living in T&T, been generally impressed with the State’s Covid-19 response. The Dr Keith Rowley admin has been swift, purposeful and nimble. Quick to react to changing circumstances (medical and financial), and ready to ramp up when needed.
“Rowley, Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh and National Security Minister Stuart Young are all good communicators (Deyalsingh can be a bit preachy, but he’s doing his job well), as is the CMO Dr Roshan Parasram. There’s a briefing virtually every day, and the Cabinet (PM, Health, Comms, Nat Sec, Finance, Trade and Industry, Labour) and the medical establishment are well represented. Rowley has led well on this.
“Don’t agree with everything they do. The briefings are way too long. The excessive suspicion of media is unwarranted, and the daily news releases updating the toll simply do not provide enough information for journalists to work with. They should be engaging the media, as partners, better than they’re doing. Trust me, their (the media’s) heart is in the right place, and they want you to succeed at this.”
That was March 23, 2020. Did it age well? As British Tory politician Rab Butler famously said, a week is a long time in politics. We’ve been fighting Covid-19 for almost 13 months. Stumbles are to be expected. A better question is how have the main players done on an objectively-evaluated credit and debit sheet?
In 1992, Harvard management scholars Robert Kaplan and David Norton published The Balanced Scorecard, opening up in business and management education a broader, fairer way of measuring performance. Many businesses use one of their tools, KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), to evaluate job performance.
I don’t expect citizens to subject political leaders to such performance-measuring rigour, but in our minds we should employ a more informal, qualitative scorecard, and apply it fairly. So by my early assessment Rowley led well; but he also shut down the big food chains in an arbitrary manner, and too quickly for them to dispose of huge food stocks without massive wastage.
Post-election, when according the Daily Express, there was a ten-fold spike in cases, he may have done the opposite – moved too slowly towards a second lockdown. All of that can simultaneously be true. That he’d done well by some measures and had missteps in others.
But we rarely do credit and debit evaluations, let alone balanced scorecards, in public discourse. On Facebook, folks who don’t support the Government can’t bring themselves to give them credit for anything. Others who don’t support the Opposition bristle at the slightest criticism of the Government. The Keihive can make the Beyhive look like teddy bears.
It’s not all like that, but a concerningly large proportion of it is. Rarely is there middle ground. It almost always comes back to political preference, and even race. It’s dispiriting to watch.
On Saturday at a press conference to warn of a potentially deadly resurgence of Covid-19 over a week-and-a-half dotted with holidays and the Easter weekend, Rowley was in good touch. He was well-served by his plain-speaking style, clear messaging, a well-coordinated information rollout with other key agencies, and a delivery punctuated with sharp one-liners.
We were told that we could be “one fool away” from possibly sparking an overwhelming of the healthcare system. I’d criticised him last week for a crass comment on begging for vaccines. But today I’m giving him props for a superb, clear communication of his message to T&T’s citizens.
Rhetorically speaking, Rowley shoots his prisoners. Blunt-speak leaves no room for equivocation, and generally, that can sometimes be a good thing. But he sometimes misfires. He should remember that he’s much more than the leader of a political section of T&T. He’s prime minister of all of it.
On Saturday, he reminded us of some of the most effective outings he had in the first six months of the pandemic, when he channelled his rhetorical gifts in the right direction.
About Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh, I’d written at the one-year mark of the pandemic that his daily briefings “were as good an exercise in public accountability as I’ve seen”. Deyalsingh is a doctor’s MoH. The medical professionals he works with largely like him, regard him as supportive, and he’s gained their respect. He is meticulous and careful.
And yet he fumbled some early responses of the vaccination phase, and in rationalising missteps as being ultra, ultra-cautious, can sometimes seem to be making ineffectiveness a virtue. All of these things can simultaneously be true. Balanced scorecard.
Back in 2017/2018 I’d hear from diplomats and multinational execs that if they wanted to cut through red tape and get things done properly and swiftly, Stuart Young was the man. To them, he is one of the smartest and most able people in the Government.
And yet Young has struggled to communicate clearly and consistently on the system of permissions and exemptions around pandemic travel and closed borders. In some of the individual cases, the ministry has seemed downright inhumane. All of that can be true. Balanced scorecard.
In his press conference, Rowley made an intriguing point about leadership in the pandemic. He must have read my mind, because that is what I intend to pivot to next week. And in doing so, talking about what I think could be an even bigger problem than access to vaccines.
• Orin Gordon is a media and communications consultant