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Year : 2020  |  Volume : 9  |  Issue : 5  |  Page : 81-84

Response to the COVID-19 pandemic in India: Case studies on leadership in crisis situations

1 The INCLEN Trust International, New Delhi, India
2 Department of Community and Family Medicine, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India
3 GRID Council, Delhi NCR, India

Date of Submission12-May-2020
Date of Decision23-May-2020
Date of Acceptance13-May-2020
Date of Web Publication04-Jun-2020

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Archisman Mohapatra
D-401, Saket Dham Apartments, Sector 61, Noida - 201 301, Uttar Pradesh
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijhas.IJHAS_112_20

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On January 30, 2020, India reported its first case of (COVID-19). In this article, we explore insights into leadership in crisis situations as the country combats the pandemic. We examine dimensions of leadership from two perspectives – positional, and systemic, and the success and challenges that lie therein. We consider the leadership-in-crisis vignettes using the address by the Prime Minister wherein the declaration of nation-wide lockdown was made (positional), and that of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, which suffered from a leadership vacuum as it combated the pandemic (systemic). We report that strategic communication could help bring stakeholders on-board with ease and enthusiasm, complementing a preemptive and graded national response, while systemic failures or stand-stills could compromise the pandemic response despite wide societal engagement and broad political will. Crises situations increase the demand on leaders exceptionally and make their role much more complex, expansive, and time-sensitive. However, at the same time, the system must build the inherent resilience to absorb and overcome shocks, and circumvent dependencies. In summary, leadership-in-crisis requires self-adequacy.

Keywords: Crisis, leadership, pandemic, vignette

How to cite this article:
Jahagirdar S, Chatterjee A, Behera S, Mohapatra A. Response to the COVID-19 pandemic in India: Case studies on leadership in crisis situations. Int J Health Allied Sci 2020;9, Suppl S1:81-4

How to cite this URL:
Jahagirdar S, Chatterjee A, Behera S, Mohapatra A. Response to the COVID-19 pandemic in India: Case studies on leadership in crisis situations. Int J Health Allied Sci [serial online] 2020 [cited 2023 Dec 10];9, Suppl S1:81-4. Available from: https://www.ijhas.in/text.asp?2020/9/5/81/285956

  Introduction Top

On January 30, 2020, India reported its first case of coronavirus disease (COVID-19).[1] Coincidentally, it was also the day when COVID-19 outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization (WHO). By early March 2020 cases were being reported from various parts of the country. On March 11, WHO declared COVID-19 as a “pandemic” and around this date, various states across India invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and India declared COVID-19 as a “national disaster.” On March 25, the country of 1.3 billion went into complete lockdown – mass movement restriction at a scale unprecedented in the history of humankind and a crisis that is perhaps the biggest public health challenge India has faced in recent times. India's tryst with COVID-19 ever since has been a tumultuous journey – of political acumen and appeal, system capacity, community resilience, and individual accountability. The situation is that of a complex crisis.

Leadership in crisis situations

Crises situations exceptionally increase the demand on leaders and make their role much more complex, expansive, and time-sensitive. Decisions must be taken fast despite uncertainties, and new leadership styles may need to be innovated as the older ways may not work.[2] The concept of “leadership-in-crisis” is a constantly evolving paradigm for researchers of leadership. It encompasses several executive tasks bundled together as a comprehensive package, for example, early recognition, sense-making, making critical decisions, orchestrating vertical and horizontal coordination, coupling and decoupling, meaning-making, effective communication, rendering accountability, learning, and enhancing resilience.[3]

We purposively selected two case studies to examine dimensions of leadership from two perspectives – positional (examining the situations, communication content and approaches around the Honourable Prime Minister (PM)'s declaration of a nation-wide lockdown on March 24), and systemic (critically examining the situation of Madhya Pradesh (MP) for system performance and weaknesses). We chose these case studies as these allowed us to explore the various aspects of leadership-in-crisis, given their wider coverage in print and electronic media, thus helping us with easy discoverability, triangulation, and validation of information. We curated information for these case studies through official published records e.g., transcript of the PM's speech, Union and State Government websites, circulars, orders, press releases, unstructured Internet search, and leveraging our understanding of the public health system in India and the context. We provide a qualitative synthesis of information as case vignettes along with quotable quotes having examined these inductively (akin to relational content analysis).[4]

Case vignette #1: Declaration of nation-wide lockdown – On cohesive crisis leadership in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment

Consider March 2020 from the Indian vantage point. We do not have a specific therapy or vaccine available yet against COVID-19, the agent severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)'s virulence is unknown, testing and management capacities are grossly inadequate, and the international situation is 'precarious'. India's epidemiological risk for contracting SARS-CoV-2 is heterogeneous, but ignorance and risk behavior are near-universal in its population – the vulnerabilities are exceptionally high! Given the democratic electorate and semi-federal governance structure, Indians can offer complex reactions to overtly restrictive interventions. The situation is explosive and anxious. Countries across the globe are resorting to century-old strategies – lockdown and isolation/quarantine. For India to take such a preemptive step as a stringent nation-wide lockdown, the economic stakes are high and public repercussions, possible.

In his March 19 address to the nation, the PM called upon the nation to observe a 14-hour self-imposed citizen's curfew and later on in the evening come out in their balconies and cheer for those engaged in COVID-19 public services. This was supported by calls for ”Sankalp” (resolution) and ”Sayyam” (restraint) while emphasizing on social distancing and staying-at-home. Later on March 24, the PM in a follow-up address, declared a 21-day nation-wide lockdown. Hereunder, we provide excerpts of his March 24 address to the nation.[5]

”On March 22, we resolved to undertake Janata-Curfew. As a nation, every Indian contributed with full responsibility and sensitivity to ensure its success. Every Indian made Janata-Curfew a success… By a single day of Janata-Curfew, India proved that when the nation is facing a crisis, when humanity is facing a crisis, every Indian comes together to overcome it. All of you deserve praise for ensuring the success of Janata-Curfew…. The fact is that the coronavirus is spreading so rapidly that despite all preparations and efforts, countries are finding it hard to cope with the situation… This (the 21-day nation-wide lockdown) is a critical step in the decisive fight against the corona pandemic. There is no doubt the nation will have to pay an economic cost for this lockdown. However, at this moment, my utmost priority, and that of the Government of India, State and local Governments is to protect the life of every Indian. Hence, it is my plea and prayer to you to continue to remain wherever you are right now in the country… You have to remember that JaanhaitohJahaanhai.”

The PM in his address uses his mass appeal to engage with the commonman, make each individual feel valued, secure participation in the movement, and nudge everyone to take the clarion call with utmost seriousness. He celebrates (and thus uses) the power of small-win and instils collective solidarity (cohesiveness).[6] He shares “vulnerability” which helps him secure trust and “negotiate” team commitment (a show of emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and relational leadership).[7],[8] The leadership approach is paternalistic (well-documented as a dominant form of leadership in Asian societies),[9] determined, inclusive, vision-sharing (he suggested how the country plans to ramp up its preparedness), as well as forewarning (nonverbal communications; ”carrots and the stick!” approach).

If we reflect on the speeches delivered by the PM on March 19 and March 24, the “hint” was obvious. On March 19, when he called for the citizens' curfew (”Janata curfew”), the message prepared the people for a long overhaul and that a lockdown may very likely be announced. As he announced the lockdown on March 24, he suggested that the lockdown may go beyond 21 days, and validated his stand by referring to experts.

”As per health experts, a period of at least 21 days is critical to break the infection cycle of Coronavirus.”

In the days that followed, the entire system and the country geared up for long combat against COVID-19.

Case vignette #2: Madhya Pradesh – On leadership vacuum during the pandemic and its public health consequences

Health is a state subject in India. Thus, each state must arrange for combating COVID-19 and the Union will ensure facilitation. The state of MP has had a rather concerning journey in this regard. The first reports of COVID-19 came from Jabalpur in MP on March 20, 2020. These comprised of four cases which were found positive on routine testing of foreign returned individuals.[10] On the same day, the incumbent State Government collapsed as the ruling party lost the majority in the legislative assembly.[11] Even though the next Chief Minister (CM) was promptly sworn in within 3 days of the change in power,[12] the ensuing lockdown from March 24 allowed for only a skeletal cabinet and without a Health Minister.[13] Meanwhile, the State Health Department got paralyzed by a rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 cases detected within the department itself. By April 16, barely a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, almost 89 health department members had tested positive for COVID-19, thereby throwing the COVID-19 containment efforts out of gear.[14] The highest offices of the State Bureaucracy and Police Administration were also afflicted and had to be shut down for sanitization.[15] The outgoing CM organized a press-conference, and consequently, over 100 journalists had to go into isolation as one of them tested positive for COVID-19.[15] The system had come to a standstill. To stem the rise in the number of COVID-19 cases from across the state, a State Level Task Force for COVID-19 was constituted on April 12 by the CM.[16] A state-level technical advisory committee was soon appended to provide support to the State Level Task Force, which was comprised exclusively of lawmakers, with no representation from Health or allied departments.[17] A health minister was sworn in on April 22, only after 30 days had elapsed since the change of the government. From four cases on March 20 (when the previous government collapsed), the number of cases of COVID-19 in the state had risen in the meanwhile – MP ranked consistently among the states with the highest number of cases in the country,[18],[19] and among the top five.[20] At last count (May 12, 1600 h IST; mohfw.gov.in), MP had 1817 confirmed active cases, marginally more than Uttar Pradesh (n-1735). The COVID-19 mortality rate in MP is disproportionately high at around 5.9%, compared to 1.1% in Delhi, 3.8% in Maharashtra, and 2.9% in Rajasthan.[18] Indore, in MP, has one of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases among all cities in the country.[21] At present, 9 districts in the state are in the Red Zone while 19 are in the Orange Zone, thereby rendering more than 50% of the districts in the state as having shown active transmission of COVID-19 in the last 21 days.[22] The condition is further brought into contrast when compared to the neighboring state of Chhattisgarh, where only one district is in the red zone, and one is in the orange zone, with the remaining 25 districts in the green zone.[22] The number of tests conducted remains low at 811.1 per million population, as compared to Karnataka (1468.1 per million population), or Rajasthan (1960.2 per million population).[23]

While the country continues to enters combat the pandemic, it can only be hoped that the situation in MP gets corrected sometime soon.

  Reflections on Leadership-In-Crisis in India's Current Pandemic Context Top

Our consideration of the case vignettes provides insights into how leadership-in-crisis may define the course of response against COVID-19. We provide examples of successful as well as compromised whole-of-government and whole-of-society engagement. In case vignette #1, we present how active and empathetic communication could help bring stakeholders on-board with ease and enthusiasm. It also shows that the country's approach was preemptive and graded despite the unpredictability of the situation. In case vignette #2, we emphasize on the fact that systemic failures or standstills could compromise the pandemic response despite wide societal engagement and lock-down. It also suggests that a system collapse closer to the community could diminish the impact of efforts more upstream.

In a democracy, the positional authority (title, rank, status) vested with the PM's office (PMO) is immense. The position commands the opportunity and responsibility to lead change and negotiate effectively. It also represents the highest office to communicate political commitment for combating the pandemic. Previously, India has leveraged ”charisma” in its public health initiatives – roping in celebrities from the film and sports industries to promote immunization and national health programs. This time, it was an extremely popular political leader taking up the ambassador's role, synergizing charisma and position. Implementation of the preemptive lockdown has its gaps and critiques, but it could not have been possible without the engagement of the various stakeholder constituencies (e.g., union, state and local administration, the “corona warriors” (essential service providers), the private sector, civil society and the population at large). What validates the need for such continuum-of-leadership is the fact that states could sustain a flatter curve (e.g., Chhattisgarh) and ramp-up capacities (e.g., Rajasthan and Maharashtra), unlike MP where a crisis deepened amidst systemic vacuum.

Our narration has limitations – we considered just two examples and have not adequately accounted for the preparatory activities and predecessor and concurrent situations. We do not provide a background to the public perception of the individuals and the systems. We do not address the question of whether leadership-in-crisis overlaps with authentic leadership (truthfulness, integrity, saying what one believes in and vice versa) – well, it depends on the context! We deliberately kept our narrative simple to stay focussed on the central message.

  Conclusion Top

The Indian COVID-19 context, highlights key nuances for leadership-in-crisis: it is vital to be conspicuous, communicative, appreciative, and adaptive. It also underscores the need to “lead” with accountability, compliance, and energy. However, at the same time, the system must build the inherent resilience to absorb and overcome shocks, and circumvent dependencies. In summary, leadership-in-crisis requires self-adequacy. A similar message came from the PMO later on April 24, 2020, as well.[24]

”To become self-reliant and self-sufficient is the biggest lesson learnt from corona pandemic.”

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

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