OPINION: Great leadership requires empathy. That's not what we're getting.

The Prime Minister is cranky.

See, a lot of Australians, consumed by the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, started bulk-buying goods.

What started as a frenzied run on toilet paper and hand sanitiser, has now seen supermarket shelves stripped bare of almost everything but fancy cheese (short expiration date, I guess) and makeup (#workingfromhome).

“Stop doing it,” the Prime Minister Morrison said during Wednesday morning’s press conference. “It’s ridiculous! It’s unAustralian, and it must stop.”

We hear that. We agree. Mass bulk-buying has left little for pensioners and other vulnerable Australians who are unable to afford to stockpile several weeks’ worth of groceries.

What we don’t hear from leadership, though, is anything that appreciates or even acknowledges why Australians might be driven to do that.

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As many psychologists have been explaining, panic-buying behaviour is a way of people searching for control and security in a chaotic situation. It is not a sign of a community that feels confident or reassured.

This morning’s press conference was a chance for our nation’s leadership to start rectifying that. Instead, we were chastised.

The case for empathy.

With the total number of Australian cases beyond 450 and 40 new diagnoses since 3 p.m. yesterday alone, today’s address came at a crucial point in the arc of this rapidly evolving public health challenge.

The Prime Minister outlined measures for slowing the spread of the Novel coronavirus here in Australia. He told us to cancel all overseas travel, banned indoor gatherings of over 100 people (with a few exceptions) and introduced rules about visiting aged-care homes.

But there was very little that acknowledged the unease so many people are experiencing. Pregnant women, school parents, casual workers, retailers, people in service industries, people with elderly parents or disabled loved ones, small business owners.

Policy is crucial for all of them, but it’s not enough.


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Australians need to feel heard, understood right now. We need to have our concern acknowledged and any rising panic firmly, quickly quashed.

We need some empathy.

Yes, we’re facing a crisis situation and a calm, unflappable leader (or, at least, the image of one) is crucial. But the best crisis leadership involves both.

We saw it in New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the wake of the Christchurch massacre last March. She was resolute in her public-facing political response, and compassionate when face-to-face with mourners.

We saw it in Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, during the recent Australian bushfire crisis. He communicated updates and action plans with total, reassuring conviction, while also being empathetic and vulnerable when addressing at-risk communities.

We saw it in NSW Liberal MP Andrew Constance who, as the elected representative of one of those communities, passionately advocated on their behalf while openly, publicly acknowledging the mental health burden they were all experiencing — together. “Pretty much every second and third night we’ve been having beers in the lane at home with my neighbour. Just to get through it,” he said on Q&A.

Of course, COVID-19 is a very different threat, with different challenges — it’s new, it’s invisible, it’s largely unpredictable. Responding to it requires a complex web of coordination between federal and state governments, researchers, scientists, the healthcare and aged-care sector, retailers, the media, citizens and more.

But therein lies the leadership challenge. And unfortunately, right now, it feels like it’s not being met.


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The Australian Government Department of Health advises that the only people who will be tested for COVID-19 are those with symptoms who have either returned from overseas in the past 14 days or been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case in the past 14 days.

If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

To keep up to date with the latest information, please visit the Department of Health website.

Feature image: Getty.

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