Editor’s Note: Mitch Landrieu, who served as Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governor from 2004 to 2010 and mayor of New Orleans from 2010 to 2018, is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
In any disaster, the response and recovery can only be as good as initial preparation.
As lieutenant governor of Louisiana, I helped lead the state through Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike and Gustav. As mayor of New Orleans, I helped lead the city through storms, the BP oil spill, boil-water advisories, floods, tornadoes and other major events. We prepared for Ebola and ran multiple tabletop exercises on pandemics and bioterrorism scenarios. I’ve been part of both good and bad responses to disasters and emergencies.
The coronavirus, known as Covid-19, may be unique in the way it is transmitting itself and in its relative lethality. But the fundamentals of what a solid response entails and recovery to an emergency are remarkably consistent across any level of government, whether it be a public health threat, natural disaster or other crisis.
Remember the Cs
Responses to emergencies require clear command and control; good and consistent communication; strong coordination and collaboration from all levels of government; and cooperation from the public.
It has to start at the top with our commander in chief. It is clear at this point that our federal government was not as prepared as it should have been for a pandemic of this type. And President Donald Trump’s Oval Office primetime address on Wednesday night did little to convince me otherwise. But it’s not too late to start communicating clearly and consistently now, with one voice.
When I was mayor, we would schedule at least twice daily media briefings to methodically go through hurricane preparations and response by sector and department. As much as possible, they were held at the same time each day and helped establish a “battle rhythm” that allowed both the media and public to stay on top of the most up to date information.
By establishing regular briefings, Vice President Mike Pence and his public health team have done a better job communicating as of late. But it is clear to me they were not free to speak candidly about the situation at hand by downplaying the risk and scale of the crisis. Until they do, it will be hard for the public to have the full confidence required to save lives.
In a situation like Covid-19 that requires a robust government response, the federal, state and local governments need to be better coordinated —both vertically and horizontally. This means talking frequently behind the scenes, breaking down silos and building partnerships. And the final “c” — cooperation — is a key ingredient here. A good response necessitates cooperation from the public. Self-quarantines seem hard, but they are necessary. And no matter how monotonous constantly washing your hands with soap and water may seem, remember it could save your life.
Find credible messengers
Some people will never trust politicians, so be sure to reach them with credible experts like public health professionals out front. I remember vividly talking to a gentleman who had just been rescued off of his roof during Katrina. I asked him why he didn’t heed repeated warnings to evacuate. Without missing a beat, he said, “I don’t trust anything you politicians say.”
Lack of trust is another reason why leaders and experts must be honest, transparent and project competence. For the elected officials and experts, it really is important to understand that you can’t guarantee that people are not going to get hurt. What we have to do is be prepared and try to engage in reducing risk.
Put the poor and most vulnerable at the center of your response
From Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to the BP oil spill, crises shine a bright light on the plight of our most vulnerable residents. After Katrina, retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré wrote, “When it gets hot, the poor always seem to get a little hotter. When it gets cold, the poor get colder. And when it rains, the poor are going to be a little wetter.”
Covid-19 is going to be no different. Sure, the virus doesn’t discriminate based on someone’s earnings. But poor people will be hit harder disproportionately — in the pocketbook, in health care access and likely in health care outcomes. Economic news right now is focused on the stock market and corporate giants in the airline and cruise industry, but the real impact will be on the working poor, including those working hourly jobs in the service and hospitality sectors, and people in the gig economy whose jobs rely on robust consumer spending.
No amount of payroll tax reduction is going to help someone in a minimum wage job who either cannot work because they are sick or because their job is not needed in a pandemic. Finally, vulnerable populations tend to stress the system in a crisis. Put the poor in the center of planning moving forward.
Facilitate, link and leverage
There are not many issues that government can solve alone. After Katrina, one of my focuses as lieutenant governor became to harness the spirit of volunteerism and philanthropy. In this crisis, there will be very few “volunteer” opportunities, but the government will have a role in facilitating philanthropic support where it is needed most, linking people together and leveraging assets and resources in order to accomplish specific outcomes. The government can also leverage the research and development capacity of the private sector.
There are also instances in the response where the government should steer, not row, to make it clear that it is acting as a facilitator with the ability to link public, private, not-for-profit, and faith organizations, and help each of them leverage their collective assets.
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Check politics at the door: The easy thing to do after a poor early response is for the opposing political party to point fingers and assess blame. We saw the rush after Katrina to place blame either with former President George W. Bush or former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, depending on your political persuasion.
It was counterproductive, and eroded trust internally and from the public. Saying what has gone wrong is the easy part. Showing how to fix it is the most important part for us to focus on now.
A word of caution to my Democratic friends: this is an all hands on deck moment. Lives are at stake. Nothing levels the ideological differences like an emergency, which forces people to pull together.
Finally, all of us in our daily lives must prepare for the worst and hope for the best. While some public health experts have now said it’s too late to contain the coronavirus, it’s not too late to heed the lessons from Katrina and other disasters. I, for one, am hoping and praying they do.