Patient Zero - Three Leadership Lessons "Charlie"​ Taught Me about Pandemics like COVID19

Date: December 1995 

Location: The Subtropical Forest of Kwazulu Natal, South Africa

CodeName: "Patient Zero"

After a day of intense hiking it was time to relax around an open fire. Lost in my thoughts, the soft rustle of feathers woke me from my reverie. Or perhaps it was the unusual feeling of bird claws gently finding their way to my scalp. Maybe it was realizing that a fairly nondescript bird (whom we promptly named Charlie) had decided that perching on branches was passé and that a more adventurous undertaking was to hang out on my head. Maybe it was simply that my hair was a mess and Charlie mistook it for a nest. While I would like to think the conversation we shared was deep and meaningful after about twenty minutes Charlie was clearly bored and so he flitted off into the deep undergrowth.

Arriving home a few days later I came down with an unrelenting fever that had me hallucinating (and not in the happy way). After a few days where even the strongest OTC medication had no impact on my condition I was taken to hospital. I vaguely recall all the medical experts, tropical infection specialists, the numerous tests, ultrasounds and attempts to find the cause. To no avail. And then, after eleven days of misery, on the twelfth day I felt amazingly better and was discharged a short time later.

Without a confirmed diagnosis, the experts surmised that Charlie was actually Patient Zero. A sick bird, living at the intersection of people and wilderness, who carried with him a zoonotic (animal borne) virus that Charlie felt compelled to share with me. 

For the record - I did not eat Charlie.

So what leadership lessons did I learn about EBOLA, COVID19, MERS, SARS, H1N1 and other scary sounding pandemics as a result of contracting a real-live bird flu?

Keep Your Perspective - This is Normal

There are untold zoonotic viruses that cross species all the time. There are probably dozens undiagnosed viruses making their way into our species right now that don’t have a scary sounding name and are not in the headlines creating fear and anxiety. This is normal and has been happening since humans first interacted with animals. Like me, you may have contracted one such virus and mistaken it for the flu. My prediction - there will be another ominous sounding pandemic driving media headlines in the next few years and (much like with EBOLA, SARS, MERS, H1N1 etc.) people will struggle to recall what actually happened this time.

Over the last ten years, tuberculosis (TB) has killed an estimated 20,000,000 people, car crashes an estimated 15,000,000 and HIV/AIDS about 18,000,000. Yes, those are millions upon millions of people who have died from largely preventable causes. These three examples don’t even feature in the top five killers globally and yet we do not ban traveling by car, public gatherings or intimate contact based on known and significant deaths. The world is not ending, the zombie apocalypse is not upon us and private industry will still be producing toilet paper at competitive prices.

People are Generous, Resilient & Resourceful

The elderly, young, immunocompromised, risk-taking and dependent will always be more vulnerable. And yet, our collective ability as human beings to empathize, take action and care about (and for) others has allowed us to collaborate, reduce human suffering and create a standard of living that even Kings and Queens of the recent past did not enjoy. 

We will continue to consider other people as part of a collective humanity. People will continue to show thoughtfulness as evidenced by a local Sobey’s setting aside preferred times for the vulnerable to obtain goods and services. People will continue to be generous as seen by Jack Mah donating masks and testing kits to help the USA deal with COVID19. People will live up to the positive expectations we have of them. 

Your Leadership is Required

If you are a leader, now is the time to show it. Your ability to rise above the anxiety, fear mongering and panic by helping others understand the context of this “pandemic-of-the-week” is valuable. Not taking action is still a decision and errors-of-commission are much easier to rectify that errors-of-omission. Take clear action, you can always course correct. Now is the time to add your unique brand of leadership and bring out the best in others.

Allow me to finish by paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s famous “fight them on the beaches” speech. At the time, Britain was being bombed and starved in submission by an unstoppable military power that had easily conquered the whole of Europe. Times were truly bleak, enslavement was a real possibility and yet there was an unwavering commitment to succeeding.

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight COVID19, we shall fight on the cruise ships and factories, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our people, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight in the planes, we shall fight in the conference centres, we shall fight in the businesses and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Article Written by Peter Holgate
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