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Elizabeth Sherman

Elizabeth Sherman

Assistant professor of American Politics at American University; founder and former director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Obama's Challenge

Political leadership in the face of a potentially deadly swine flu epidemic must accomplish three critical tasks in order to contain the spread of the virus and reduce the level of panic over it.

First, the president should convene the most informed agency and health officials and determine as far as possible the nature of the problem, where the outbreaks now exist, how dangerous the virus might be, who might be affected, etc. It's impossible to make informed public policy decisions without all the information one can muster whether from medical experts or media reports.

Second, leaders must determine and activate channels of communication to provide the most up-to-date official information about the problem, what is being done to address it, and what others can do. Again, accurate and reliable information is reassuring because it lets people know about the dangers and what they can do. Fortunately, there are many modes of communication to accomplish this critical task from newspapers to official websites. Members of Congress and other elected officials will be deluged with inquiries, and they need to respond by directing inquiries to reliable websites. Panic ensues when people don't know enough or are getting inaccurate information. Once lost, trust can be difficult to regain.

Finally, governmental messages at every level should convey clear instructions about the precautions people should take to feel empowered that they can do everything possible for themselves, their families and communities to avoid and contain the virus. These instructions on what to do should target specific constituencies (federal, state, local governments, workplaces, schools, hospitals, travel and transit sites, etc) as well as the general public and be available in several languages as necessary.

Obviously, this is a complex coordination problem that our political leadership must solve, especially given the recent reports that this virus may be mild but the next one potentially more virulent. The public will not panic if they understand the nature of the problem, where they can go to get the most recent information, what they can do to protect themselves, their communities and their constituencies and how to treat the illness.

One thing we need to bear in mind as we confront a possible pandemic is the absolute necessity of a robust public sector with experienced, capable and responsible officials at every level able to assess the problem and take necessary actions through a networked and well-coordinated chain of command. We discovered to our dismay after Katrina how badly our bureaucratic infrastructure had eroded in terms of expertise and coordination capacity. We'll soon find out how quickly the Obama administration can "reboot" the public sector to be effective, reliable and capable of meeting the challenges that only a professionalized executive branch can effectively meet.

By Elizabeth Sherman

 |  April 28, 2009; 1:28 PM ET
Category:  Managing Crises Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I agree to the proposal presented by Elizabeth Sherman towards reducing panic in the public about 'swine flu'.


A.R.Shams, Pakistan.

Posted by: acicreativeworld | April 29, 2009 6:55 AM
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