When Illinois health official Dr. Ngozi Ezike started crying as she read out Covid death figures this weekend, she inadvertently gave an important lesson about leadership and vulnerability.
From off-the-cuff jokes to conspiracy theories and outlandish “cures”, the global health pandemic has certainly sparked some interesting responses from our world’s leaders this year.
Yet while rage, faux-cheeriness and denial are all frequent visitors on the radar of official reactions to Covid-19, sadness – pure and simple – has been less in evidence.
And yet, grief, overwhelmingly, is what many of us feel: which is why one health official’s tearful reaction to reading out Covid death figures this week resonated with so many people.
Dr. Ngozi Ezike, who has been leading the effort to control coronavirus in the US state of Illinois since the outbreak began in January, had to turn away from the podium during a media briefing on Friday as she broke down in tears.
Announcing an additional 31 loss of lives through the virus in the area, the Illinois Director of the Department of Public Health started to cry saying, “excuse me, please” followed by “I’m sorry” as someone handed her a box of tissues.
“These are people who started with us in 2020 and who won’t be with us at the Thanksgiving table,” she said, before taking a minute to collect herself.
As in many places, a recent resurgence of coronavirus in Illinois means it is currently facing its highest Covid-19 death rates since June.
Dr. Ezike has been instrumental in coordinating the region’s health response and rarely shows such emotion in her briefings; though, as members of the public were quick to say, she had nothing to say sorry for.
Dr. Ezike’s tears are a poignant reminder that many of us want vulnerability, rather than bravado, from our leaders.
Though her “so sorry” suggests she may have been embarrassed to get emotional, the moment illustrates an element of humanity and compassion that many of those leading states – or even countries – seem to be lacking during this difficult time.
Confronted by one of the most dramatic health crises of a modern age, it’s only natural that many people – especially those at the forefront of the prevention effort – feel grief-stricken by all that has happened since the start of 2020.
As Dr. Ezike herself said on Friday: “I don’t get to live in some Covid-free bubble, exempt from all the pain and tragedy of this pandemic. So I understand how pandemic fatigue is striking everyone. It’s real.”
In such circumstances, flippancy or dismissiveness doesn’t help. Even if leaders want to appear “tough”, the virus doesn’t understand such language: and it’s deeply alienating for the many people out there who are suffering and feel alone.
With data suggesting that female leaders may have handled coronavirus better, it seems to be women who are reshaping the effort for leaders to be recognised as both empathetic and strong.
If you care enough to cry tears over Covid-19, as Dr. Ezike did, you care enough to lead. So the message to her and other leaders should be: go ahead and cry. After all, who doesn’t need more empathy right now?
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