What leaders wear matters
There are many different policy responses to COVID-19, but I’d like to look at something simpler. How did the leaders of various countries look? What did they wear? What actions did they take on camera?
These seemingly minor things make a big difference. They show the public how seriously their leaders are taking the threat. They model behavior. A picture is worth a thousand words, and video is a book. What leaders do matters more than what they say.
So what did they do?
President Moon Jae-in
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his advisors immediately changed clothes. They donned yellow jackets, aligning themselves to the civil defense forces. This is not a new idea, Korean leadership also wore yellow during 2019 wildfires and at other times of public emergency. It’s a known symbolic communication that says ‘this is serious and we’re taking it seriously’.
The Korean leaders are also all wearing masks. This has been debated, but the growing consensus is that widespread masking is a powerful tool for suppressing coronavirus. If everyone masks then the virus has two barriers to get through, and if you are sick you don’t stick out.
This is also a clear visual communication. A leader can tell you to wash your hands, but unless they’re giving a presser from their bathroom you can’t see it. In these images, everyone is visibly masked, a clear behavior to model.
Hence, I understand a lot from the Korean visuals without speaking Korean. I can see that this is serious, and that wearing a mask would help. I don’t need to read or think about it, I can just see and know. Korea’s visual communications are so strong that they provide global, non-verbal leadership as well. South Korea is the new leader of the free world, and it shows.
President Tsai Ing-wen
Taiwan also joined the fashion police. President Tsai Ing-wen immediately donned the grey and yellow vest of the National Health Command Center, a centralized body set up for this very purpose after SARS. By simply putting on a vest with NHCC on it, she clearly and visibly delegated authority. It was a clear transfer of power from the normal political authorities to this emergency body, and it was done in a way a child could understand. She changed clothes.
Of course, behind this simple action is a lot of preparation, legislation, and planning. But this still had to be communicated to the public. So President Tsai put the letters ‘NHCC’ over her heart.
Tsai also had a remarkable leadership team with a clear delegation of powers. Vice President Chen Chien-jen, is an epidemiologist by training and had been health minister during SARS. The current Health Minister Chen Shih-chung led daily press conferences, not the President.
Tsai didn’t mask up, even while distributing Lunar New Year packets, but more than what to do she communication who was doing it. She visually gave leadership to the NHCC and then let someone else appear on TV. There was clearly a plan and they were following it. It shows.
Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong
Watching Lee Hsieng Loong’s February 8th speech is like listening to the industrious ant vs the lazy grasshopper. The ant saved all summer while the grasshopper was fiddling. When winter came, they were not surprised.
We went through SARS 17 years ago, so we are much better prepared to deal with nCoV this time. Practically, we have stockpiled adequate supplies of masks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). We have expanded and upgraded our medical facilities, including the new National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID). We have more advanced research capabilities to study the virus. We have more well trained doctors and nurses to deal with this situation. We are psychologically better prepared too.
Everything that countries scrambled to do in weeks, Singapore had been doing for years. So Lee is relaxed. He sits alone in an armchair, wearing pink shirtsleeves.
In other images, he is also not masked. While Singaporeans use masks the government distributed four per household, they were not recommended, and that behavior was not modeled.
“Do not open up the packet and start using them right away. Use it only if you’re unwell and have to go out to see the doctor,” National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said.
The message instead was to trust the system and the robust, invisible controls behind it. In the city-state of Singapore, this tight but competent level of government monitoring is normal, and all Lee had to communicate that it applied to this pandemic as well. He is relaxed, because the Singaporean state is prepared.
Now onto the grasshoppers.
On March 3rd British Prime Minister Boris Johnson bragged about shaking hands with infected people and then sheepishly tossed to his science advisor to correct him. The message was clear. Science is a joke.
This had deadly consequences. Rather than following an established plan and delegating power to experts, Downing Street came up with a novel strategy they falsely called herd immunity — not a vaccine but just giving up and letting people get sick. This was beaten back by a later Imperial College report showing 500,000+ deaths, but it was too late. Those weeks were vital and coronavirus exploded.
But the damage of Johnson’s communications went further. His cavalier attitude towards social distancing led to cavalier attitudes about social distancing. Never mind mask-wearing, following Johnson’s leadership people carried on going to the pub and packed places, further spreading the disease.
Johnson set the perfect example for catching the disease, and then he did. The Prime Minister, Health Secretary and Chief Medical Adviser all caught COVID-19. The guy who wrote the Imperial College report caught COVID-19. Even the Crown Prince did. Britain’s coronavirus leadership was so bad it literally decapitated itself.
And it all started from the top, and that confident fop of hair, showing and doing everything wrong. This article is about fashion choices, and Johnson didn’t change anything. That was also his government’s coronavirus strategy. And it didn’t work. Anytime a plan infects the planners, that’s definitely a bad plan.
President Donald Trump
This is painful to write. The US has mounted the worst coronavirus response on Earth and countless Americans are going to suffer and die. It all comes down to bad leadership, and that’s all encapsulated in bad fashion.
After weeks of wasted time, when Donald Trump finally visited the CDC on March 6th he wore KEEP AMERICA GREAT hat. A campaign hat.
Trump used the event as a campaign stop — to exaggerate, lie, praise himself and attack his opponents. He sidelined the experts and, like a Mafia photo album — everyone in these images has disappeared. The bearded director of the CDC now plays no visible role at all, and who knows where Azar went. The daily press conferences are now just part of the Trump show and spread more misinformation than anything else. He literally hawks untested medicines that people have taken and died.
And of course, his actions are as bad as his words. Trump has encouraged shaking hands. He has not self-quarantined after coming in contact with infected people. Even after the signing of a relief bill he gathered a bunch of old men close and handed out commemorative pens.
Sadly, people have followed this lead. He’s made coronavirus partisan, to the detriment of everyone’s health. Republicans are 30% less likely to view coronavirus as a threat than Democrats, and they act accordingly. They practice less social distancing and go out more, often proudly. Trump and the people that follow him are actively spreading disease.
The US has the worst coronavirus outbreak in the world not because of bad luck. They had their first case the same day as South Korea. It’s all bad leadership, and it all started with that stupid MAGA hat.
Dress To Suppress
Political fashion matters, because fashion communicates. In a public health crisis, communication is a big part of the job.
Leaders have used what they wear and what they do to either fight or lose to coronavirus. The winners have used ugly jackets and vests to show urgency and delegate power, or relaxed in shirtsleeves to show that everything is under control. The losers have done nothing or tried to advertise their own brand.
Is fashion a causal factor? Of course not, planning and preparation are the key. However, fashion is what we see, and it does mean something. To be honest, no one looks good while fighting coronavirus, but some leaders have worn it well.