Leadership in the New York City’s Covid-19 Response

Leadership in the New York City’s Covid-19 Response

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Leadership in the New York City’s Covid-19 Response

The Covid-19 pandemic was unlike any other emergency that the United States and the world had encountered before. It was not bound in time and space like other emergencies, like earthquakes, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks, thus challenging emergency response efforts. Consequently, the initial emergency responses to the infections have been faulted for facilitating the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, reaching pandemic levels rapidly. New York City is one location in the United States that was particularly critically ravaged by the pandemic, and its initial emergency response has been faulted for the rapid spread and many fatalities. This discussion focuses on the emergency response efforts towards the covid-19 pandemic in New York City and critiques the city’s leadership when shepherding the containment measures. The discussion focuses mainly on the leadership provided by the state of New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, alongside the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, and President Donald Trump at the country’s helm at the time. Also, the critique is conducted considering Kouzes and Posner’s Model of Transformational Leadership.


Although Covid-19 is said to have entered the United States in mid-January 2019, its spread in New York City was particularly notable and devastating. The unfolding disease made the city one of the epicenters of the pandemic in the country (Thompson et al., 2020). The United States had previously battled with emergencies, such as hurricanes like Katrina, diseases like Ebola, and terrorist attacks like the 9/11 event. Although the outcomes of the emergency responses remain debatable, there was a semblance of an organized and cohesive multiagency emergency response approach.  However, these events differ dramatically from the Covid-19 pandemic because while they occurred at specific places and for definite times, the coronavirus pandemic does not have temporal and spatial boundaries. In other words, although the pandemic began at a definite recognizable time, its end cannot be predicted. Similarly, the expanse of the pandemic is global and, therefore, cannot be bounded to a specific location, in the same manner a hurricane, and earthquake or terrorist attack is localized. For this reason, the pandemic, which started in Wuhan, China, spread rapidly across the world through aerial and direct contact with infected individuals coming from China. Indeed, the first individuals recorded to have the virus in the United States in mid-January 2019 had flown into the country from Wuhan, China. Before the infections could be controlled through lockdowns, social distancing, and isolation of the infected individuals, the coronavirus spread fast within the country through community transmission, necessitating a national emergency declaration.  

As the United States’ largest city, New York, which is densely populated, particularly in the urban neighborhoods with a large minority population, the spread of the coronavirus was rapid and devastating. The first case of Covid-19 was reported in New York in March 1 2019, barely days after the first fatality in the country was reported in February 29th. . After that, it is reported that by June 11 2019, the fatalities in the city had reached 30,575, comprising 27% and 7% of the national and global deaths at the time (Ramachandran et al., 2020). The first peak was experienced in April 2019 when the daily rates of infection and fatalities reached almost 12,000 and 3,500, respectively. Altogether, New York registered over 32,000 deaths, over 18% of the country’s overall fatalities, against a 6% national population (Lopez, 2020). This is considered one of the highest Covid-related infections and mortality rates in the United States and globally.

The State of New York placed several interventions to stem the spread of the coronavirus and curb its mortality rate, in what was popularly known as ‘flattening the curve’. For instance, a state of emergency in recognition of the severity of the pandemic was declared by New York’s governor on March 7 2019. At the same time, social distancing orders were issued with citizens being discouraged from crowding in public spaces and transport, including subways, bust stops, trains, and buses, while those feeling sick were advised to stay at home and avoid venturing into public areas.  From March 16, containment measures were instituted gradually in New York City, although a total lockdown, like that witnessed in Wuhan, China and many other cities around the world, was not reached.  First was the closure of public schools, followed shortly after by the closure of restaurants and eateries from the public, although they remained open for deliveries. Rather than go into total lockdown, New York City and some it its environs entered into Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone (PAUSE) mode. This means that while people were discouraged from venturing into public spaces and instead, stay at home, many services considered to be essential continued and employees serving those sectors allowed to operate, albeit at a reduced rate. These included healthcare facilities, food and liquor stores, laundries, public transport, and maintenance services. 

Critique of Leadership

This critique focuses on the leadership of Governor Andrew Cuomo when addressing the pandemic in New York City. However, the critique will also interrogate other leaders that contributed to the emergency response scenario in New York City, including the city’s governor and public hospital administrators, and the nation’s president, as the leaders of the nation-wide emergency response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Practices Were Least Exercised and Their Negative Impacts

Leadership is critical in championing emergency response during disasters and calamities, such as a global pandemic from a highly-infectious agent. Covid-19 pandemic is fast spreading and deadly, thus requiring well-coordinated emergency response efforts among all first responders and service providers. Due to its potential to infect anyone, with those with comorbidities having the highest risk of fatalities, leading the emergency response interventions should be decisive, visionary, courageous, and steadfast. While many people in leadership positions had presided over emergency response interventions during the emergencies of the recent past in the United States, none of them had encountered an emergency of the coronavirus’ magnitude and severity. 

Transformational leadership is lauded for its focus on the leader and follower and the mutual benefit derived from their interrelationship. Its distinctive features include idealized influence, individualized consideration inspirational motivation, and intellectual stimulation, which focus of developing the follower and leader together through a collaborative relationship (Kouzes & Posner, 2011). Kouzes and Posner developed this model further to create an improved model of transformational leadership. According to Kouzes and Posner (2011), the model provides guidelines of directing the practice of transformational leaders; challenging the process, inspiring a shared vision, enabling others to act, modeling the way, and encouraging the heart.

The New York leaders spearheading the emergency response towards the covid-19 pandemic exhibited certain leadership qualities and behaviors associated with the suboptimal outcomes of the interventions. The leadership practices, particularly those of the governor and mayor of New York City, are viewed to have contributed to the rapid spread of the coronavirus and high fatalities. These two leaders responded slowly to the pandemic in its initial stages and even disagreed numerously on the best approaches and interventions, leading to uncoordinated responses. For instance, the governor denied the presence and severity of the pandemic, encouraging new Yorkers to continue with normal operations, albeit at a lower scale. In addition, he implemented a PAUSE, which allowed the so called essential services to continue, when other locations with high and rapid infection rates implemental total lockdowns. Besides, this directive was much delayed because it was instituted only when the state’s healthcare system was overwhelmed. In addition, the governor relied excessively on state and federal resources, rather than mobilizing those existing in public and private healthcare facilities. Consequently, the state focused more on establishing emergency healthcare units, procurement of ventilators and personal protective equipment, ignoring the human capital that needed to accompany the new establishments and supplement the overworked healthcare personnel.

New York leaders failed in most of the practice principles outlined in Kouzes and Posner’s model of transformational leadership. Firstly, New York’s leadership failed to inspire a shared decision as expected of transformational leaders (Kouzes & Posner, 2011). They provided mixed and incoherent messaging to New Yorkers, although they intended to control the pandemic. For instance, the governor at first denied the presence and severity of the deadly disease, against health professionals’ advice. Therefore, although he envisioned a hopeful future, his enthusiasm was not shared by medical professionals, who viewed the future as bleak with the fast-rising infection and fatality rates. Consequently, New York experienced unprecedented high infection and mortality rates due to the initial slow emergency response. Secondly, the New York leadership did not challenge the process, as transformational leaders should (Kouzes & Posner, 2011). Initially, the leadership focused on expanding the intensive care spaces and beds, without considering the healthcare personnel and equipment such as oxygen supplies needed to accompany the expanded healthcare facilities and services. Similarly, the leadership relied on the regular procurement system through state and federal agencies, which was centralized and market-driven. The leadership did not initially challenge the regular procurement process by questioning the rational of its centralization or seek new ideas of acquiring the much-needed supplies from states that had excesses due to their lower hospitalization cases. Consequently, the state of New York competed with other states in procuring ventilators and personal protective equipment, leading to massive delays and shortages of essential supplies. Similarly, the state experienced acute oxygen shortages and poorly-executed patient transfer outcomes, which worsened the mortality and infection rates, respectively. Thirdly, the New York leadership did not model the way by shepherding the emergency response through focused and coordinated efforts (Kouzes & Posner, 2011). The disagreements between the governor and mayor of New York caused confusion among New Yorkers, particularly parents with school-going children and business owners (McKinley et al., 2020). On one side, the mayor proposed an immediate closure of schools and businesses in high infection areas, based on their zip codes, which was overridden by the governor’s order for a graduated and delayed closure and disputed the rationale of using zip codes because it apparently alienated a section of the Jewish community in New York (McKinley et al., 2020). The disagreement was that the mayor advised a total lockdown while the governor preferred a phased approach. Consequently, the New York did not lockdown, causing infections to continue with their steep upward trend.

In retrospect, the leaders would have approached the initial emergency interventions differently to avoid the disastrous outcomes. Firstly, the leaders should have consulted each other and come up with congruent and cohesive vision to stem the initially high infection rates, which would have been to implement a total lockdown and the expand intensive care units, complete with equipment, supplies, and human capital. Such a collaborative approach and well-planned implementation is consistent with transformational leadership, which seeks to inspire a shared vision and enable others to contribute to decision-making and implementing the planned emergency response interventions. Secondly, the leaders should have been open to new ideas regarding equipment and healthcare personnel availability. Some of the suggested ideas were ignored, denying the emergency response efforts of optimal outcomes. For instance, the suggestion to avoid transferring critically-ill patients and establish a central command center to coordinate patients’ transfers across healthcare facilities was ignored by the state leadership, despite having been advised by the healthcare professionals in public and private hospitals (Ramachandran et al., 2020). A possible solution to this challenge would have been to avail these resources from healthcare establishments that had low occupancy to those that had been overwhelmed to avoid transferring patients, considering that the private sector was ready to help in these areas. These approaches would have demonstrated the true transformational character challenging the process and modeling the way in their leadership practice during crises. 


This historical event was epic because of its far-reaching national and global effects. I have not experienced an even of similarly proportions in my lifetime. Therefore, my leadership capabilities would have been tested thoroughly was I directly involved in leading the emergency response interventions. My weakness is communicating in a manner that inspires a shared vision. I would have experienced difficulties in marshaling people that are worried and panicking about their lives using a calming, encouraging, and persuasive language. I admired the way Doctor Fauci communicated calmly and convincingly the hard fact about the pandemic without creating a public panic. Therefore, I need to work more on my persuasive and encouraging communication competencies to enlist buy-in and support in such an event.

However, I am a good listener and open to diverse ideas, which is a strength I have developed during my studies. The collaborative and teamwork approach used in my graduate school studies have instilled in me the desire to brainstorm through complex challenges to gather diverse workable ideas. Consequently, as an immediate plan, I would have called for a brainstorming meeting of all stakeholders related to a public health crisis and used the forthcoming ideas to develop a concrete, comprehensive, and agreeable plan to confront the pandemic in its initial stages and avoid overwhelming the healthcare system.


   The covid-19 pandemic stretched the American healthcare system, particularly that in the state of New York in unimaginable ways. New York’s leadership faltered at the initial stages of the pandemic because of poor communication, refusal to accept new ideas from professionals, and superiority wrangles between the governor and mayor of New York City. Consequently, these leaders did not practice transformational leadership as prescribed by Kouzes and Posner’s leadership practices model at the initial stages of the pandemic, leading to high infection and mortality rates. However, these challenges would have been surmounted through collaborative planning with openness to new ideas and coherent communication among the leadership of New York.


Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2011). The five practices of exemplary leadership . John Wiley & Sons.

Lopez, G. (2020). How New York Gov. Andew Cuomo failed, thenn succeeded, on Covid-19. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/21401242/andrew-cuomo-coronavirus-covid-pandemic-new-york

McKinley, J. Ferre-Sadurni, L, Rubistein, D., and Goldstein, J. (2020). How the feud between Cuomo and de Blasio led to a chaotic virus crackdown. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/12/nyregion/cuomo-coronavirus-orthodox-shutdown.html.

Ramachandran, S., Kusisto, L., & Honan, K. (2020). How New York’s coronavirus response made the pandemic worse. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-new-yorks-coronavirus-response-made-the-pandemic-worse-11591908426

Thompson, C. N., Baumgartner, J., Pichardo, C., Toro, B., Li, L., Arciuolo, R., … & Fine, A. (2020). COVID-19 Outbreak—New York City, February 29–June 1, 2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report69(46), 1725-1729. https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6946a2

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