Task Force Model for COVID-19 Emergency Management (2), By Isaac N. Obasi

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As observed in the first part of this article yesterday (May 3, 2020), a task force institutional structure offers a flexible, innovative and effective model for public policy implementation during an emergency as we have at hand now. A task force, therefore, is suitable for a project-like emergency situation such as COVID-19 pandemic. A project-like emergency situation means that there is an end-date of the operation of any task force. A task force unlike a normal bureaucratic organisation is, therefore, time-bound. The ‘expected’ end-date of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (in this case) is when we have a satisfactory containment of the ravaging virus to a state (level) the relevant bureaucratic machinery (namely the Federal Ministry of Health and its agencies) can routinely handle. Hopefully too, a vaccine would have been discovered and been in then. 

Consequently, a longer-term end-date for the life of the PTF on COVID-19, would put a lot of stress on its members, as no task force is established to last for a long and unspecified period of time. A task force is usually an ad hoc (and not like a statutory or standing committee), but the nature and sustained effort to fight this virus, dictate otherwise. This is because the abnormal nature of this COVID-19 emergency has created a very tasking for the PTF members keeping them on their toes in a focused and goal-driven manner. Here comes the dilemma. 

On the one hand, it will be unwise to disband the task force when the virus is still ravaging the population, and on the other hand, the task force may become over-stressed when working for a longer period of time as members would suffer fatigue, and gradually end up becoming lethargic like the ritualistic and routinised bureaucracy it supplanted for organisational effectiveness. 

Unfortunately, when fatigue and lethargy start setting in, the purpose for establishing a task force in the first place, gets defeated. This is not a Nigerian problem as it is a theoretical and empirical truism in cross-cultural and cross-national contexts. We can only hope that this PTF would not get to that stage (if it is not nearing that stage already). In this case, a longer-term scenario of the PTF on COVID-19 has implication for its membership composition as well as pro-active measures to fight its expected inherent malfunctions if the commitment of members is to be sustained.   

Looking at the present composition of membership of the PTF, the criterion of inter-disciplinary and inter-ministerial composition which was pointed out in first part of the article was met to a reasonable degree. Although there is a mix of technical (professionals, specialists or technocrats) versus strong political membership necessary to drive the activities, one could only have wished for a stronger representation from the technocratic/specialist side as against the over-representation of the political/administrative side. Having only one member from the donor community (development partners namely WHO for example) is not enough. More representation should have come from some others as UNDP and UNICEF for example. In the alternative, representation from the pool of epidemiologists, virologists, immunologists, laboratory scientists or even from the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) etc, would have given more balance and vigour, which will be inevitably needed to fight fatigue and lethargy that would surely set in. 

With regards to the deployment of expertise to fight COVID-19, PTF has confronted this enemy with an extra-ordinary sense of commitment expected of task force members anywhere. Members have been visible even to a point of exhaustion and putting their lives at great risk. For those with a good sense of understanding of the PTF’s work, there is enormous intellectual and physical energy involved. It takes people who possess both qualities to execute the equally enormous tasks involved. It is highly commendable that the members of the Task Force have been able to discharge their functions in a sustained manner for nearly two months now. Let me point out that the Task Force members have become like Faculty and Departmental Examination Officers in the Universities who administer or oversee the conduct of examinations (which at times run for three times a day) and for one good month (and sometimes beyond) without rest. We know what happens to some of them at times when adequate support and incentives are grossly lacking.   

But how then can the Task Force overcome this anticipated inherent problem? I recognise that as a scalable structure, the PTF has working groups at operational level. These working groups constitute the effective foot soldiers that get the task going. But having more of the professional experts at the coordinating level would help to rejuvenate the Task Force. Presently, looking at some of the faces of the twelve members during the daily briefings, one sees exhaustion all over, because (for no fault of theirs), they have been over-worked and over-stressed. Mind you, these members are still discharging their role as either SGF, ministers, NCDC managerial driver, etc. So having an enlarged membership of about fifteen from the pool of technical experts as listed above, can enable the Chairman and few over-worked members take a break from some daily routines and still be directing remotely. 

Alternating the presence (appearance) of the active participation of critical members to daily briefings or some other meetings can also help to rejuvenate commitment of members and reduce fatigue. Fatigue or eventual breakdown, is the enemy to watch in the operational effectiveness of a task force. The point being made about the membership of the PTF is with respect to rejuvenation and not about replacement of members. Strong political leadership as presently provided is non-negotiable and to keep this going, strong technical leadership in terms of increase in numbers from the pool earlier suggested is what is being recommended. 

Lastly, the concluding part of this article comes up on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 (by God’s special grace) to focus on the rest of questions raised earlier in the first part.     

Prof. Isaac N. Obasi, a public policy expert (& former columnist in the Daily Trust, Abuja, March 2003 to October 2006, & Daily Champion, Lagos, April 2005 to December 2008), is of the Department of Public Administration, University of Abuja. Email: [email protected]