Yuri Polakiwsky: Time to return Suprun to Ukraine’s Health Ministry
At times of national crisis, a government must project a unified front of competent leadership that engenders calm, confidence, and competence. These are the characteristics that Winston Churchill’s leadership illustrated on the eve of an imminent attack by the Germans at the beginning of World War II. His wisdom was evident in his ability to form a coalition of diverse political persuasions and extremely strong personalities into a unified team.
In Ukraine however, recently published articles reveal glaring weaknesses in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team – particularly with regard to the country’s health minister. This is a minister whose most prominent statements to date regarding the spread of the coronavirus include a public pronouncement that most of Ukraine’s elderly population will die and the need to declare a state of emergency to make martial law as the primary mechanism to thwart the spread of the virus.
There is no don’t that present circumstances both demand and dictate the need for a proven and able health minister who has the experience of administrating and the ability to develop and implement a strategic plan to deal with this crisis. Though Dr. Ilya Yemets is a highly regarded and competent doctor, he, unfortunately, has not demonstrated that he has the communication skills or the administrative skill to either run a ministry or the governing experience to effectively manage the crisis. With so many lives at stake, the times do not allow for him the luxury of beginning to ascend a highly demanding learning curve.
Fortunately, the president and the Rada, who are directly responsible for the lives of millions, have an option that would go a long way in remedying this uninspired and inexperienced choice of health minister. Being a minister of health doesn’t require being a good doctor, it requires an effective crisis manager.
In common and immediate agreement, the government should set aside Yemets’ appointment and replace him with Dr. Ulana Suprun, the former and longest-serving health minister in the country’s history.
Dr. Suprun, a doctor and chief organizer of the Patriot Defense NGO which trained 35,000 medics and soldiers in battlefield first aid, has been one of the few transformative ministers in the Ukrainian government since independence. Clearly Western-minded in her orientation and expectation of what Ukraine’s health system could become, she is distinguished by having earned a reputation as a principled change agent. She has shown how to get things done effectively and comprehensively despite those who would oppose her because of ideological differences or conflicts of interest. She has always been tenacious in the pursuit of her objective in providing health care for Ukraine’s citizens, despite the lack of adequate financial resources and bureaucratic entrenchment.
She was a demanding minister. She picked a team of young professionals and inspired them to fulfill clearly defined strategic objectives. She sought out diverse opinions, knew how to listen, but then exhibited a determined resolve to do the right thing. And in a governing system that is almost totally dominated by equivocation, a lack of courage, personal responsibility, and accountability, she was decisive and had the persistence to see it through. Her pursuit of reform, employing international best practices was single-minded, allowing her, and Ukraine, to establish the transformative objective of building a road to a modern health care system in Ukraine. Meanwhile, she employed communicative tactics with savvy, knowing she had to make her case in a hostile media environment.
During her 3 years as health minister, she traveled throughout the country, listening to the concerns of ordinary Ukrainians, who were betrayed and abandoned by the failed Soviet system. This gave her insights into how to transform healthcare into a modern, science-based system centered around family doctors as the primary care providers. She gained a reputation as an able and effective administrator, leading a ministry that accounted for around 11% of the government’s budget.
In contrast, Dr. Yemets’ public record clearly shows that he lacks the administrative acumen and governing savvy to confidently deal with such a crisis. Suffice to say, his public performance to date has not induced calm, confidence, and competence amongst Ukraine’s citizens.
Returning to the health ministry, Dr. Suprun will be able to immediately employ her extensive knowledge of global trends in health care delivery, especially in relation to how to fight the spread of the virus. She will benefit Ukraine by accessing her well-established relationships with global leaders and international organizations in health care delivery. But perhaps most importantly, she is a known quantity, respected and trusted who has access to the worlds’ decision-makers. For to this day, she is well-regarded in the leading world capitals by global leaders who still seek her analysis and insightful counsel on Ukraine. It is easy to imagine how this could be translated for the benefit of Ukraine.
Returning to her position as health minister, she should take on a central communicative role during the crisis. According to her reputation, she will truthfully inform Ukraine’s citizens as to the real situation. Her presentations will be facts-based and clear in their assessment. She will communicate truthful information as to what the government is doing, how it is responding, and how it plans to respond to the continuing crisis. She will be able to adequately access and communicate the resources the government has and what it is doing to obtain additional resources from the IMF and G7. Most importantly, she will convey resolve, confidence, and exude competence. At present, Dr. Suprun is the only person in Ukraine who has this type of experience,
In times of national crisis, a president and his government must employ the best and most competent into leadership roles. It is a time when personal differences must be put aside for the purpose of the national good. Like President Eisenhower did with General Patton for D-Day, the effective leader must extol the ability to transcend his differences or prejudices and appoint the most competent individuals that have shown the ability to fulfill a particular mission.
In a budding democracy faced with such a monumental crisis, Suprun is uniquely qualified to navigate the murky waters of this crisis respecting democratic values.
Plus, as passage of the healthcare transformation law in October 2017 demonstrated, she has the ability and experience in persuading Parliament to pass legislation for the sake of unity and national interest.
She is not only an acceptable choice, but an inspired choice, given her proven track record to be part of the country’s leadership team as it battles the health and economic challenges posed by the outbreak of the coronavirus.
She has the status and respect to not only garner support for Ukraine’s domestic effort to combat the coronavirus, but also to attract help and financial support from Ukraine’s international partners to save the country.