By Daniel Gaffney
The coronavirus pandemic may be the largest test of political leadership since the Cold War. Every leader on the planet is facing the same potential threat. Every leader is reacting differently and every leader will be judged by the results.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel embraces science. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro ignores it. U.S. President Donald Trump’s daily briefings are a circus-like spectacle, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds no regular briefings at all, even as he locks down 1.3 billion people. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson faces growing accusations of gross negligence, after news emerged that he skipped 5 COBR meetings at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
Jacinda Ardern, the 39-year-old prime minister of New Zealand, is forging a path of her own. Her leadership style is one of empathy in a crisis that tempts people to fend for themselves. Her messages are clear, consistent, and somehow simultaneously sobering and soothing. And her approach isn’t just resonating with her people on an emotional level. It is also working remarkably well.
One of Ardern’s innovations has been frequent Facebook Live chats that manage to be both informal and informative. During session conducted in late March, just as New Zealand prepared to go on lockdown, she appeared in a well-worn sweatshirt at her home (she had just put her toddler to bed, she explained) to offer guidance “as we all prepare to hunker down.”
She sympathized with how alarming it must have been to hear the “loud honk” that had preceded the emergency alert message which all New Zealanders had just received, essentially informing them that life as they knew it was temporarily paused. Ardern has also introduced helpful concepts, such as thinking of “the people [who] will be in your life consistently over this period of time” as your “bubble” and “acting as though you already have COVID-19” toward those outside of your bubble. She justified severe policies with practical examples: People needed to stay local, because what if they drove off to some remote destination and their car broke down? She said she knows as a parent that it’s really hard to avoid playgrounds, but the virus can live on surfaces for 72 hours.
She expected the lockdown to last for several weeks, Ardern said, and for cases to rise steeply even as New Zealanders began holing up in their homes. Because of how the coronavirus behaves, “we won’t see the positive benefits of all of the effort you are about to put in for self-isolation … for at least 10 days. So don’t be disheartened,” she said.
In a more recent Facebook Live session, one of Ardern’s staffers walked into her office just as she was launching into a detailed explanation of what life would look like once the government began easing its lockdown. “Oh look, it’s Leroy!” she exclaimed, assuring viewers that he was in her “work bubble.” A children’s toy was visible just behind her desk. The scene seemed apt for an era in which work and family life merge into one.
Since March, New Zealand has been unique in staking out a national goal of not just flattening the curve of coronavirus cases, as most other countries have aimed to do, but eliminating the virus completely. And it is well on track to do it. COVID-19 testing is in place nationwide. The health system has not been overloaded. New cases peaked in early April.
At the time of writing 12 people have died from causes related to the pandemic, compared to over 16000 in the UK. Sceptics have said that, as a collection of relatively isolated islands in the South Pacific, New Zealand is in a favourable position to snuff out the virus. However, the difference in the death toll between the UK and New Zealand – two economically developed island nations- cannot be ignored.
Unlike in the UK, Ardern’s government took decisive action right away. New Zealand imposed a national lockdown much earlier in its outbreak than other countries did in theirs, and banned travelers from China in early February, before New Zealand had registered a single case of the virus. The government went on to close its borders to all non-residents in mid-March, when it had only a handful of cases.
The success, of course, isn’t all Ardern’s doing; it’s also the product of an impressive collective effort by public-health institutions, opposition politicians, and New Zealanders as a whole, who have largely abided by social-distancing restrictions.
Michael Baker and Nick Wilson, two of New Zealand’s top public-health experts, said last week that while the country’s ambitious strategy could still fail, early intervention bought officials time to develop measures that could end the transmission of the coronavirus, such as rigorously quarantining at the country’s borders and expanding COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.
And that collective may be fraying. Although the government has unveiled many economic-stimulus measures, some members of the opposition and public-health professionals are now demanding that the lockdown, which may start to be lifted this week, be rolled back even further. They accuse the government of overreacting and argue that Australia has managed to reduce new coronavirus cases without the severe lockdown that New Zealand has endured.
Ardern is similar to former American President Barack Obama, in that she is polarising at home but popular abroad. But history only goes to show that a leader is never more popular than when they are pulling their country through a crisis.
Indeed, an opinion poll in early April found that 88 percent of New Zealanders trusted the government to make the right decisions about addressing COVID-19, and 84 percent approved of the government’s response to the pandemic. New Zealand citizens had come to support the government’s policies even though many were feeling economic pain, at least in the short term, as a result of them.
Ardern is receiving plaudits worldwide—a world leader in comfy clothes just casually chatting with millions of people!—and nothing more, if it wasn’t for the fact that her approach has been paired with policies that have produced real, world-leading results.