Swift action, compassion and trust in science mark the most effective responses to the coronavirus, writes the New York Times editorial board.
Leadership may be hard to define, but in times of crisis it is easy to identify. As the pandemic has spread fear, disease and death, national leaders across the globe have been severely tested. Some have fallen short, sometimes dismally, but there are also those leaders who have risen to the moment, demonstrating resolve, courage, empathy, respect for science and elemental decency, and thereby dulling the impact of the disease on their people.
The master class on how to respond belongs to Jacinda Ardern, the 39-year-old prime minister of New Zealand. On March 21, when New Zealand still had only 52 confirmed cases, she told her fellow citizens what guidelines the government would follow in ramping up its response. Her message was clear: "These decisions will place the most significant restrictions on New Zealanders' movements in modern history. But it is our best chance to slow the virus and to save lives." And it was compassionate: "Please be strong, be kind and united against Covid-19."
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Ardern, a liberal, then joined with the conservative prime minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, in shaping a joint effort that has all but eliminated the virus from their island nations.
Other examples of countries where swift and decisive action helped allay the impact of the disease and unite the nation range from South Korea and Taiwan in Asia to Germany, Greece and Iceland in Europe. Women, a minority among the national leaders of the world, emerged among the most effective and reassuring of them.
Like Ardern, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany acted early and calmly, warning Germans that many of them would fall prey to the novel coronavirus, and quickly getting testing underway. President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan likewise responded at the first sign of the new danger, keeping the virus under control and enabling her to send millions of face masks to the United States and Europe. In Iceland, Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir led the government in offering free coronavirus testing for all and organising a thorough tracking system.
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, Finland's prime minister, Sanna Marin — at 34 among the youngest of the world's leaders — and Norway's prime minister, Erna Solberg, are other women who have earned plaudits at home and abroad for their handling of the crisis.
There have been surprises. The greatest is Sweden, which has essentially left the country functioning almost normally, gambling that people under 70 will largely survive a bout of Covid-19 and create a "herd immunity" for the population. The elderly have been urged to stay indoors, to be sure, and the public has been advised to take precautions, but the approach is a radical departure from what everybody else is doing. Whether it succeeds or not remains to be seen.
In Italy, the European country hardest hit by the pandemic, Giuseppe Conte, a law professor who was originally plucked from obscurity by a coalition of rowdy anti-establishment parties and subsequently emerged at the head of a more orthodox government, has won respect for ordering stern measures and pledging that the state will take care of people.
Greece, usually viewed as among the European Union's weakest members, has also been something of a surprise simply by doing better than might have been expected. With the first reported case, in Thessaloniki on Feb. 26, the government under Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis moved energetically to close down public venues, limit travel and increase hospital facilities for intensive care. As of this week, Greece has had fewer than 3,000 coronavirus infections.
All these feats and figures, of course, require caveats. Germany's relatively low mortality rate, for example, may reflect a far higher rate of testing than other countries, which makes for a greater number of people known to be infected and therefore a smaller percentage of virus-related deaths. Greece's numbers, by contrast, may be low because less than 1 per cent of the population has been tested.
Most of the countries deemed to have shown a praiseworthy response, moreover, are relatively compact, homogeneous and advanced, and South Asian countries have the added advantage of recent experience tangling with an epidemic. It is open to speculation whether a country more densely populated, less developed and more diverse than Sweden could replicate Sweden's approach, or whether a nation with less trust in government would respond as the Germans have.
That said, the leaders who have gained the respect and attention of their people, and who have succeeded in dulling the impact of the disease, share certain traits and approaches to leadership worth noting as this pandemic roars on — and for future crises as well.
A willingness to take quick and bold action, even when it carries political risk, is surely among the most important hallmarks of leadership in a crisis. It is now obvious that China's efforts to conceal the outbreak, or President Donald Trump's to downplay it for far too long, proved disastrous. Ardern, by contrast, chose, as she put it, to "go hard and go early."
Other elements of effective leadership include a respect for science, transparent messaging, constant updating of the evidence and prompt assurance of financial support. And also experience: Merkel's background as a scientist is by all accounts a major factor in her credibility; in Ireland, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar's background as a doctor prompted him to start giving phone consultations half a day each week and helped boost his previously flagging standing.
Beyond politics, economics and science lie qualities of character that can't be faked, chiefly compassion, which may be the most important in reassuring a frightened, insecure and stricken population. Merkel is arguably among the least flashy, charismatic or eloquent of Europe's leaders, but nobody would ever question her decency. When she addressed her nation on television, something she does rarely and with evident reluctance, there was nothing pompous or bombastic in her parting words: "Take good care of yourselves and your loved ones."
Written by: The Editorial Board
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