From Ardern to Merkel: pandemics need positive leaders

Governments that have fared well are concentrating on beating infection today and calibrating for a new tomorrow

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When the former US president Barack Obama used a virtual commencement ceremony to deliver an apparent stinging rebuke of Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus crisis, he stirred up a storm. Mr Obama told college graduates that some of the world's leaders "aren't even pretending to be in charge" and while he stopped short of naming Mr Trump during his address, there was no doubt who was in his crosshairs.

Mr Obama’s words also spoke to the wider point that most of us have an instinctive feel for what bad leadership looks like and the Covid-19 crisis has laid bare the failures of some. By the same token, we can also find it hard to recognise good leadership in such tense moments.

The esteemed business leader Jack Welch, who died earlier this year, once remarked that "what determines your destiny is not the hand you are dealt, but how you play that hand. The best way to play your hand is to face reality, see the world the way it is, and act accordingly."

The last few months have delivered generational challenges and while it’s inappropriate and reductive to talk about winners and losers in the pandemic, there have been plenty of examples of good leadership in crisis – or to use Welch’s terminology, those who have faced reality and acted accordingly.

As many commentators have pointed out, there is much to admire in New Zealand's response to the pandemic, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, including the country's quick journey into lockdown and its smooth transition out of it. Not even an earthquake can unsettle Ms Ardern's assured leadership style, as we found out on Monday morning.

More broadly, her rules-based, empathetic way of working not only demonstrates high levels of emotional intelligence, it sets a blueprint for others.

There are plenty of examples elsewhere, too.

For several months it has been apparent that the UAE Government has worked on the assumption that this will be a long journey with many potential bumps on the road.

The pandemic action plan brought the expected raft of economic measures to help ease fiscal pressure, but has also been guided by a basic human impulse, finding its natural centre on the quick establishment of medical centres around the country and supported by a widespread commitment to testing. The public messaging has been clear and has been backed by nighttime stay-at-home orders and street sterilisation programmes.

Examples of positive leadership in the pandemic are evident when leaders operate with honesty, integrity and transparency

To date, more than two million tests have been carried out in the country and the UAE, along with Bahrain, tops the league table of tests per headcount in countries where the population is more than one million people.

On the eve of Eid Al Fitr, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, delivered a message to stay home at a time of year when many are used to celebrating: "I know it is hard, but for us it means saving lives," he said. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, commented that "perhaps we were forced to distance but it increased the closeness of hearts."

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed has also spoken of the need to "stay the course" and of overcoming the pandemic together. The choice of words is no accident. The country's foundation story is one of being stronger in union, but it is also one of endurance, empathy and tolerance.

The UAE has also been recognised for its commitment to humanitarian aid missions. Earlier this week, 200,000 testing kits were sent to Nevada and vital medical supplies were shipped to DR Congo. To date, more than 640 tonnes of medical aid have been sent by the UAE to over 50 countries since the pandemic began, helping to support more than 600,000 medical professionals.

All of this is a demonstration of the country’s long-stated values and of its natural impulse to extend a helping hand, even at a time when globalisation appears to be shrinking.

That point was underscored by another development: the establishment of a national multilingual mental health helpline this month.

Long after the pandemic is over, this support will remain. Discussions of mental health often return to the idea of breaking taboos and reducing stigma. Time will tell whether those taboos will be smashed by this crisis, but the signs are that our post-pandemic world will be one where depression and stress are spoken about more openly and find more acceptance.

Generally, examples of positive leadership in the pandemic are evident when leaders operate with honesty, integrity and transparency, which helps explain the visceral reaction to the Dominic Cummings scandal in the UK.

Elsewhere, Japan is moving out of a state of emergency after a second wave of infections, but rather than deliver a message of triumph, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has struck a realistic tone, commenting this week that his country needs to create a "new lifestyle" and "change our way of thinking".

In Europe, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has won praise for continuing the calm, reasoned leadership style that has been the hallmark of her years in power. Her willingness to talk honestly about the challenges posed by the pandemic were also key to building trust, co-operation and acceptance among the population.

In neighbouring Denmark, the government enjoys widespread support for its handling of the crisis, with Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen once again freely discussing the complicated road ahead: "It's a difficult and big exercise we're doing. Filled with dilemmas … Now we're taking another step. I feel comfortable that we can handle that together too," she said on social media.

What binds these examples together is recognition that our world has changed rapidly. Governments that have fared well are concentrating on beating infection today and calibrating for a new tomorrow. In South Korea, which confronted Covid-19 earlier than most, President Moon Jae-in called this process preparing for the "new world order".

So, Mr Obama is partially right, some leaders aren't in control, but others definitely are and see the world for what it is.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National