Taiwan is coping so well with the coronavirus epidemic that it has the resources to help other countries. Although the scale of infections is large in Germany, the country carries out a huge number of tests to detect the virus early, isolate the infected and help them. New Zealand immediately introduced a quarantine and closed itself to tourists, even though its primary source of income is tourism. The Scandinavian countries are testing and implementing their famous welfare policies. All these countries are being praised for the way they are dealing with the pandemic.
What these countries have in common is that they are ruled by women. And it is the mixture of excellent crisis management combined with clear communication, empathy and focus on the weakest that is the best recipe for leadership in the age of coronavirus.
Women account for only 7% of all heads of government and heads of state. It turns out that although only about 23% of politicians at the parliamentary level are women, they are the ones who pass the test in times of uncertainty. It is the “soft” traits - which in a paternalistic culture are considered feminine and therefore not worth noticing - of attention, understanding for the weak and gentleness (so often mistaken for weakness) that make citizens trust their leaders at this time.
Media around the world analyse the speeches and the way in which, during this time of crisis, presidents and heads of government are communicating with the public: Angela Merkel in Germany, Erna Solberg in Norway, Katrín Jakobsdóttir in Iceland, Sanna Marin in Finland or Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. And they have no doubts: empathy, compassion, transparency and the ability to say “I don’t know”, but also “you can trust me, we’ll get through this together”, are the qualities that allow leaders not only to manage the crisis effectively, but also to lead their frightened citizens through it in peace.
Ardern has been using a simple message from the beginning. She just says: stay at home. Take care of yourself. Be polite. We’re in this together.
She usually communicates with the public from her office, but also uses social media, especially Facebook and Instagram. At the end of March, she organised a Facebook live event during which she answered questions. From the couch in her own living room, dressed in a green sweatshirt, apologising for her outfit and explaining that she had just put her daughter to bed and that it is not the best idea to put on a jacket when putting a baby to bed, she said: “I wanted to see how you feel, if you’re ready for the quarantine that will follow”. Just like that. She said that there are 238 cases of coronavirus in the country, but these numbers will certainly increase.
She appealed to the people not to lose hope or be discouraged if the measures taken by the government, including social isolation, do not work immediately because it takes time.
On 18 March, she organised a conference for children. She believes that it is children, lost and scared, who need more attention now. They are the ones who need to be helped to understand what’s happening. Right before Easter, she did not disappoint them again: using a serious tone, she told the children that the government considers the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny to be workers absolutely essential for the operations of the state, just like doctors and shop or postal workers.
Once again in her short term as head of the government – she became Prime Minister in 2017, two years later she led the country through mourning after the terrorist attacks in Christchurch and the crisis following the volcanic eruption – Jacinda Ardern shows how much the world needs a different type of leadership. Empathic, aimed at those in need of special care, and based on open communication. She is always available to the media and thus also to the people in the country.
A survey carried out by Colmar Brunton in the context of the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis shows that New Zealanders trust the steps taken by the government almost without any limits. 88% of respondents “trust that the government is making the right decisions”. This government is being headed by Ardern.
“It’s understandable that you’re scared when so many things are happening at once,” said the head of government Erna Solberg to young Norwegian boys and girls at a press conference organised especially for children. She, like Ardern on the other side of the world, speaks to her compatriots not only as their leader, but also as a mother, daughter and neighbour. She answers questions, soothes fears and provides a sense of security. She takes care of those who do not understand any of the political calculations or what is happening. Those who don’t know what a “pandemic” means. The youngest. During the 16 March conference she said that she understood that children feel confused and do not know what is happening. She talked about changes in the life of the whole country and of every family and about the fact that she understands children’s fear for their parents.
She assured that for most people the virus is not dangerous, that even if mum or dad gets sick, they will recover. She patiently answered questions: can I visit my grandparents? What about my birthday party? How long will it take to find a vaccine? What can I do to help?
Solberg, a mother of two adult children (21 and 23 years old), answered this last question: By staying at home because that way you help other people avoid infection. This is very important for people who are old or sick.
Four of the five Nordic countries are ruled by women. The coronavirus mortality rate in each of them is low, although different steps have been taken to control the epidemic. In Finland Sanna Marin currently enjoys 85% support due to the way she is leading the country through the crisis. When she became head of the government – the youngest in the world – she emphasised her difficult childhood in the workers’ quarter; she said: “My story makes equality and human rights issues important to me today”. She believes in the Finnish welfare state. She is a politician and believes that her role is not only to govern, but also to look after the Finns.
On 30 November 2017, the 40-year-old Katrín Jakobsdóttir became Prime Minister of Iceland. She is a mother of three sons, a feminist, a pacifist and committed to creating equal opportunities. And is consistent in doing so. She provides equal opportunities for her compatriots in the fight against coronavirus – the tiny Iceland is performing an enormous amount of tests. Thanks to this it is becoming clear that half of the infected people go through the infection without showing any symptoms. This is a very important finding for the whole world.
“Allow me to say it: this is serious. Since the Second World War our country has not faced a bigger challenge,” said the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to her compatriots in an exceptional address.
“I address you today in this unusual way because I want to tell you what guides me, the Chancellor, and all my colleagues in the federal government in this situation. This is part of open democracy: we make political decisions transparently and we explain them,” said Merkel at the beginning of her speech. She said that everything is “being put to the test like never before”. She talked about the radical changes which coronavirus has forced into lives in the country and about the need for solidarity and the fact that in this situation, what matters is everyone’s behaviour and that “everyone can contribute”. She stressed that although Germany has one of the best health care systems in the world, even its health service may not be able to cope.
She spoke not about abstract statistics, but about German parents, grandparents and children. That every life and every person counts. She thanked the doctors and those who are rarely thanked – the cashiers in supermarkets and those who restock the shelves. “We thank you for being there for your fellow citizens and literally keeping the shops running.” The whole world spoke about her speech, which was calm, factual and gave hope without making false declarations.
Given Taiwan’s location and proximity to China, the country should be very vulnerable to the devastating effects of the virus. However, when President Tsai Ing-wen found out about an unknown virus that was decimating the population of Wuhan, she decided that all planes coming from that city were to undergo inspection.
She established a command centre for the epidemic, increased the production of personal protective equipment - understanding that it was crucial to stop the epidemic - and then denied planes from China, Hong Kong and Macao access to the country.
Taiwan is presented as a model case in the fight against the pandemic. It is also worth remembering that this country had to cope on its own, without the support of the World Health Organisation, access to which is still blocked by China.
One more conclusion can be drawn from observing the actions taken that may have long-term repercussions. While most leaders – US President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson or Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and, closer to Poland, Viktor Orbán in Hungary – first took the strategy of ignoring the threat, then scaring the public and ending up blaming “others” (defined in different ways), the women’s strategy was instead openness. They decided to use simple communication in which they didn’t hesitate to say: “I don’t have all the answers, but we’ll get through this together”. They showed empathy. This strategy, calculated not to improve their position in the opinion polls (although that’s exactly what’s happening), but to save lives, is working amazingly well.
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