How can world leaders learn from Jacinda Ardern?

“It is about leadership” states New Zealand’s Prime Minster, Jacinda Ardern, after confirming that she will take a 20% pay cut, alongside her ministers, in solidarity with the people of her country. This act is just one of the latest demonstrations of admirable leadership from Ardern, whose compassionate and decisive measures have enabled New Zealand to contain the spread of COVID-19.

In a time of global panic, world leaders should be looking towards Ardern for inspiration. Unwilling to risk significant loss of life, in order to gain ‘herd immunity’, she acted promptly and efficiently, organising a nationwide lockdown that has successfully minimised the spread of the coronavirus in New Zealand.

Her approach is clearly working – New Zealand currently has had just over 1,142 cases and 21 confirmed deaths related to the coronavirus; whilst numbers are still rising at devastating rates across the globe, with over 78,000 deaths in the United States, 31,000 in the UK and 30,000 in Italy at the time of writing. 

New Zealand currently has had just over 1,142 cases and 21 confirmed deaths related to the coronavirus; whilst numbers are still rising at devastating rates across the globe.

Many would think that such strict lockdown measures would ignite frustration and rebellion amongst New Zealanders, when the threat posed by COVID-19 within the nation remains relatively low. Indeed, Ardern has faced some backlash, and is currently being sued by two men who claim that the stringent measures cannot justify the economic ramifications, given the level of risk within the nation.

However, this opinion is certainly only upheld by a minority; because, unlike the plethora of mixed messages given by other world leaders, Ardern has consistently and clearly communicated to her country, enabling the people to comprehend the magnitude of this pandemic and the importance of the social distancing measures put in place.

Unlike the plethora of mixed messages given by other world leaders, Ardern has consistently and clearly communicated to her country, enabling the people to comprehend the magnitude of this pandemic.

On 21st March, she addressed the nation, outlining her aim to “give as much certainty and clarity” as possible about her approach to the virus. Within this address, she provides hope and reassurance, as well as outlining a clear alert system for COVID-19, showing New Zealanders the potential steps that lay ahead. 

Just two days later, Ardern once again displayed admirable leadership in a press conference, during which she delivered a clear, decisive and compassionate speech, and allocated more than half an hour to answer press questions, showing true care that people’s concerns received a response. 

Aware of the extent to which these measures would affect everybody, Ardern ensured there was no confusion. She outlined exactly who would be considered ‘key workers’, confirmed that, throughout the pandemic, all essential services would remain open and reminded everybody that “stock is not an issue in New Zealand, we will not run out of food”.

Meanwhile, the UK was yet to pull together any sort of cohesive plan; Boris Johnson sent an array of mixed messages, from handshakes to mass public gatherings, herd immunity to education and examinations. His address to the nation was issued on 24th March, by which point the virus was already becoming out of control. 

The UK was yet to pull together any sort of cohesive plan; Boris Johnson sent an array of mixed messages, from handshakes to mass public gatherings, herd immunity to education and examinations.

Whilst his speech was “clear and easy to follow”, as identified by New Statesman political editor, Stephen Bush, the 6-minute pre-recorded video was simply a set of instructions to the public, and lacked the compassion and depth that has cultivated high levels of compliance in New Zealand.

Meanwhile, Trump’s chaotic response to COVID-19 appears to be the polar opposite of the approach taken by Ardern. Whilst he claims, “we have it totally under control”, the figures clearly suggest otherwise: the United States has over 1.32 million confirmed cases, considerably more than any other country, and vastly higher than the number of cases in New Zealand, which is just in excess of 1,100.

Despite the obviously high threat level posed by COVID-19 in the United States, citizens are increasingly failing to adhere to social distancing measures – on April 15th, thousands of people congregated at the Michigan Capitol, with signs demanding “dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery” and to “end the lockdown”. 

Amercan citizens are failing to adhere to social distancing measures.

Trump’s active dismissal of the threat posed by the virus has prevented many citizens from gaining an understanding of the magnitude of this pandemic, and of their responsibility to protect the vulnerable, which is cultivating this growing aggravation. Meanwhile, the widespread compliance of New Zealanders is a credit to Ardern’s clear, reassuring and communicative leadership.

Trump’s active dismissal of the threat posed by the virus has prevented many citizens from gaining an understanding of the magnitude of this pandemic.

Yet Ardern has not just demonstrated how effective leadership can contain the virus, but she has also given a masterclass in maintaining national morale. The Prime Minister constructs a very personable image, uploading Facebook live streams from her home to “check in with everyone” and “prepare everyone” by explaining that the delay of coronavirus symptoms emerging means that effects of social distancing will not be felt immediately. 

Ardern constructs a very personable image, uploading Facebook live streams from her home to check in with everyone.

By consistently keeping in touch with citizens through a variety of means, reminding them not to “be disheartened” and to “check in with neighbours”, Ardern has been able to nurture a strong sense of community and thus prevent the growth of hostility regarding these measures. Her approach has been driven by her trademark “politics of kindness” as she has appealed to the public to “care for the most vulnerable” and reminded them that “we will be OK”.

Ardern has been able to nurture a strong sense of community and thus prevent the growth of hostility regarding these measures.

Ardern has also been highly concerned with ensuring that the children of New Zealand are able to cope with these unfounded new circumstances. Indeed, she held a press conference specifically for children, in an attempt to explain the need for social distancing measures in a simple and non-intimidating manner. For every generation, she has been concerned with education and understanding – recognising that enabling the population to understand the importance of adhering to the rules is fundamentally important in tackling COVID-19.

Not only has she helped children to understand the current situation, but she has also sought to ensure some sense of normality in their lives. She confirmed that “both the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny are essential workers”, but also explained that they could be “quite busy” and therefore any children that the Easter bunny couldn’t quite reach should take part in a national egg hunt. This initiative encouraged children to colour in Easter eggs and place them in their window, for others to find, and was promoted widely on her social media. Clearly Ardern has shown concern for mental health in isolation, encouraging community, positivity and activity to pass the time and keep children preoccupied.

This is not the first time Ardern has received global credit for her leadership in responding to a crisis. Following a terrorist attack in Christchurch, in which a self-proclaimed white supremacist opened fire in two mosques, killing 51 people, Ardern took immediate action. She decried the gunman’s white nationalist ideology, vowed never to use his name, promised to cover the funeral costs of all those who lost their lives and comforted relatives and victims in person. 

This is not the first time Ardern has receieved global credit for her leadership in responding to a crisis.

Not only did she act with empathy and compassion in the immediate aftermath, but she also quickly took steps to ensure that such a tragedy could never occur again. Less than a month after the attack, a gun reform bill was passed by 119-1, prohibiting military-style semi-automatic weapons and parts that can be used to assemble prohibited firearms. When faced with crises, Ardern has repeatedly responded with care, compassion and decisive action.

In a world where the political landscape remains dominated by white, wealthy, middle-aged men, Ardern challenges stereotypes. New Zealand’s youngest ever prime minister, and the 2nd ever world leader to give birth whilst in office, is currently showing all other world leaders what true leadership looks like. In acting with foresight, decisiveness and, above all, compassion, she has not given the coronavirus the chance to take hold of her country.

In a world where the political landscape remains dominated by white, wealthy, middle-aged men, Ardern challenges stereotypes.

New Zealand has now been in lockdown for over a month, and after the success of Ardern’s measures, the country is considering beginning to ease restrictions as early as next week. Compared to many other countries across the globe, New Zealand has experienced minimal cases and fatalities due to COVID-19 and maintained a strong sense of unity and resolve. Ardern’s actions have undoubtedly saved the lives of many New Zealanders, and leaders across the planet should certainly be looking to take inspiration from her approach.

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