Leadership Under Covid-19: It Varies

Some nations responded more effectively to the pandemic than others.

Faced with a deadly and rapidly escalating pandemic, world leaders have been far from unified in their response. Some, including Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro, began by downplaying the seriousness of the crisis and have only taken containment measures slowly. Others looked more quickly at data from China and Italy and made some difficult decisions.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Arden announced a lockdown on March 26. Her exhortation, “We go early, we go hard,” is associated with New Zealand’s formidable All Blacks rugby team and came less than a month after the country recorded its first case of Covid-19. By contrast, the UK and Germany began their lockdowns around seven weeks after recording their first cases.

So far, rapid response seems to have paid off; New Zealand reports just 11 deaths to date out of a population of some five million. Arden, whose trademark is the “politics of kindness,” has earned praise for her clear communication, urging New Zealanders to “look after one another.”

The virus appears to follow varied trajectories in different European countries. Germany’s relatively low death rate has been attributed to preparedness and thorough testing. Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, has emphasized that the pandemic is a continent-wide problem. “Germany is only doing well if Europe is doing well,” she says. Under Germany’s federal system, Merkel cannot enforce social distancing measures or shut down restaurants across all 16 regional states. But she used her position to jawbone, offering clear scientific explanations. Her doctorate in quantum chemistry lends her admonitions a helpfully authoritative tone.

Another leader drawing on his training is Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who reregistered as a medical practitioner to work one shift a week during the crisis. Contrast Varadkar’s approach to the nonchalance of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who went to a hospital with coronavirus patients and, he later proudly proclaimed, “shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know.” He soon found himself infected and in intensive care. On the current trajectory, the UK is expected to report the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe, according to the BBC.