Effective leadership in COVID-19

Three women heads of state lead by example and get results

The Norwegian American

Are there certain traits among women that better enable them to handle crisis situations? 

Erna Solberg

Photo: Statsministerens kontor
Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway.

Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Society presented a Zoominar on May 19, “Effective Leadership in the Time of COVID-19,” with a focus on Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway (Conservative Party), 59; Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany (Christian Democrats), 65; and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand (Labour), 39. 

Different parties, different ages, different countries, but each achieved “success” in their handling of the pandemic with the realization that the situation is not over and that managing the recovery properly is vital. Was it their leadership or the country’s structure, culture, public health system, or a combination that drove this? 

Angela Merkel

Photo: Arnim Linnartz / Wikimedia Commons
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

Presenting each country were the ambassadors to the United States: two women, Emily Haber (Germany) and Rosemary Banks (New Zealand), while Kåre R. Aas represented Norway. The moderator was Institute Executive Director and former U.S. Ambassador for the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer. Over 1,700 people from 96 countries tuned in.

Only 11 women in the world serve as heads of state, 12 who run the government.

Global cooperation

Aas emphasized global partnerships and intra-country cooperation.

Jacinda Ardern

Photo: New Zealand Labour Party
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand.

“It’s too early to draw conclusions about whether we all have been successful or the effectiveness of the different strategies we applied,” he said. “My country decided to review the measures and the effects, and that report will be handed over to the government and the parliament sometime next year.

“The success stories in Norway really have to do with the political system of Norway and the society. The government, the parliament, the political opposition, civil society, medical experts, and others worked together to identify and implement the strategy. Norway is very much based on transparency and a legitimate political system, which meant that measures taken by the government were understood by the public…. I also think the communication strategy is important: the government telling the population nearly every single day how the practice has developed, the measures taken, has been very assuring for the population. I think what you do as a country is very important, but in order for all of us to be successful, this is a global crisis, and it has to be met with a global response. That requires action by all of us together.”

Early preparedness and trust

The leaders got ahead of the virus, reducing the effects. As of May 21, New Zealand suffered 22 deaths in a population of 5 million, and just over 1,150 cases. Norway had 8,400 cases, 7,700 recoveries, 236 deaths. Germany had over 182,000 cases, over 163,000 recovered, over 8,500 deaths. 

Banks cited essential leadership qualities and preparations. Ardern and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, opposites politically, became partners in fighting the virus. Australia has just over 100 deaths, 7,100 cases.

“Before the coronavirus reached our shores, the prime minister was very visibly in control, working with her cabinet, her director general of health, scientific advisers, a wide range of government agencies, business representatives, civil society,” said Banks. “Together, they devised a national response and summed it up in four words, ‘go hard, go early.’ On the March 23, we had only 102 cases. The prime minister explained why it was necessary to go to a state of national emergency for the first time in our history; completely close our borders and impose the level four of our four-level publicly explained pandemic response alerts.

“That had the effect of tying everybody into their tight bubbles, putting the economy in the deep freeze. The measures did produce a result. What sort of leadership do you need in a crisis? Ambassador Verveer… mentioned their decisiveness and clarity. Certainly, they were critical factors in getting a good positive public response. I would add three more aspects of her leadership: honesty, authority, and empathy. She was very honest when she explained to the nation that we faced a stark choice: either respect our severe lockdown or face the reality of tens of thousands of New Zealand deaths.

“People trusted her when she said, we can beat the chain of transmission, that we are a team of 5 million together. They trusted her, because they could see that she had authority, her scientific and medical advice, but also because she had empathy. She acknowledged the sacrifice that the government was asking of the country.  Our former prime minister, Helen Clark, was asked about leadership last week. In her view, the style of leadership that works in a crisis is not unique to women, but more commonly found among women. She summarized that style of leadership as being more inclusive, less hierarchical, and more inclined to consult and communicate. I think that certainly sums up the style that Prime Minister Ardern used.”

Science and health care

Preparation also aided Germany.

“Germany was one of the most affected countries in Europe, but people usually point to the mortality rate and to the degree of preparation,” said Haber. “We had somewhat of a head start because a German scientist developed the test for COVID-19 before the WHO [World Health Organization] recognized that human-to-human transmission was possible. This test was quickly recognized by the WHO and then was mass produced. This enabled us to ramp up the health-care system, the intensive-care units. We had a pandemic strategy in place. No discussions were needed about who would be paying for the tests, because it was all in place. We have an intensive system of labs across the country, so tests were not sent to just one place. We did a rigorous contact tracing, testing not only in hot spots but everywhere. We tried to establish who got infected and traced the contagion journeys. That was hugely important. It enables us now to slowly return from the lockdown. 

“On the health-care side, we had a well-oiled machine. On the bureaucratic side, we have institutional and regulatory cooperation between the federal level and the states, which has always existed. That springs into action the moment you need instant and rapid responses. The communication strategy was consistent, coherent, completely candid about what we know and what we don’t know. The chancellor was able to explain the complexity of science and translate it into accurate policy requirements. I think that was key for a general sense of credibility and legitimacy about what was happening.”

Verveer noted Solberg’s compassionate leadership, especially with children, that “it was OK to be scared.” Upon relaxing some restrictions, Solberg also cautioned, if Norwegians didn’t comply with the efforts to reduce the spread of the virus, the relaxations could be reversed.

“She has been having a dialogue with children when they closed the schools and when they reopened,” said Aas. “We have adopted the contact tracing in Norway on a voluntary basis. The people can download an app, which they and the government can use to see the spread of the virus. One-fourth of the population has the app.”

Road to recovery and beyond

The three countries and the world still must deal with the recovery, especially economic, when the virus is contained. The three panelists discussed how this situation could help with another global crisis: climate change. With the lockdowns, there has been a reduction in carbon footprints. 

“In the present crisis, everyone keeps saying that we are all affected and there are no borders,” said Haber. “That allows us to seclude ourselves. We need to combine forces. At the outset of the virus crisis, we’ve seen a lot of inward-looking reactions in many countries, including in my own. That’s what happens in a crisis of this magnitude: look at yourself and try to fend for yourself. We quickly realized the price tag that this strategy would exact and altered our course. The moment has come to combine forces in order to be able to respond to the challenge to develop shared strategies, coordinate, consult with a view to the shared objective to do something that affects all of us.”

“We do need to take a fresh look now that we have this opportunity,” said Banks. “In a way, the experience we’ve all had has forced us to look very hard into ourselves at a personal and national level. Hopefully, in the future, we’ll have a little more space to do so at the global level, but we must recognize, too, that countries are at different stages. We may be lucky in New Zealand to be coming out—we hope it will remain the case—of the worst of our experience. But many countries are still preparing to go into that. We could seize this opportunity to strengthen up, to tighten up, to reinvigorate the international architecture that we’ve got rather than just complaining about it, or we could slip back.

“I think we owe it to each other to be optimistic and determined as to how we respond as a global community to the existential threat of climate change. While we have been locked down, it has been literally a breath of fresh air on the climate change side when everything else has been dark. It’s a very short-term advantage, because once our economies go back to normal and people resume their routines, those clear skies will quickly disappear. What it has shown us is just how much effort it takes to make a change. A quote from Winston Churchill ‘we should never let a good crisis go to waste.’ We certainly have an opportunity through this crisis, both at national level and globally to say, as we build back, as we reinvest, as we stimulate our economies, how can we do it in ways that make our economies more energy efficient, more sustainable, and more climate resilient at the national level?” Banks asked.

Aas sees optimism in the United Arab Emirates providing medicine and assistance to Iran and Israelis and Palestinians working together to prevent the spread of the virus. He noted that in Norway’s peace negotiating efforts, 25% of the delegation are women.

“One of the key messages from Norway is you can’t broker a peace deal without women,” said Aas.  “That’s not obvious in all countries around the world. It’s one thing to be part of the delegation, but women also must exercise their rights…. The dialogue tells us the other side understands that.” 

Banks shared an anecdote that reflects equality and could serve as a moral to effective leadership. Ardern and her partner, Clark Gayford, were turned away at a restaurant, because it was at full capacity based on Ardern’s directive. “They took it with very good grace and left. Fortunately, a table happened to come free. One of the wait staff ran down the street after them to get them back. It’s a nice little story demonstrating a lot about our country.”

This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.