The Goldilocks Principle: Who Achieved the 'Just Right' COVID-19 Response
The COVID-19 crisis has honoured its fair share of leaders and demagogues over the course of 2020. Divergent approaches to the management of the greatest modern pandemic since the 1918 Spanish Flu have produced public praise and admonishment. Herein, the most significant determining factor to a nation’s pandemic response has been their leader’s ability to respond and undertake decisive action - precariously balancing the need for public health and economic stability.
In striving for a “Goldilocks” approach to a COVID-19 response, many leaders have faced criticism contingent upon their hard or soft-response to the crisis. In assessing the efficacy of national responses, the performance and leadership of several leaders stand out in setting the gold-standard for countries seeking to imbue national unity and craft an effective and coherent crisis response to the pandemic.
New Zealand - Jacinda Ardern First, the resolute and persistent focus of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern on minimizing harm to lives and livelihoods has presented her as the heroine of the hour. Ardern is a veteran at crisis leadership, having successfully led her country through the 2019 Christchurch mosque shooting and White Island eruption.
In countering criticism of her empathetic leadership style, Ardern famously responded, “I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong”. Consequently, in Ardern’s COVID-19 response she put her words into action, enforcing strict lockdown measures during the early stages of the pandemic in March when New Zealand had only 52 cases. Ardern presented a strong and communicative four-level COVID19 alert system, based on the pre-existing fire risk systems in New Zealand, the familiarity of which enabled citizens to clearly understand how their government was making decisions and what their future held should infections grow.
When infection numbers did grow, Ardern’s communication with the public was constant, compassionate and candid, demonstrated through a public Facebook live COVID-19 Q&A of herself in lockdown wearing a sweatshirt. Ardern’s empathic approach and clear communication display integral components of effective crisis leadership within a liberal democracy. Public trust in her leadership was further evidenced during the 2020 New Zealand general election when Ardern was affirmed as Prime Minister in a landslide re-election. Iceland - Katrin Jakobsdóttir
Second, Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s leadership has displayed humility, delegation, and wisdom in deferring to the expert opinion of health professionals, while utilizing Iceland’s strong national and social cohesion. Iceland’s COVID-19 crisis leadership was spearheaded by the ‘trifecta’ - consisting of Iceland’s director of emergency management, Víðir Reynisson; director of health, Alma Möller; and chief epidemiologist, Þórólfur Guðnason. Similar to Ardern, the trifecta’s communication with the public was consistent and clear, highlighted through daily 2 pm broadcasts outlining national progress concerning the pandemic.
Further, by deferring to the counsel and opinions of scientists and experts, Jakobsdóttir effectively isolated politicking and partisan politics from the decision-making process, thereby coordinating an organised and collective response. Consequently, contact tracing task forces were set up by late-February 2020, before the country even had any cases, and the government utilised the genetic testing expertise of the existing business deCODE.
Iceland’s successful COVID-19 response stemmed from their leaders’ ability to develop organised, future-focused plans that utilised the countries existing resources and experts - advanced from a realist and rational-based approach which prioritized public health and safety above all else.
Uruguay - Luis Lacalle Pou
Third, Uruguay’s President Luis Lacalle Pou’s COVID-19 response highlights the essentiality of a united leadership during times of extreme turbulence. Lacalle Pou’s response embodies the importance of “togetherness” in preserving national cohesion, promoting compassion, and in increasing the speed of governmental response. The country's success has been attributed to early and decisive action - including the closure of international borders, and the requirement for older citizens to remain in quarantine.
Most critically in April 2020, the political parties unified and directly coordinated with health experts and businesses - enabling a collaborative response that was confident, and absent of partisan disagreements. While the country’s economy is expected to contract by 4% over 2020, the effectiveness of its pandemic response has positioned Uruguay for strong economic recovery, with a projected expansion of 4% over 2021. Lacalle Pou’s response has successfully achieved a balance between public health and economic sustainability - one which many other countries, especially in Latin America, have struggled to attain.
Conversely, globally many leaders have struggled to develop a ‘just right’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic due to a lack of the aforementioned effective traits of strong leadership. There is much we may learn about crisis leadership in acknowledging their struggles.
In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson caused unnecessary anxiety and increased transmission of the virus through his conflicting messages, rapidly changing tactics and by ignoring expert advice. This response downplayed the significance of the pandemic and placed a significant strain on the National Health Service. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro took this technique to the next level by outright denying the existence of the virus, and in dismissing three consecutive health ministers.
Contrary to Ardern, Jakobsdóttir and Lacalle Pou’s pandemic response, the late-President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunzisa blatantly ignored experts, and whose administration claimed that Burundi would be exempt from the virus due to its Christian faith. Similarly, Israel faced challenges from its Ultra-Orthodox Jewish population and a conservative leader during an election period who failed to plan for the post-lockdown future.
The importance of unity was displayed through its absence in Australian politics. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivered information that conflicted with what the state governments communicated, and criticised state administrations which were led by the opposing Labour party. Leaders and opposition leaders alike must recognise there is a time for politics, and there is a time when matters of national significance require a bipartisan response premised upon the directions of scientists and experts.
Most significant has been the approach adopted by US President, Donald Trump. As the supposed leader of the free world, Trump’s leadership style - characterized by misinformation and egoism - set the country up for failure from before the crisis even began. His false claims that the US handling of the virus was ‘the best in the world’ drew parallels to North Korea’s pandemic response, highlighted by Kim Jong-un’s claim that North Korea has not faced a single case.
The approaches adopted by these leaders to the COVID-19 pandemic underscore an important lesson for contemporary leaders facing national crises' - namely the need for national solidarity, unity, and empathy in driving effective policy making, and the need to prioritise public interest over immature self-promotion and politicking.
To effectively manage and overcome the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries must pay heed to the leadership approaches adopted by the liberal democracies of New Zealand, Iceland and Uruguay. Herein, the elements of an effective governmental response are predicated upon political stability and unity, democratic controls, institutional strengths, and a strong public health sector.
The leaders of these countries share a leadership style that is compassionate, humble and empathetic - traits which translate well in driving effective policy and decision making processes which are quick, informed, and clearly communicated. It is this manner of strong leadership style which demonstrates the gold standard for liberal democracies, one which should be maintained post-COVID-19 as a means of fostering compassionate, future-focused and decisive leaders capable of anticipating the future.
Melissa Kearney has a Bachelor of International and Global Studies from the University of Sydney. Her experience includes gender equality research and she has a particular passion for developmental studies.