Silveria Jacobs is not messing around.
When coronavirus cases started increasing in the Caribbean nation of Sint Maarten, the 51-year-old prime minister delivered blunt instructions.
“Simply. Stop. Moving,” Jacobs said in a video address. “If you do not have the type of bread you like in your house, eat crackers. If you do not have bread, eat cereal, eat oats, sardines.”
The April 1 speech, in which Jacobs advised citizens to prepare as though a hurricane were on its way but not to hoard toilet paper, went viral, propelling the previously little-known leader to Internet stardom over her no-nonsense approach to the crisis.
Jacobs is one of several female world leaders who have won recognition as voices of reason amid the coronavirus pandemic. They have attracted praise for effective messaging and decisive action, in stark contrast to the bombastic approaches of several of the world’s most prominent male leaders – including some who face criticism for early fumbles that fueled the spread of the virus.
“We might think of this as a halo effect on some women leaders,” said Jennifer Curtin, director of the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland. Many women leaders have indeed been successful in controlling the spread of the coronavirus while also maintaining calm. Their successes have been amplified in part “because we see … a couple of hyper masculine leaders responding in a very aggressive way,” Curtin said.
Here are examples of how elected female leaders around the globe have responded to outbreaks of the coronavirus in their countries.
When it comes to saving lives and flattening the curve, few world leaders have attracted as much positive attention as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who took office in October 2017.
Ardern has a history of bold responses to tragedy. Last year, when New Zealand was rocked by attacks on two mosques in Christchurch that claimed 51 lives, Ardern pledged to cover funeral costs for victims of the country’s worst terrorist attack, launched outreach to the Muslim community and pushed through changes to the country’s gun laws.
Barely a year later, facing the threat of covid-19, Ardern shut the country’s borders swiftly and prepared citizens for protracted measures.
Her messaging left no room for confusion. “To be absolutely clear, we are now asking all New Zealanders who are outside essential services to stay at home and to stop all interaction with others outside of those in your household,” she said.
Ardern’s clampdown appears to be working, with fewer than 1,500 confirmed cases and 12 confirmed deaths reported in the country. She has held regular news briefings alongside top health officials but also pursued a relatable approach, streaming videos of herself at home on social media and telling children that she counts the tooth fairy and Easter Bunny as “essential workers.” Last week, Ardern announced she and her cabinet would take 20% pay cuts for six months.
She often emphasizes empathy in her public remarks, demonstrating, Curtin said, one “can actually lead with both resolve and kindness.”
After weeks of lockdown, Norway’s infection rate has slowed so much the country has introduced plans to loosen restrictions on certain businesses and school closures.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Sweden, where fewer restrictions were put in place, cases spiked.
In an interview with CNN, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg credited an early lockdown and extensive monitoring for her country’s relative success. She said she is allowing scientists to take the lead on the medical response.
She has received praise for a style of communication that extends beyond her scientific approach. In two news conferences in the past month, she shared messages meant for young people.
“It’s OK to be scared,” she said soon after schools shut down. She said she missed hugging her friends.
“We think children should feel they are taken seriously in a crisis like this,” Solberg told CNN.
Around the world, testing shortages have left sick patients in limbo and disrupted official responses to the coronavirus outbreak, making it more difficult for health workers to identify and isolate infected people. But in Iceland, anyone who wants a test can get one.
The unusual approach is the result of a collaboration between the government, led by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, and deCODE Genetics, a Reykjavik-based biotechnology company offering free tests. People interested in being tested do not need to demonstrate that they have been exposed to a known case of the virus or have symptoms. The joint initiative has allowed nearly 43,000 people to be tested – or roughly 11.7% of the island’s population.
Iceland also launched an intensive contact tracing initiative that helped quickly isolate people who may have been exposed to the virus. Although social distancing restrictions have been put in place, the widespread testing and early containment measures provided Icelandic officials with key data that has allowed them to keep restrictions somewhat looser than leaders in some other countries. Officials announced last week restrictions will be lifted incrementally beginning May 4.
Last month, as the coronavirus spread rapidly across Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a rare televised speech in which she warned Germans that the outbreak poses the largest challenge since the Second World War.
“I’m absolutely sure we will overcome this crisis,” she said. “But how many casualties will there be? How many loved ones will we lose?”
Constanze Stelzenmuller, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Merkel’s remarks were unlike other public addresses she had given during her more than 14-year tenure as chancellor. “It was very direct, it was very straightforward, down to earth, empathetic and personal,” she said.
Every death, Merkel said, is “a father or grandfather, a mother or grandmother, a partner.
“It’s people,” she said. “And we are a community in which every life and every person counts.”
The address marked a turning point in Merkel’s leadership role in the crisis after early critiques that she hadn’t acted quickly enough. Germany has confirmed more than 145,000 cases of the virus and around 4,642 deaths – far fewer than the number of deaths confirmed in Italy and Spain. Experts say widespread testing has helped officials track suspected cases more easily than in other countries.
Merkel extended the country’s lockdown this month but also eased some restrictions on certain businesses and said schools will largely reopen in May.
Merkel, who has said she will not seek reelection next year, typically takes a more stoic tone. But many welcomed her change of pace in the face of such an unusual crisis.
“She was appealing to people’s sense of responsibility and their ability as citizens to assess the risk and then do the right thing,” Stelzenmuller said. “It seems clear to me that she decided that this was an exceptional emergency and therefore required a different approach.”
As the coronavirus spread rapidly in China’s Hubei province, the initial epicenter of the pandemic, early this year, the self-governing island of Taiwan recognized the risk the looming pandemic could pose. Millions of people travel between the island and China each year.
The Taiwanese government, led by President Tsai Ing-wen and her vice president, Chen Chien-Jen, an epidemiologist, took assertive early measures to try to limit the spread of the virus, restricting many visitors and implementing new mandatory health checks.
Months later, the island of around 23 million people is reaping the benefits – reporting fewer than 500 confirmed cases and six deaths.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Chen credited lessons learned from the 2003 SARS outbreak in helping the island prepare for and limit its exposure to this year’s outbreak.
Taiwan’s response to the coronavirus has not been without controversy. Taiwan has repeatedly criticized China’s response, and earlier this month, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus accused Taiwan of participating in a racist smear campaign against him. Taiwan demanded an apology and called the accusations baseless.