Articulate, calm, compassionate, purposeful, open, bold, decisive, self-deprecating. That head-long dive into the Thesaurus of laudatory terms is often followed with glowing expressions such as “steely resolve,” “skilled communicator” and a “masterclass in crisis.”
All sound familiar? It should, for those were the same words and phrases used to describe New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after last year’s shock terrorist attack on two mosques in the South Island city of Christchurch that left 51 worshippers dead.
Then, the hug-friendly premier earned praise from Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation unused to hearing a Western leader showing such empathy towards Muslims, who represent a 1% minority among New Zealand’s 4.8 million people.
Now, Jacinda, as she is commonly known in New Zealand, is earning similar plaudits for her sensitive, but firm handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which nearly three weeks into a no-holds-barred lockdown is now widely perceived to be not only flattening the curve of infections, but crushing it.
All very well, say envious world leaders, neighboring Australia’s Scott Morrison probably among them, but New Zealand is a couple of islands stuck out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and easily cut off from the rest of the world, which it is right now to a large extent.
It’s hard to compare with Indonesia, an archipelago of 273 million people living on 6,000 Inhabited islands. Or Australia, with 86% of its 24.6 million population clinging to a narrow 24,000 kilometer swathe of coastline which has just emerged from its worst-ever fire season.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that New Zealand has come together in a common purpose with a leader who at one point talks to kids about this year’s sad absence of the Easter Bunny due to the virus, and then comes down hard on surfers and rugby players who break lockdown rules.
When Health Minister Dr. David Clark foolishly took his family to the beach for some exercise, he was swiftly demoted and would have lost his job if the country hadn’t been in the middle of an emergency. He did call himself an “idiot.”
Jacinda is not alone on the frontlines. Five European countries battling the virus are led by women, including Finland and Denmark, which have similar-sized populations and are still facing scores of deaths and hundreds of new cases a day.
Since its first confirmed infection on February 28, New Zealand has had 1,253 cases, many linked to overseas travel, and two deaths. Two of the 14 patients in hospital are in critical condition, though 373 have recovered.
So far health authorities have conducted 46,900 tests, built on a rolling average of 3,300 a day. On April 9, it recorded the lowest number of daily confirmed and probable cases, just 29, since alert level four kicked in on March 23. But Jacinda isn’t waving the victory flag just yet.
She has justannounced that New Zealanders returning from overseas on the few flights available will have to be quarantined for two weeks to ensure there is no so-called second wave of infections, as experienced by China, Singapore and others.
New Zealand has 800,000 to 1.1 million of its citizens abroad at any given time, including 600,000 residents in Australia alone, and about 80,000 passport-holders who are either travelling for business or pleasure.
“The problem for us is when we do stop the virus, we will then have the world to contend with,” says one senior New Zealand official, who believes the economic fallout from Covid-19 will last for up to two years. ”How long will it be before we can open the doors again?”
The ultimate goal, he makes clear, is not zero infections. It is getting to the stage where the number of recoveries is consistently more than the new cases. In that, the country is almost there.
While its testing record has been impressive, so has New Zealand’s tracing capabilities, again made possible by the size of the populace and also the efficiency of its health services, which desperately needed to keep ahead of the curve.
The thing about Jacinda, a country girl who later learned to appreciate single malts, is she carrying the country along with her in the manner wartime leaders seem to have done. In an April 6 poll, 88% of New Zealanders said they trusted the government to make the right decisions on Covid-19.
That’s 5% more than those who said they trusted the 39-year-old former political researcher to “deal successfully with national problems,” a 24% increase over a similar poll taken just a month before.
“She is very articulate, whip-smart and has a genuine kindness about her,” says the government official who has worked at close quarters with Jacinda. “New Zealand has been well served by its prime ministers, but she has a warmth about her the others didn’t have.”
Jacinda does, on occasion, reach out for advice to her old boss, former prime minister Helen Clark (1999-2008), who went on to serve as administrator of the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) between 2009 and 2017 and was once in the running for UN secretary-general.
New Zealand often seems to change its leaders for no other reason than it collectively decides they have been there long enough. Partisan politics is present, but nowhere near as vitriolic as in the US and Australia.
Once a policy adviser to Britain’s Tony Blair, Jacinda is New Zealand’s 27th prime minister in 113 years, only its fourth this century and the third woman to hold the post in the first country worldwide to give her gender the vote.
A parliamentarian since 2008, she became leader of the Labour Party only three months out from the 2017 elections when it was wallowing in the polls and looking to be swamped by the governing National Party.
Jacinda calls herself a social democrat, with a focus on climate change, a major concern among “clean and green” New Zealanders, and alleviating poverty and inequality among the Maori and Pacific island population.
Conservative political writer Richard Long says Jacinda’s common sense and limitless patience have allowed her to hold the coalition together, despite the paucity of talent in Labour’s front benches and Peters’ meddling behind the scenes.
Some critics feel that earlier in her term Jacinda made feel-good promises which were not always followed up. Decisions, they said, were often shoved off onto prevaricating special committees and left at that.
But the takeaway already is her standing is up there with any of New Zealand’s great crisis leaders. With the Nationals given little other choice than to follow her lead, there is general agreement she is likely to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis even stronger.
At some point, she will have to dispense with the authoritarian-like powers currently invested in her and resume her role as head of a purely democratic government. With her popularity sky high, even that may not be as fraught as it once was.
“She should draw a huge amount of confidence from this experience of really being the boss,” says one veteran journalist. “Maybe she can take that authority and experience into being a stronger peacetime leader. Remember, peacetime for the next couple of years will be a crisis government anyway.”