On 1 April, the prime minister of Sint Maarten addressed her nation’s 41,500 people. Coronavirus cases were rising, and Silveria Jacobs knew the small island country, which welcomes 500,000 tourists a year, was at great risk: it had two ICU beds.
Jacobs did not want to impose a strict lockdown, but she did want physical distancing observed. So she spelled it out: “Simply. Stop. Moving,” she said. “If you don’t have the bread you like in your house, eat crackers. Eat cereal. Eat oats. Eat … sardines.”
The 51-year-old Caribbean premier may not have the global profile of Angela Merkel or Jacinda Ardern, but her blunt message exemplified firm action, effective communication – and showed another female leader getting the job done.
From Germany to New Zealand and Denmark to Taiwan, women have managed the coronavirus crisis with aplomb. Plenty of countries with male leaders – Vietnam, the Czech Republic, Greece, Australia – have also done well. But few with female leaders have done badly.
Ardern, 39, New Zealand’s premier, has held Kiwis’ hands through the lockdown, delivering empathetic “stay home, save lives” video messages from her couch and communicating daily through non-combative press conferences or intimate Facebook Live videos, her favourite medium.
Her insistence on saving lives and her kindness-first approach – urging New Zealanders to look after their neighbours, take care of the vulnerable, and make sacrifices for the greater good – has won her many fans, while her emphasis on shared responsibility has united the country.
Choosing to “go hard and go early”, Ardern imposed a 14-day quarantine on anyone entering the country on 14 March and implemented a strict lockdown two weeks later, when fewer than 150 people had been infected and none had died. New Zealand has recorded just 18 deaths; public trust in Ardern’s government is greater than 80%.
In Germany, Angela Merkel has been hailed for direct but uncharacteristically personal public interventions, warning that up to 70% of people would contract the virus – the country’s “greatest challenge” since 1945 – and lamenting every death as that of “a father or grandfather, a mother or grandmother, a partner …”
Thanks to extensive testing from the outset, plenty of intensive care beds, and the chancellor’s periodic forthright reminders that Covid-19 was “serious – so take it seriously”, Germany has so far recorded fewer than 5,000 deaths, a far lower figure than most EU countries.