As the people of New Zealand prepared to go into lockdown in March, their prime minister Jacinda Ardern went live on Facebook from her sofa. “I thought I’d jump online and just check in with everyone, really, as we all prepare to hunker down for a few weeks,” she said, smiling warmly into the selfie camera in a well-worn sweatshirt after seeing her daughter off to sleep. “Excuse the casual attire, it can be a messy business putting toddlers to bed.”
The contrast with Boris Johnson’s locker-room-style pep talks and blokey Westminster briefings couldn’t have been more stark. Only three of his government’s 92 Covid press conferences have been led by women, and ministers have been accused of macho behaviour throughout the crisis. Yet it is Ardern’s nation that has weathered the storm. Out of a population of five million, New Zealand has recorded 22 deaths since the start of the pandemic. Among the other least affected countries are Iceland, Taiwan, Finland, Denmark and Germany — all led by women.
So how did Ardern and her fellow female leaders build their Covid-fighting femocracies? No press-ups or black belt boasting, for a start. While Johnson has been accused of avoiding scrutiny by “dodging” daily briefings, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has won respect for slogging through almost all of her country’s press conferences. She’s also been praised for her more cautious easing of lockdown restrictions — a poll last month found most UK citizens thought Scotland had handled the pandemic better than England.
Iceland has also been heralded for acing its handling of Covid-19, recording just 10 deaths. Its prime minister Katrin Jakobsdóttir was quick to act, offering free testing to all citizens, while Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen and Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin both followed Ardern’s lead, moving quickly to impose travel bans. Their measures might have been stricter than many countries’, but their delivery was softer. Ardern has held Kiwis’ hands through the pandemic, delivering non-preachy video messages from her living room and non-combative press conferences. If a staff member walks in during a Facebook Live, she’ll introduce them to viewers, and when a reporter forgot his question in a recent briefing, Ardern joked and told him she hoped he was getting enough sleep.
Like the Kiwi leader, Marin has been hot on social media, enlisting the help of Finnish YouTubers to spread her stay-at-home message, while Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen — widely praised for the country’s low death rate of 370 — has posted fun clips of herself dancing and doing the dishes on Facebook during weekly TV lockdown singalongs.
Even German chancellor Angela Merkel, known for her scientific test-based approach, has been heralded for her “searingly empathic” style at briefings. Her speeches have been frank — warning that up to 70 per cent of people would contract the virus — but personal, lamenting every death as that of “a father of grandfather, a mother or grandmother, a partner…” A clip of her explaining the scientific basis behind her exit strategy was shared thousands of times online.
She and many female leaders have also been praised for taking time to reassure. Ardern and Norwegian PM Erna Solberg have both addressed children personally: Ardern gave the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy “essential worker” status; Solberg held press conferences for kindergarten children.
And Denmark’s Frederiksen wasn’t afraid to tackle a subject bothering sexually frustrated adults in lockdown. Unlike Matt Hancock blushing as he handed the couples question to medical officer Jenny Harries, Frederiksen addressed adults’ needs head on. “Sex is good, sex is healthy,” her director-general of health told a briefing, explaining how even singles who have a relatively high number of sexual partners should not feel inhibited by social distancing. “As with any other human contact, there is a risk of infection. But of course one must be able to have sex.” The best part? She gave the job to a man to announce. Now that’s a femocracy.