The unexpected key to fighting a pandemic: Compassion

Why We Wrote This

Our global columnist picks out clarity, coherence, and compassion as qualities that distinguish leaders who have coped well with the pandemic. But the greatest of these is compassion.

Mark Baker/AP
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, (left), talks with colleagues at a cafe in Auckland, New Zealand, on Oct. 18, 2020. Ms. Ardern won a second term in office in an election landslide, based on the popularity of her leadership during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Compassion. In today’s political atmosphere it is a quality that seems almost quaint. But when you look at the leaders around the world who have coped well with COVID-19, compassion keeps coming up.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister who just won a landslide election victory, has been one of the best at showing compassion. Along with other leaders such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, she has mixed it in with a clear message and a coherent policy to combat the pandemic.

These leaders have been able to persuade their citizens to follow social distancing rules and to wear masks, because by displaying compassion themselves, they have been able to elicit that quality in their fellow citizens. And only if you love your neighbors do you take the trouble to protect them.

Ms. Ardern has won recognition from a world expert in compassion, who sent a message congratulating her on her election victory and praising her “calm, compassion and respect for others.”

It came from the Dalai Lama.

It’s been a long, fiercely contested election campaign, inevitably dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And we already know the result.

No, not the campaign for November’s election in America, but last Saturday’s vote in the Pacific island nation of New Zealand. There, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won a landslide of historic proportions. And her victory offered a critically important lesson for leaders worldwide on politics in the time of the coronavirus.

A series of lessons in fact: Leadership matters. The kind of leadership matters. And while even the right kind can’t save every life, nor avert deep economic and social pain, it will, in the end, be rewarded with understanding and support from most citizens.

Ms. Ardern, who led her Labour Party to its highest vote share in five decades, is the clearest example. But there are others: Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany, for instance; K.K. Shailaja, the health minister in the southwest Indian state of Kerala; or individual governors in the United States such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo.

The course of the pandemic has differed from place to place. Germany and Kerala, though suffering far lower losses than their neighbors, are now dealing with a further wave of infections. New York isn’t entirely out of the woods either. But their leaders have taken a broadly similar approach to Ms. Ardern’s.

You could call it the “three C’s”: clarity, coherence, and – a quality that seems almost quaint in today’s political atmosphere – compassion.

First, clarity. Clarity of message, calmly and consistently delivered. Prime Minister Ardern and the others essentially told their citizens: This virus spreads from person to person. The only way to confront it is to stay away from one another, even locking down as necessary. That’s going to be tough. It’s going to be painful, for all of us. But I need you, and we need one another, to do this together.

Then, coherence: adopting specific measures – ranging from social distancing and wearing masks, testing and tracking, to lockdowns – and sticking with them even if people get impatient and start demanding that the rules be relaxed.

Which is partly why so much depends upon compassion, leaders’ ability to convey a sense that their people are facing a shared challenge in pursuit of a singular aim: protecting family and friends, neighbors and fellow citizens. Saving lives.

In some places that has come over as something closer to tough love. Kerala’s Health Minister Shailaja hasn’t minced her words in recent days when decrying the “huge laxity” shown by the public during an August religious festival, as well as a series of political rallies, which are threatening a new wave of cases.

But when it comes to Ms. Shailaja, a former high school science teacher, her underlying humanity has never been in doubt. She won national fame managing another virus two years ago – by personally visiting terrified villagers at the start of the outbreak to reassuringly explain the threat and how it could be turned back.

In Germany, Chancellor Merkel has always seemed slightly uncomfortable with public displays of emotion. Still, her political nickname – Mutti, German for “mom” – points to the calming, maternal influence she enjoys with the public.

As social gatherings among young people feed a potential second wave of COVID-19, she addressed them directly last week: “Isn’t it worth being a bit patient now?” she asked. “Everything will come back – partying, going out, fun without coronavirus rules. But right now, something else matters most: being mindful of one another, and sticking together.”

Governor Cuomo’s daily news briefings, at the height of the pandemic in New York earlier this year, did project the need for people to stay tough – “New York Tough.” But on more than one occasion he reminded his audience that part of being strong was the capacity to show fellow-feeling, to care.

“At the end of the day, my friends, even if it is a long day, love wins,” he told a press conference in March. “And it will win again, through this virus.”

Still, it is Ms. Ardern who provides the most dramatic example of clear, coherent, and compassionate leadership showing results. Only 25 lives have been lost to the pandemic in New Zealand.

From early February – the day after a man in the Philippines became the first COVID-19 fatality outside China – she announced a steadily tightening series of limits on foreign visitors, along with a quarantine system for arrivals. By late March she had imposed a national lockdown, even though New Zealand had by then registered only a hundred cases and no deaths.

The prime minister herself delivered regular video messages offering explanation and empathy: on one occasion she spoke from a bedroom in her family home. Though restrictions were looser by June, a resurgence of cases prompted a second, three-week lockdown in August. Yet by the election, everyday life was back to normal after three weeks without a new infection. 

One case was reported that day, a port worker, who was immediately placed in isolation along with his family members. This week, two of the man’s work and social contacts also tested positive, as did a number of fishing-crew workers arriving on a flight from Moscow – all sent to be housed in government-run quarantine quarters.

Despite her success in limiting the spread of COVID-19, Ms. Ardern now faces other challenges, above all dealing with the pandemic’s severe economic costs. The economy, particularly dependent on tourism, is now in recession. Rising numbers of people are claiming state benefits.

The early signs suggest she will seek to tackle those challenges the same way she responded to the pandemic. If a victory-night speech emphasizing the importance of respecting opponents’ views is any indication, she will seek to build consensus. With compassion.

As is traditional, a slew of congratulatory messages flowed in on election night from around the world. But one stood out. It was from the Dalai Lama, who praised her “courage, wisdom and leadership.”

He added that he also admired “the calm, compassion and respect for others she has shown in these challenging times.”

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