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Policy in a Pandemic: Lessons in (Female) Leadership

One year ago today we released our first COVID update with little comprehension of the relentless tragedy to come. As we reviewed the last year, two remarkable facts stand out: the disproportionate price women have paid as economies have shuttered and the incredible feats of leadership woman have shown us all. We thought we should highlight the lessons of female leadership displayed during the last year.

  1. Set Big Goals – While many leaders sought to muddle their way through rising case counts and economic shutdowns, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had a different idea: COVID Zero. By eliminating the virus from their (admittedly island) nations, Tsai and Ardern were able to return their people to normalcy. So normal, in fact, that Taiwan hosted a 10,000-person music festival in November. Explaining New Zealand’s approach to COVID Zero, Prime Minister Ardern said that she didn’t worry if elimination was too lofty a goal, because the pursuit of the goal would still save lives: “the alternative is to set a lesser goal, and then still misfire.” Tsai and Ardern’s embrace of COVID Zero is a reminder to all that big, visionary goals are worth dreaming up – and worth pursuing.
  2. Take Calculated Risks – At a time when every day made the difference, British Columbia’s Chief Health Officer Bonnie Henry and Canadian Minister of Public Services and Procurement Anita Anand took calculated risks without having access to all the information. By early December, with no vaccines approved for use in Canada, Bloomberg was reporting that under Minister Anand’s leadership, Canada had reserved more vaccines per capita than any other country. The gamble paid off: within the next four months, Health Canada approved four of those vaccines. More recently, Dr. Bonnie Henry made the decision on March 1st to lead Canada and delay second doses of the vaccine in order to optimize the number of partially-vaccinated individuals. Dr. Henry’s call was met with intense criticism before the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommended the same interval between doses just two days later. If Prime Minister Trudeau delivers on his pledge to have everyone vaccinated by September, he owes a lot to these two decisive actions taken in the face of uncertainty.
  3. Have the Courage to Change Your Mind – On March 30, 2020, Teresa Tam recommended against general mask-wearing: “putting a mask on an asymptomatic person is not beneficial.” A week later, she was recommending the opposite: “Wearing a non-medical mask, even if you have no symptoms, is an additional measure that you can take to protect others around you.” What changed? Well, the science changed: public health officials were dealing with a once-in-generation pandemic, and in March 2020, new knowledge was spreading with about the same speed as the virus. While some commentators tried to discredit Dr. Tam for her “about-face,” good policy-making (and good decision-making) demands you to change your mind when you learn new information.
  4. It Isn’t All About You – Knowing your own limits is an essential characteristic of good leadership, but knowing how to fill those gaps is even better. When the pandemic first began, Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland and the world’s youngest head of state, knew her news conferences wouldn’t reach “all population groups” – so she enlisted the help of social media influencers to spread government-approved messages. Recognizing the importance of communicating fact-based information to young people, Finland went as far as defining social media influencers as “critical actors” (our version of “essential workers”), joining the likes of doctors, bus drivers, and grocery store workers. Across the way, in Iceland, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir turned not to social media influencers, but to tech: adopting a motto of “test, trace, and isolate”, the country offered free coronavirus testing to all of its citizens. The mass testing approach not only caught undetected cases, but also resulted in the collection of extremely valuable data that other countries, which were only testing symptomatic citizens, failed to gather.
  5. Shared Knowledge Builds Better Results – Knowledge loses values when it goes unshared, and this past year has been a masterclass in the power of trust and collaboration. Sarah Gilbert led the discovery of the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine (and even had enough confidence in the science to encourage her own adult triplets to enroll in the trial). Hannah Ritchie is the Head of Research at Our World in Data – the University of Oxford’s free open data source that keeps millions around the world (including us) informed of the quantitative impact of the pandemic. And, Frances Donald, Global Chief Economist at Manulife – Canada’s youngest – is doing her part to break down barriers in the field: in October, she launched a TedX talk entitled “You Are an Everyday Economist,” building on her assumption that each person plays a role in economic recovery, and therefore should be given the resources to understand how it works.
  6. Strength Means Sharing Power The pandemic has made it clear that smart policies only work if people are prepared to live by them. Between March 13 (Denmark’s shutdown of non-essential public sector work) and March 18 2020, (shutdown of private sector work), Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen consulted with labour unions, employer associations, and opposition parties to hear how an economic halt would impact their livelihoods, and to cultivate collective decision-making. When the full lockdown policy was released towards the end of March 2020, all ten opposition parties backed it with their support – an almost unheard of consensus. Furthermore, the innovative approach taken – where the Danish government agreed to pay up to 90% of worker’s wages and much of businesses’ fixed costs if employers agreed to keep employees who were not at the time working, on payroll – was later emulated by many other countries, including Canada.
  7. Look Out for Those Whose Voices Aren’t Heard – While the virus itself may not discriminate across race, gender, and class, economist Armine Yalnizyan noted the world would be remiss to not acknowledge that certain populations – women and visible minorities – have been hit significantly harder than others have. With women accounting for 62% of the jobs lost in February and March of 2020, Yalnizyan coined the term “she-cession” at the beginning of the pandemic. The term stuck, and Yalnizyan now sits on the federal government’s Task Force on Women in the Economy, where she will help develop a feminist, intersectional action plan – and, presumably, continue to spread her message that there will be “no recovery without a she-covery.”  As well, at the outset of the pandemic, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott spearheaded the province’s targeted action plan, entitled “Protecting Vulnerable Populations.” This included provisions for homeless shelters, Indigenous communities, and young people who were formerly in care, among others.
  8. Change is Possible Even in the Most Challenging Times – The United States has seen over 500,000 deaths from COVID-19, and in the midst of tragedy, held a general election with the highest voter turnout since 1900. Over the past half-decade, Stacey Abrams has led the move to register voters in Georgia, many of them from marginalized communities. From the 2014 general election to the 2020 general election, Georgia’s voter turnout increased from 40% to 74%.  Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith was appointed by President Joe Biden to lead the COVID-19 Equity Task Force – in the United States, Black and Latino persons are twice as likely to die from the virus than white Americans. While more than 107 million people in the US have already been vaccinated, recent numbers show that White Americans are almost twice as likely to be vaccinated as Black Americans, and the task force will be an important part of equalizing post-pandemic recovery. Finally, Vice-President Kamala Harris was elected as the first person of colour and woman to hold the office. COVID-19 has come at a time of political upheaval and national reckoning in the United States, and has left more and more people demanding substance to Vice President Harris’ rallying cry: for the people.
  9. Co-ordinate Policy Responses; Nurture Relationships – How do you solve a problem that has no regard for border controls, federalism, or provincial health transfers? According to now-Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, it’s simple: you work with your counterparts and co-ordinate your responses. Over the past year, Freeland has tirelessly made herself available to the country’s Premiers, going as far as promising that she would be on the phone with them whenever they need to talk – so long as they don’t mind her calling back late at night. Her actions have won her the respect of her provincial counterparts (Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently exclaimed, “I absolutely love Chrystia Freeland. She’s amazing. I’ll have her back, I’ll help her any way we can”), and, in turn, have made the federal government’s job of managing a national approach much easier.
  10. Communicate with Empathy, Truth, and Authenticity – In mid-March 2020, right when the world was falling apart, Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, hosted a news conference at her office. It was like any other news conference – she gave a speech, she took questions – except it wasn’t. This one was directed towards the nation’s children. Saying “it is OK to be scared” and answering pressing questions posed by the nation’s youth (“can I have a birthday party?”), Prime Minister Solberg demonstrated a level of empathy that was felt around the world. Empathy is one thing, but good crisis communications also requires truth and clarity. From day one, German Chancellor Angela Merkel best embodied this approach; while others downplayed the virus, Merkel stood up and calmly and steadily told Germans that COVID-19 is “serious” and must be taken “seriously.” Empathy, truth, and clarity can only be bested by authenticity – and it was New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who won on this metric, when, in an ode to all of us, she popped on to Facebook Live to answer questions – in her sweatpants.

Long after the last vaccines are injected into arms, the pandemic’s uneven impact on women will continue. The disproportionate harm placed on women, together with the outsized role female leaders have played, should continue to motivate us all to support and encourage women’s leadership as we forge the path ahead.

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