“I did a little dance,” said New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, when asked how she reacted after she learned that her country had essentially banished COVID-19 from its leafy shores on June 8. She added that her young daughter, Neve, somewhat confused, eventually joined her. It was a classic Ardern moment, slyly funny, a dollop of humanity within a large serving of gravity.
Ardern’s comment was also a soft power mic-drop. Her style of leadership, which emphasizes authenticity, the importance of trust, and the priority of the common good, seems to have been well-suited to the pandemic: New Zealand only ever had 1,154 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, which led to 22 lost lives. In fewer than 100 days, however, New Zealanders will get to decide at the polls whether it’s also the right style for the nation’s next challenge—overcoming the economic bludgeoning it has taken.
Few in New Zealand would quarrel with Ardern’s handling of the pandemic. She gave updates nearly every day at lunch, reminiscent of old wartime radio broadcasts, but via social media. Her messaging was clear: she laid out four phases of lockdown and the conditions that had to be met to proceed from one to the next. She leaned heavily on the scientific experts around her and deferred to their knowledge. She let New Zealanders know that she was talking to leaders from all over the world, seeking the best possible data. If her compassion-led response to the Christchurch massacre showed that she was in touch with her heart, her science-led response to the virus telegraphed that she also knew when to trust her brain.
For now, the Prime Minister is focusing solely on domestic affairs. The issues that plagued New Zealand before the pandemic still remain: child poverty, unequal treatment of Maori and Pacific island people by the criminal justice system, widespread homelessness, a high rate of youth suicide. It very much looks like having dispatched the coronavirus, Ardern will get a chance to take on problems for which there will never be a vaccine.