From sugarcoating to brutal honesty, leaders navigate coronavirus crisis

Megan Specia, The New York Times

Posted at Apr 18 2020 06:06 PM | Updated as of Apr 18 2020 06:36 PM

From sugarcoating to brutal honesty, leaders navigate coronavirus crisis 1
This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19. isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. Credit: NIAID-RML

World leaders have spent the past several weeks grappling with the unexpected as country after country has seen the coronavirus arrive at its borders and an outbreak has exploded into a pandemic.

With the virus endangering citizens’ health and lockdowns ravaging the global economy, heads of government have taken different approaches in televised addresses and news briefings as they have explained their plans for combating the threat.

“The main questions for these leaders,” said Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the London-based Institute for Government, “is, can they convey a clear message and give people the reassurance they need while admitting this is an incredibly fast-moving, difficult world of real unknowns?”

They also must “show that they understand that this is a massive human tragedy,” she added.

It’s “quite a difficult balancing act,” she said. ​

​In the United States, ​President Donald Trump’s mercurial messages ​have been widely contrasted with the detailed briefings by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. But ​elsewhere in the world, leaders ​have also taken ​approaches that run the gamut — from dismissive to serious to somber to combative — offering insights into governing in a time of crisis.

From sugarcoating to brutal honesty, leaders navigate coronavirus crisis 2
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a news conference on the ongoing situation with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in London, Britain, March 22, 2020. Ian Vogler, Pool/Reuters/File


Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain has been criticized for his mixed messaging, including by Rutter, who saw it as lacking transparency.

In one of his first news conferences about the virus, he talked about a “clear plan” to contain it but detailed few concrete measures. Britain lagged behind neighboring European nations in fighting the virus, even as it became clear the country was poised for a major outbreak.

Early on, Johnson also talked about the values of “herd immunity,” suggesting that allowing many in Britain to be exposed to the virus would help build immunity. He told the nation matter-of-factly, “Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

Days later, he reversed course, putting the nation on lockdown and ordering Britons to stay at home.

After he contracted COVID-19 and spent days in intensive care, Johnson’s video message this week turned more personal. He detailed his own battle with the illness and thanked the nurses who looked after him.

Still, the addresses of the head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, rather than those of Johnson, the head of government, have seemed to tug more at people’s heartstrings.

In mid-March, the 93-year-old queen, sequestered outside London at Windsor Castle, appealed for national solidarity, a resolute and apolitical alternative to Johnson’s message. She made an encore appearance a week later and compared Britain’s lockdown to the sacrifices Britons made during World War II.

“Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones,” the queen said. “But now, as then, we know deep down that it is the right thing to do.”

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New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks in a live streaming message to New Zealanders, amid a lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New Zealand, at Wellington, Australia, March 25, 2020, in this still image from video obtained via social media. Jacinda Ardern/Reuters


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed New Zealanders on March 21 from the prime minister’s office, the first time since 1982 that a leader had chosen that setting, and outlined a clear, serious and preemptive plan for dealing with the coronavirus.

“Over the past few weeks, the world has changed and it has changed very quickly,” she said. “In New Zealand, we have moved to fight by going hard and going early. ”

Her address unfurled with clarity, empathy and, most important, specifics. She has continued to host weekly question-and-answer sessions from her home over Facebook, donning a sweatshirt in one after putting her daughter to bed. On Wednesday, she announced plans to take a 20 percent pay cut for 6 months, along with her ministers, to acknowledge those who have lost jobs.

“It is about leadership,” she said.

Alastair Campbell, who worked as the press secretary for Tony Blair when he was Britain’s prime minister, was one of several commentators who commended Ardern as expressing her messages clearly and having an empathetic approach. He wrote in the newspaper The Independent, “Ardern is surely one of, if not the, standout leaders of this crisis.”

New Zealand’s statistics are also standout, even given its relatively small size. Since the crisis began, the country has had just 1,000 confirmed cases and 9 deaths.

From sugarcoating to brutal honesty, leaders navigate coronavirus crisis 4
French President Emmanuel Macron talks with social workers and volunteers in charge of assisting the elderly in the area during a visit at a communal center for social action (CCAS) in La Courneuve near Paris as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in France, April 7, 2020. Gonzalo Fuentes, Pool/Reuters/File


President Emmanuel Macron of France has primarily addressed the nation since the epidemic began in 4 solemn televised speeches.

In his first, he announced stringent lockdown measures and was grim and resolute, invoking images of combat as he asserted that the country was “at war.”

But this week, in his latest appearance, Macron softened his martial tone, acknowledging that the government had made mistakes in distributing masks and protective gear to health workers and mentioning other logistical shortcomings.

“As soon as these problems were identified, we mobilized ourselves — the government, local authorities, companies, associations — to produce and to acquire the necessary supplies,” he said. “But I fully measure that, when you are on the front lines, it is hard to hear that a global shortage is preventing deliveries.”

He also spoke candidly about the challenges in planning ahead.

“When will we be able to go back to our prior life?” Macron asked. “Quite frankly, humbly, we have no definitive answer to that.”

This rare admission of error may be making him more popular in France, where his approval ratings are the highest since he entered office.

“He was always a very divisive figure before that, but I think the bit that Macron did well was to say, actually we weren’t as prepared as we should have been,” Rutter, the governance expert, said. “And he did admit mistakes.”

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President Rodrigo Duterte addresses the nation on the government's efforts against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Malago Clubhouse in Malacañang on April 16, 2020. Karl Norman Alonzo, Presidential Photo


For autocrats and strongmen, the pandemic has become an excuse to consolidate power further and extend their reach. For President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, it has become the latest stage on which to green-light extrajudicial killings, an issue throughout his time in office.

Initially dismissive of the coronavirus, Duterte reversed course late last month, introducing stringent measures, including a lockdown, in a bid to stem its spread. In an address earlier this month, he threatened those who considered breaking the lockdown, instructing the police and military to take matters into their own hands.

“Shoot them dead,” he said. “Do you understand? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I’ll send you to the grave.”

The government has since passed legislation giving Duterte emergency powers, $5.4 billion to deal with the pandemic and the ability to put in place even more draconian steps.

Paired with his public statements, Duterte’s actions have set off alarm bells for human rights organizations. Amnesty International called for Duterte to “immediately cease his dangerous incitement to violence.”

The Philippines has one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Southeast Asia and a weak and strained public health system. There is no widespread testing in the country.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a news conference after discussing with German state premiers on whether to prolong or phase-out the lockdown to combat COVID-19 at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, April 15, 2020, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Munich. Bernd von Jutrczenka, Pool/Reuters


Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany shocked some during one of her earliest news briefings on the outbreak when she outlined a stark possibility: In a worst-case situation, she said, up to 70 percent of the German population could become infected.

At a time when other leaders were hoping to lessen the blow in their messaging, she stood out. But her frankness put her in a strong position. It was also a comfortable position for her; she is a science-minded leader who studied physics and has a doctorate in quantum chemistry.

“This plays to a lot of Merkel’s strengths and in a sense the significant status she has in Germany,” Rutter said. “It plays to her sensible, scientific, very calm but authoritative style, and she is more naturally at home with the science, more than other leaders.”

Merkel went even further in a no-nonsense national address a week later, on March 18, the first during her 14 years in office.

“The situation is serious; take it seriously,” Merkel said, calling the crisis the biggest challenge facing Germans since World War II.

She has been rewarded for her candor. Since the outbreak began, her approval ratings have gone through the roof, rising 11 points from before the outbreak to a record 79 percent.

This week, as she laid out plans for a step-by-step loosening of the country’s lockdown measures, her attention to detail and her cautious plan to restart the economy were again heralded.

“Having grown up in communist East Germany,” wrote Judy Dempsey, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, “Merkel understands the balance between security and transparency.”