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Finn McRedmond: Ardern’s mode of leadership is not simply outdated, it is irresponsible too

Ardern can enact national policy but failing to adapt to change is not heroic

There was a strange episode during the pandemic where many ceded to the idea that women leaders were better at managing virus-stricken nations than their male counterparts.

Their feminine qualities of empathy and warmth stood in contrast to the men who were too hot-headed, power hungry and in possession of too much self-confidence to handle such a high-stakes climate.

It was, at least, a satisfying role reversal.

The Guardian noted that few countries with female leaders had fared badly under the clutches of coronavirus, though in hindsight we might think that April 2020 was perhaps a premature time to make such judgments. Jacinda Ardern, premier of New Zealand, emerged as the standard bearer of the Covid-19 heroines. In 2021 Forbes named her as the world’s greatest leader. The Atlantic wondered whether she was the most effective politician on the planet.

At this stage of the pandemic, Ardern's mode of leadership is not simply outdated and out of step, but cruel and irresponsible too

Ardern was lauded for closing borders early, successfully pursuing a zero-Covid strategy, effectively implementing lockdowns and keeping the death rate startlingly, and commendably, low. She managed all of this without breaking a smile, maintaining the soft touch everyone had come to love her for, kitschily reassuring children that the Easter Bunny could still visit because he was an essential worker.

This was all fine and good when the virus was an unknown quantity, the vaccines had not yet arrived, and the extent and form of the various mutations had not made themselves clear. But as the rest of the world moves in a different direction, bolstered with vaccines and a variant broadly believed to be less severe than its predecessors, Ardern has retreated to the virus trenches.

In August 2021 New Zealand entered a full lockdown after a single case was detected. Then, in October Ardern ditched her zero-Covid policy, finally catching up with the reality long accepted by almost everyone else that it was not a strategy conducive to a functioning society.

With the arrival of Omicron she has redoubled her efforts, announcing an isolation period of up to 24 days for household contacts of a case, and an effective re-closure of an already very tightly controlled border. All of this is in spite of a vaccination rate of 93 per cent in people over 12 years of age.

Believing women were inherently more capable of guiding a nation through a pandemic was an error of judgment that seems to have led us to some strange conclusions.

Writer Morgan Godfery praised Ardern’s soft touch in the Guardian, in comparison with authoritarians like “the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson”. The British prime minister is far from perfect, but if either of the pair have claim to the authoritarian mantle it is the former, not the latter.

The phenomenon that fretting about coronavirus more than anyone else is a badge of ideological superiority

More than anything, it is hard to shake the feeling that at this stage of the pandemic, Ardern’s mode of leadership is not simply outdated and out of step, but cruel and irresponsible too.

The cruelty emerges from many sources. Many have effectively been denied seeing families and loved ones thanks to New Zealand’s border closures. That alone is hard to justify nearly two years into a pandemic with other weapons against the virus at our disposal.

But there is something else pernicious in Ardern’s approach: keeping New Zealand in such limbo seems a surefire way to prevent people from psychologically moving on from the worst embraces of the pandemic.

The electorate are supposed to look to leaders for cool-headed guidance and moral leadership, not someone designing national policy driven by paroxysms of stress and fear. Shutting the borders and upping isolation periods to 24 days maintains and perpetuates a fiction that the pandemic has not moved on from March 2020, and that this cycle of waves and lockdowns is here for the long haul. That is not good for anyone’s brain.

And we might then ask what the point of the vaccine was ever supposed to be if it is presented as an insufficient tool that will always pale in comparison to lockdowns and border closures.

All of this seems to find its provenance in the phenomenon that fretting about coronavirus more than anyone else is a badge of ideological superiority. For Ardern the guiding principle seems that the strength of a nation’s ethos lives and dies on the number of positive tests it returns everyday. Ardern is entitled to enact her national policy.

It was perfectly suitable at the outset of the pandemic. But failing to adapt to changing circumstances is not heroic; and refusing to move on probably should not be praised for its inherent caution.

Because we should know by now that respiratory illnesses do not yield to catastrophising nor do they capitulate to needless theatre. And we know that the ultimate success of pandemic management is not just in elimination or suppression of a virus but a balance of competing sensibilities.

And most of all we should remember that no matter how much we furrow our brows or wring our hands, offering the appearance of caring more than anyone else isn’t a strategy.