RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The coronavirus pandemic has tested leaders around the world. How they respond to the crisis impacts the health and well-being of their people, but also these leaders' support. Many of them have gotten a boost in the opinion polls even while, in democracies at least, coming under fierce criticism for their handling of the crisis.
Other leaders, though, seem to have managed to capture something more intangible than just better poll numbers. They've demonstrated empathy with their voters, showing unexpected strength or wisdom or capturing the national mood. We've got three correspondents with us to talk about this aspect of leadership in crisis - Julie McCarthy, Anthony Kuhn and Frank Langfitt. Good morning to all three of you.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Good morning.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So, Julie, let's start with someone you cover as our correspondent in Southeast Asia, the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern. What's been her response to the crisis thus far?
MCCARTHY: Well, Rachel, she's been called the master class for leaders on how to handle crisis. Empathy seems to naturally flow from her. And we saw that when she was consoling mourners of that terrible mass shooting in Christchurch last year. And this week, she's cut her pay by 20% in solidarity with COVID-19 patients.
But Jacinda Ardern, she's no touchy-feely lightweight. She has a steely resolve - last year, tightening gun laws, this year, setting the bar at eliminating, not just mitigating, the coronavirus. That's meant, you know, sudden unprecedented changes in people's lives. But health experts laud that goal and her clear messaging. Ardern warned, if community transmission was not checked, cases will double every five days. And thousands of New Zealanders will die.
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PRIME MINISTER JACINDA ARDERN: Our plan is simple. We can stop the spread by staying at home and reducing contact. These decisions will place the most significant restrictions on New Zealanders' movements in modern history. But it is our best chance to slow the virus and to save lives.
MCCARTHY: She then ran through a complete guide on how to survive isolation from getting groceries to fresh air. She's giving direction, Rachel. And it's instilled trust. People broadly comply with the lockdown. And it is...
MCCARTHY: ...Breaking the chain of transmission.
MARTIN: Frank, let's turn to you. Someone else - another leader who showed, perhaps, unexpected strength, though, in this case, the Irish prime minister. Tell us about him.
LANGFITT: Yeah. Leo Varadkar. You know, he's done it in a couple of ways, Rachel. Before he was a politician, he was a doctor. And so he's gone back to work, doing about an hour of week, doing phone consultations. Now, his critics, they see this as a cynical ploy. But it seems to have gone over pretty well with the public. And big change really came when he gave the St. Patrick Day speech. And he connected his family to the crisis. He was able to paraphrase Churchill. And he was able to sort of seem more human and personable to people. This is what he said.
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PRIME MINISTER LEO VARADKAR: My partner, my two sisters and both their husbands are working in the health service here in Ireland and in the U.K. They are all apprehensive. This is the calm before the storm, before the surge. And when it comes - and it will come - never will so many ask so much of so few.
MARTIN: I remember watching that, actually. It had been circulating on my social media feeds. And I found it - it was very personal, wasn't it?
LANGFITT: It was. And it went over well with the Irish public. And I talked to political observers. I was just in Ireland a number of weeks ago before the lockdown. And they said this was the best speech that they'd seen from Irish prime minister in many years. And before, Varadkar was seen kind of as a slick cosmopolitan. Some people found him smarmy. And this seems to be a bit of a turning point in the way he's seen. Gary Murphy, he teaches Irish politics at Dublin City University. This was his take on the speech.
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GARY MURPHY: He liked going to London and he liked going to Washington. He liked being on the large stage. But he didn't have a feel for how people really lived. What's happened, I think, since the coronavirus crisis is that he has been front and center of it. And just the general tone he struck, he seems to have turned around the perception of himself.
MARTIN: Anthony, let's talk about South Korea. The president there, Moon Jae-in, before the pandemic, his diplomacy with North Korea had stalled. Economic growth was not doing so great. And yet his party just won a general election.
KUHN: Right. And clearly, it's tied to his handling of the epidemic. And if these parliamentary elections had been held in late February, when there were about - when there were 900 new cases coming out a day, he probably would not have scored this big landslide he did at a time now when cases are below 30 a day.
And another really smart thing he did that read the public mood correctly was to move quickly on announcing emergency relief for citizens before the real economic impact is felt here. And as a result, everyone in South Korea, except for the richest 30%, is going to get $820 in emergency payments. And that's going down well.
MARTIN: And so he has been able to connect with voters, too, in a personal way somehow?
KUHN: Yeah. But in a different way. I mean, his public persona is about projecting quiet competence, not charisma. And it helps that South Korea has been relatively well-prepared for this pandemic. And therefore, Moon could step aside and let the health authorities do their job. And that has freed up President Moon to field phone calls from people, including President Trump, asking for a COVID test kits and YouTube singer Bono asking for protective gear. And these - the symbolism of these calls has not been lost on voters, I think.
MARTIN: Julie, is there a thread? I mean, these are three very different countries. But is there a thread we can look to among these examples about why the leaders in these countries seem to have success in this moment?
MCCARTHY: Well, I think there's clear, robust messaging and empathy. Maybe the Irish prime minister starts to make house calls, Frank. But remember, New Zealand, Ireland, South Korea - these are small, relatively homogeneous places. Public buy-in is easier than in big, very diverse places like the U.S. or Brazil. But highly evolved countries like these three make outbreaks manageable. They also have big GDPs, which means decent health care systems. And citizens feel they may be taken care of. Many countries don't have that financial advantage. But New Zealand is instructive for the seriousness of the lockdown, which is not to say people aren't getting antsy. After 22 days, they are.
MARTIN: And Frank, just briefly, you're in Britain - Boris Johnson, the prime minister, actually got sick, had to go to the ICU with COVID-19. Has his message changed any way as a result of living this experience?
LANGFITT: Yeah. His tone has changed. When he came back - got back to his place where he stays outside of London, he was a much more sober guy. This is a guy who comes off, often - can come off as a mischievous schoolboy. He seemed much more serious about it. The question is, what will his tone be when he's back in Number 10 Downing Street? And does he revert to type? And there's a bit of skepticism around here as to whether he'll really be a very different guy when he gets back to work.
MARTIN: Frank Langfitt, Julie McCarthy, Anthony Kuhn, thank you.
MCCARTHY: Thank you.
KUHN: Thank you, Rachel.
LANGFITT: You're very welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "PATH OF TOTALITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.