COVID-19 — These 3 Leaders Deserve Most Praise
Updated: 16th June 21
New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has received high praise for her leadership during the pandemic. Early travel restrictions and prompt lockdowns were effective circuit-breakers and spared New Zealand the catastrophic waves most of us have endured. Ardern communicates with clarity and compassion. It’s easy to see why she’s adored.
However, while singing her praises myself, the sceptic in me started to weigh in:
“Hasn’t she also had everything in her favour? New Zealand being a hot, wealthy, easy-to-isolate island nation, who got their 1st case weeks after things went bananas for everyone else?”
Favourable outcomes often come hand-in-hand with good luck and it can be hard to see this clearly. We tend to overpraise those who are fortunate and underpraise those whose odds were stacked against them.
Have we given credit where credit is due?
It’s hard to say.
Luckily, as any Moneyball fan will appreciate — data analysis can cut straight through our biases — highlighting players who may be underrated.
Who expected the worst outcomes?
To compare how well each country handled the virus, I modelled the death rates each country expected, using variables likely to affect the outcomes.
- Average yearly temperature
- Population age (median)
- Prevalence of obesity in adults
- No. of land neighbours
- Date of first 100 cases
- Population density
- Human Development Index
- Democracy Index
- Tourism — International arrivals
After much experimenting, a model based on the first four gave the best predictions. This reduces overfitting.
Worst Positioned Countries
Of the 140 countries in the model, Russia expected the highest death rates. Then Germany, China, Austria and France.
Explore this dashboard here.
Russia’s death rate is higher than the model predicted but in the ballpark of what was likely.
Total isolation probably wasn’t on the cards with 14 land neighbours. Whereas many island nations, like the UK, missed crucial opportunities to stamp out the virus.
In many cases, IHME estimates reveal dramatic underreporting and highlight problems with WHO data. Again, Russia is a good example:
IHME have built on excess mortality data to give death estimates for each country. Their work is impressive and results appear more credible than WHO reporting. This work uses IHME data.
I’ve used the word Actual for clarity, but of course, nobody knows the true figures. Their estimates may still be prone to error. However, in my view IHME estimates are game-changers. Hopefully, they bring us closer to a true picture.
Using IHME data — Russia has the 3rd highest total deaths — behind India and the US.
20 Most Successful Countries
This table shows the difference between modelled and actual death rates as a measure of success. Ratios also provide a useful lens. You can explore them here.
You can also see which countries:
- Had the highest total deaths.
- Had the highest death rates.
- Expected the worst (or best) outcomes based on population age, obesity and position.
Countries highlighted in green had female leaders for most or all of 2020.
Given women represent 15% of total leadership and 40% of the top table — it’s clear female leadership had a significant impact. Including this in the model would give better estimates — but this would be holding women to a higher standard.
A closer look at the top 5
#1 — China
In top 3 leaders: No
Deserves praise: Hard to say
China is the messiest case and by far the hardest to analyse.
Many suspect underreporting, but China is one of the few countries with WHO deaths higher than IHME estimates.
This indicates credible reporting.
If we didn’t have specifics about initial actions —Xi might be in line for most effective response. It is astounding that China managed to contain the virus so efficiently after it breached Wuhan. Though this was the result of an authoritarian regime and draconian enforcement of lockdowns. This doesn’t inspire praise.
It’s not clear how to split accountability between local and central government for the silencing of Dr Li. Xi condemns local government and deflects responsibility, but local officials are strongly incentivised to comply with Xi’s wishes. They likely thought they were.
For Western comparisons, if the silencing had happened in New Zealand, it would be preposterous for local officials to believe they were acting on Ardern’s behalf. It would have been less absurd in the U.S. under Trump. Leaders are accountable for the confusion that arises when they fail to promote transparency and trust.
#2 — New Zealand
In top 3 leaders: Yes — #1
“To me, leadership is not about necessarily being the loudest in the room, but instead being the bridge, or the thing that is missing in the discussion and trying to build a consensus from there.”
It turns out, New Zealander’s didn’t have as much in their favour as my inner sceptic imagined. They were much better off than Russia or Germany, but if things had unfolded differently — they could easily have experienced higher-than-average deaths rates (1669 per M).
New Zealand isn’t as hot as I imagined. 7°C is the worst average temperature for COVID. With an 11°C average, the virus could easily thrive.
The high levels of obesity and ageing population meant New Zealanders would have been particularly vulnerable if the virus had taken hold. Ardern played her strongest card perfectly and clearly deserves the top spot.
In top 3 leaders: Yes — #2
35-year-old Sanna Marin has an incredible story. She became the world’s youngest PM in Dec 2019 — while the COVID crisis was brewing.
Marin is a testament to the Finnish emphasis on people, education and equality. On Dec 15th, she tweeted:
“I am extremely proud of Finland. Here, a child from a poor family can go a long way in education and reach many things in their lives. A cashier can even become prime minister.”
Her 85% approval rating matches Finland’s impressive results. Marin looks set for international acclaim in the next few years. She represents the type of leadership we need to effectively address climate change — citing this as her government’s top priority.
In top 3 leaders: Yes — #3
Erna Solberg is the 3rd leader whose impact most deserves recognition. She led Finlands, “most far-reaching measures ever experienced in peacetime.”
Solberg’s government opted for early lockdowns — closing schools, ports, airports, and borders. This was sufficient to get the virus under control.
Solberg has reshaped liberal conservatism in Norway by emphasising care and compassion. Her style translates well to COVID management where decisive action, firm boundaries and empathic communication were fundamental to success.
“A world that fully respects the human rights of all is a world better prepared to recover from all crises. We must leave no one behind. #HumanRightsDay #RecoverBetter”
#5 — Germany
In top 3 leaders: Just missed — #4
Angela Merkel is the final leader who’s highlighted for recognition. Germany expected the 2nd worst outcome and their actual death rate is much lower than expected.
Germany has a COVID friendly average of 9°C. It has the world’s 3 oldest population and 9 land neighbours. Given the odds were heavily stacked against her: Angela Merkel did an outstanding job!
A scientist herself, Merkel focused on expertise and no-nonsense communication:
“We are seeing at the moment that the pandemic can’t be fought with lies and disinformation, and neither can it be with hatred and agitation.”
“Fact-denying populism is being shown its limits.”
Merkel is set to retire from office this year. Her farewell speech was met with a standing ovation and 6-minute applause. She will be sorely missed.
Countries Where Things Went Wrong
The model also highlights which leaders have mismanaged the crisis. Poor communication, distrust and incompetence are themes in this group:
20 Least Successful Countries
While there is a lot to learn from failures — I’d prefer to highlight where criticism may have been harsh.
These countries all have high death rates but performed above the modelled expectation.
The United Kingdom and Belgium are particularly noteworthy here. Ironically, their high accuracy in WHO reporting cast them in unflattering light compared to most countries underreporting. A big thank you to IHME here!
Top 3 leaders
In this analysis, 3 leaders shine brightest: Jacinda Ardern, Sanna Marin, and Erna Solberg. COVID highlights why social mobility and healthy competence hierarchies are crucial. We need to think freely, build diverse perspectives and choose leaders wisely.
As is usually the case — there is a lot to learn from Scandinavia. This time demonstrating how to lead through a crisis.
If you want to explore the data in detail: go here to see how each country compares.