Heroes of the COVID-19 response: the women you know, and some you may not… yet

Since countries began to lockdown in an attempt to control COVID-19, the Centre for Public Impact has been monitoring responses to the virus. We have witnessed a range of innovative approaches from local to national levels, and perhaps one of the most significant conclusions we have found is the success of women leaders in managing this crisis.

As women who work in an organisation where we aim to help changemakers to reimagine governments so that they are more legitimate, value complexity and human relationships, and work for everyone, we were proud of these successes. It has been inspiring to learn about female government leaders and frontline workers who have capitalised on human-centred values to minimise the impacts of COVID-19.

From Angela Merkel’s clear and truthful ‘It’s serious. Take it seriously.’ approach resulting in lower deaths in Germany than its European neighbours, to Norway’s Erna Solberg allowing scientists to make medical decisions and directly reassuring children that it is ‘okay to be scared’; kindness and decisiveness have been at the heart of their leadership. But, these are only some of the most famous examples. In this article, we want to share some other women leaders who have conveyed clear messaging, offered clear, rational guidance, and been inspiring figures throughout this pandemic.

Images: Twitter; Personal; UNECA; Twitter; Age UK

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

In New Zealand we have moved to fight by going hard, and going early.

A list of successful women leaders over the past months wouldn’t be complete without Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s youngest ever female prime minister. Under her leadership, the country locked down early at only six cases back in March 2020, and to date new arrivals are required to quarantine for 14 days despite being declared virus-free.

On top of this, she has maintained transparency with the public through daily communications. Whether a Facebook Live stream urging people to “stay home, save lives”, or asking them to look after one another as a shared responsibility to unite the country; Jacinda has assured people that she is a trustworthy leader, and an emotional human being just like themselves.

Through clear and decisive actions, coupled with a kindness-first approach, Jacinda’s government has successfully contained the virus. Today, there have been 1,557 confirmed cases in NZ.

Ruby De Guzman, Nurse working in a COVID-19 ward in the UK

At first, we were scared to admit coronavirus patients, but it’s our job and we have to do it. Eventually, these fears were taken over by the care and compassion we have for our patients, and we began to cope.

Frontline health workers have been exceptionally praised throughout this crisis, closely and intensely caring for coronavirus patients. “When we found out that we were going to be working in a coronavirus ward, we felt unsure. There were lots of panic attacks and anxieties, especially from me. We were all scared to go to work,” explained Ruby, a Band 6 Senior Nurse (and mother of one of the authors).

It was overwhelming to learn about the sacrifice Ruby has taken to help others. Despite worries about inadequate personal protective equipment, and the emotional difficulty of seeing the health of patients deteriorate, Ruby and her colleagues remain resilient. She describes preventing families from meeting as one of her hardest tasks; “Eldery married couples want to see their husbands and wives one last time, but I can’t allow it, especially because they have underlying health conditions. They want to be with their loved ones but instead they have me by their side.”

However, Ruby praised her manager for encouraging open communication and team work which has enabled an emotionally-safe workplace; “She has been really supportive because she empathises with the staff. As a team, we share our anxieties to help us cope emotionally and physically, and our manager tries to give us as much information as possible so that we’re protected. From the beginning, we acknowledged that we all felt scared. I knew I wasn’t alone.” 

It has been inspiring to hear about the values of a more human-centred approach to management for nurses like Ruby, whose anxieties have been reassured by support and solidarity from colleagues. To protect their patients, their teams and themselves is no easy feat, and the bravery of frontline workers must never go forgotten.

Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa

This is a time to be bold. It is a time when we need to come together to ask if we are responding to the call of the youth.

Through passionate and inclusive leadership, Vera Songwe is the first woman to head the United Nations (UN) Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). 

Vera has drawn inspiration from Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. in recent public statements, with their visions as relevant now in 2020. Her leadership in ensuring Africa grows back and builds back better in its COVID-19 recovery will not be easy. In considering the UN Sustainable Development Goals, COVID-19, and the myriad of challenges and opportunities from the 54 countries that make up the ECA; the decade ahead will be defined by decisions made today. 

Vera has astutely recognised the importance of this, and of young people’s influence in building back better. “The challenges confronting our young people today will require them to be dynamic, patriotic and having the welfare of their communities at heart.” 

This is a bold statement for children and teenagers, who often feel powerless or without a voice. It is important to harness their digital skills and enable them to become the innovators who find solutions to rebuild their communities. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us, and the technological aptitude and ease of access to the internet, mobile phones and IT systems will empower the next generation of African leaders. Vera is clearing the path to enable that future.

Gladys Berjiklian, Premier of New South Wales in Australia

Digital infrastructure is critical to any governments’ ability to meet the needs of its citizens.

As one of only two female heads of government currently serving in Australia, Gladys Berjiklian has had to face dual challenges in the New South Wales (NSW) community this year. From a summer of devastating bushfires, to the COVID-19 pandemic; both people and the environment are suffering. Despite this, Australian values of mateship, humility and authenticity continue to shine. NSW towns and suburbs are tight-knit, and neighbours take care of each other in times of crisis. 

Gladys’ leadership has demonstrated strong innovation cultural themes of a citizen-centered response, cutting through red tape and delivering at pace for citizens across NSW. From delivering consistent public messages, to an easy-to-navigate ServiceNSW website, her investment in decisive and visible action has provided hope to those in the community.

Jane Caldwell, CEO of Age UK East London in the UK

I take my lead from a woman aged 101 who had three care visits a day. In the first week of COVID, she asked whether she could donate her evening visit to someone who needed it more.

Age UK is a federation of around 140 independent charities supporting older people across the country. Jane Caldwell is the CEO of Age UK East London, working with over 9,000 older people in hospitals, the community and their homes, as well as a member of the CPI People’s Panel. Though East London boroughs are vibrant and diverse, they have the highest deprivation of income for older people in England.

Jane and her team responded swiftly to COVID-19; expanding services in hospitals, and increasing support for those at home. They mobilised faster than many health and social care systems, immediately providing humanitarian support to other groups made vulnerable by COVID-19 including rough sleepers, those with no recourse to public funds, and women escaping domestic violence. “All staff working on the frontline were given the option to be re-deployed, none were furloughed and everyone was given full pay when isolating. As a leader, I felt it was important to carry the voices of those who have been disproportionately affected by the virus.”

Jane’s leadership rests on the values of “resilience, inclusivity, humour, empathy and understanding that getting the best outcome is more important than winning an argument”, as well as the abilities to manage anger and self-regulate. She highlights the importance of taking responsibility and swift decision-making; “It helps that I lead an organisation of creative problem solvers. I could act quickly and be a step ahead because we think about the whole person. For example, I asked commissioners for a slush fund to buy whatever needed for whoever needed in the first few weeks, whether toilet roll and tampons, or phones and SIM cards.”

Age UK East London’s coronavirus response has proved successful, having taken more than 1,300 people home from hospitals, and delivered over 80,000 meals.

Why the COVID-19 recovery needs more women leaders

“Political research in spheres beyond global health shows that when you get more women at the top there’s more transparency, accountability and good governance practices, normally” states Clare Wenham, Assistant Professor in Global Health Policy at the London School of Economics. This is evident in studies showing that on average, women use five of nine leadership behaviours that improve organisational performance more often than men, including people development and participative decision-making.

In addition, though women make up less than 7% of the world’s leaders, four of the top ten countries that have succeeded in their COVID-19 responses are female-led; minimising cases and negative impacts through decisive actions and clear communications.

Whether a Prime Minister or a frontline worker, Jacinda, Ruby, Vera, Gladys and Jane have demonstrated the ability of women to successfully manage crises, all the while supporting and carrying the trust of those they are leading.