What is a mere earthquake to New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern? She’s dealt compassionately, rigorously, and effectively with mass shootings and a viral pandemic. Did you really think an earthquake would faze her? Who is Jacinda Ardern, and how has she led her country through chaotic times?
Who is Jacinda Ardern?
Jacinda Ardern was elected the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand in 2017, after having been a Member of Parliament since 2008. Her first political job was as a researcher for previous Prime Minister Helen Clark. When Ardern was elected Prime Minister — at age 37 — she was the youngest female head of government on Earth and just the second elected national leader to give birth in office.
Ardern has been called many things. The Telegraph called her New Zealand’s most popular leader in a century, a “global example of crisis leadership,” and a “modern-day beauty icon.”
The Atlantic described Ardern’s leadership style as “one of empathy in a crisis that tempts people to fend for themselves.” Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, for whom Arden once worked, talked to The Atlantic about Ardern’s way of speaking to the people. Arden, she said: “doesn’t preach at them; she’s standing with them.” An opinion columnist for The New York Times explained that Ardern has led the pack in the world’s response to the pandemic, saying: “The master class on how to respond belongs to Jacinda Ardern.”
How has Ardern managed to become a revered national and global leader from her position in New Zealand in times of crisis? With practice.
The Christchurch Mosque Shootings
On March 15, 2019, a lone gunman carried out attacks on two Christchurch, New Zealand, mosques: the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre. Fifty-one people were killed; forty-nine more were injured. A 28-year-old man named Brenton Tarrant —described as white supremacist —was arrested. He live-streamed the Al Noor Mosque shooting on Facebook.
Within hours, Ardern addressed the stunned nation and gave a powerful rejection of the heinous attacks. Speaking to the terrorist, she said: “You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you.” When she addressed New Zealand’s Parliament for the first time after the massacre, she began with “As-salaam alaikum” — an Arabic greeting meaning “peace be upon you.” Ardern’s speeches to New Zealand — and the worldwide audience — after the massacre were powerful and moving. In the immediate aftermath, she gave a statement that included the now-famous statement about the victims, who likely included refugees and migrants: “They are us.”
The Coronavirus Pandemic
By mid-March, Ardern led what she described to the nation as a “hard and early” response to the coronavirus outbreak — much earlier than many more apparently powerful countries around the world.
By mid-May 2020, New Zealand was largely said to have defeated coronavirus. By the end of May, New Zealand is reported to have had 1,154 confirmed cases resulting in 22 deaths, but 1,131 recoveries, leaving just two unresolved cases. Ardern has been criticized by some in New Zealand for taking illegal actions in imposing some of those restrictions, but there is little criticism of the effectiveness of the response vis-a-vis the virus.
A Mere Earthquake
New Zealand experiences roughly 14,000 earthquakes annually, though usually less than 200 strong enough to be felt. On May 24, 2020, the country experienced a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. Prime Minister Ardern just happened to be giving a live television interview to a breakfast-time television show from New Zealand’s Parliament buildings, which were nicknamed “The Beehive” at the time.
She noticed. How could she not? But how did she react? With a smile and confident nonchalance and humor. She said to her interviewer: “We’re just having a bit of an earthquake here,” and carried on. The Guardian asked: “Is Jacinda Ardern unshakeable?”
After all she has led her country through, did you expect any different?
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