As Martin Luther King, Jr. once rightly said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a moulder of consensus.”
Coronavirus has put to test the ability of leaders across the globe to handle intense pressure of extraordinary health concerns, collapsing economies, and escalating panic, all at the same time. Dealing with such a situation primarily requires two things:
First, regular and honest communication to keep the citizens informed; and second, an understanding and trust from the citizens to compliment the efforts of the country’s leader and their government.
It’s a two-way street based on a certain connection that a leader needs to forge with his people, one interaction at a time. In the current context, the main objective is to address as many concerns of the common citizenry as possible – indeed, clearer the communication, stronger the team.
In this regard, what leaders say during a crisis reveals a lot about them and their public communication strategies. Ultimately, these shape the delicate relationship between people and their leaders.
This analysis attempts to unravel this complex, often unpredictable, relationship through an assessment of the speeches and press remarks of various leaders across the world on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It specifically analyses speech acts of seven world leaders:
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Canadian Prime Minister Justine Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The verbatim quotes for this article have been sourced from only nationwide addresses made by various world leaders. They do not include press conferences or other auxiliary speeches. For instance, in the Indian context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monthly radio show, Mann Ki Baat, is not taken into account in order to maintain uniformity of source.
All monetary values have been redacted from the verbatim remarks cited, as this isn’t a comparison of strategies adopted against the pandemic or the quantum of resources owned by nations.
Transparency and Accountability
French President, Emmanuel Macron, promised his citizens complete transparency and honesty at the very outset:
“I’ll address you regularly… I’ll tell you the truth about the developing situation.”
Within a month, he came back to reassure them
“My dear compatriots, if I wanted to address you this evening…it is to tell you in full transparency what awaits us for the coming weeks and months.”
Acknowledging weaknesses in front of your own bunch can be haunting, but Macron bravely accepted the limitations, apologised for them and discussed the response strategy:
“the moment has revealed flaws, shortcomings… we have lacked gowns, gloves, hydro-alcoholic gels.”
He spoke about how the government was not able to “distribute as many masks as” they would have liked. He assured the people that production of masks for caregivers and respirators for patients was in full swing, and soon, the shortages will be plugged.
Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, recognised citizen participation like no other and assured them of all help when he said:
“No one should feel that they’re alone in this fight. Our government is here to help you through these challenging times.”
Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, proved that it’s not the length of your speech that matters, but its contents. In no more than six words, he made a powerful reference to the principle of equality:
“You will have what we have.”
Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, showcased political tolerance through her measured words.
“This is part of an open democracy; that we make political decisions transparent, and explain them, that we establish and communicate our actions as well as possible, so that it becomes relatable.”
A drastic shift in tone from stating “it’s going to disappear” to acknowledging that the virus has hit the United States worse than Pearl Harbour and 9/11 attacks, even US President Donald Trump ensured government accessibility to the Americans.
Projecting himself as a wartime leader, that might very well be a narrative aimed at his re-election, Trump has been holding briefings every single day with his ‘White House Task Force on COVID-19’, taking questions from an aggressive media and offering clarity.
However, Trump has been very sketchy on accountability. For instance, when asked what message would he like to give to those Americans who are scared, he called the media person a terrible reporter with a nasty question that sends out a “very bad signal.”
Nonetheless the not-so-popular American President is sitting through heated press conferences denying past statements and framing answers. But at least, he has been available and visible to the public.
Remarks made by Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, were made available in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil, showcasing how deeply conscious his government was towards Singapore’s multicultural society.
“Today, I want to speak to you directly, to explain where we are, and what may lie ahead… I am sharing these possibilities with you, so that we are all mentally prepared for what may come.”
He also wanted his people to be aware of every move that his government takes to fight the pandemic.
“The next few weeks will be tough. I will speak to you like this from time to time. So that you know what the real situation is, what we are thinking, what you can expect and how you can play your part to fight this virus.”
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, set a new benchmark in accountability when she said:
“I will make sure that we linger longer in order to pick up any questions that you might have.”
Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, stands out as somewhat of an exception in this thread. He continues his tradition of not doing pressers where he could be quizzed by journalists. All his addresses to the country, including those during the COVID-19 crisis, were essentially monologues.
His appearance in a presser in May 2019, right before the results of the national election were announced, was his first and only press conference in five years as Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy. But even then, he did not take any questions himself, instead deferring media queries to his top aide (and now Home Minister) Amit Shah.
Yet, being the tactful and politically-experienced orator that he is, Modi has maintained a tone of compassion, humility and generosity in his COVID-19 speeches. Arguably, the aim here is to sustain his populist cult through cautiously-framed speeches that exude willpower and modesty.
However, truth is that his COVID-19 addresses have barely touched on themes of transparency, accountability, equality or tolerance.
Only in a tweet posted on 19 April, did he appeal to the masses to not discriminate on the basis of social identities in the fight against COVID-19. But even this came in the wake of a stinging barrage of criticism from influential Arab voices on Twitter who took to the platform to highlight rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in India under Modi’s regime.
The Hard Truth of ‘Time’
The most glaring question at this point is – how long before normalcy prevails?
Scott Morrison explained to Australians why honesty is so crucial while addressing this particular question:
“We’re going to have to live with this for at least the next six months. I’ve been very clear about that for a very simple reason. I really want Australians to understand that we need to be in this for that whole, it will be months.”
Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, told the Dutch nation, in a much frank manner, that there exist no shortcuts for the situation at hand:
“The reality is that coronavirus is here in our midst, and for the time being it is here to stay. There is no quick or easy solution to this intensely difficult situation.”
Even though the German Chancellor did not have a specific timeline to report, she made sure to talk about the duration of the hardship:
“Our consultation has determined that we can’t give a false promise now. Even if the best intentions are behind it. Instead, we must understand that we have to live with the virus as long as there are no medicines and, in particular, no vaccines. “
Macron also did not have the exact answer for the French. But he humbly addressed the question with grace and empathy:
“So when can we expect this hardship to end? When can we get back to the lives we used to have? I know your questions, I share them. They are legitimate. I wish I could tell you everything and answer each of your questions. But frankly, in all humility, we have no definitive answer to this.”
US President, Donald Trump, gave a rather sketchy timeline before this pandemic “washes through”:
“people are talking about July, August, something like that.”
Indian Prime Minister Modi, however, skipped this critical question altogether. The second most populous country in the world was left to speculate the length of this biological war on their own.
With everyone confined indoors, the economy is rapidly choking. A comparative timeline of updates given in Canada, Australia and India by their leaders shows the level of awareness amongst people.
Trudeau, with his wife Sophie testing positive for COVID-19, and himself being in self-isolation, informed the Canadians of each step being taken to sustain the economy.
He used both his regular addresses and press conferences to do so, personally taking upon himself to answer every single question put to him. Trudeau seemed to have deciphered the code to a successful relationship – communication.
Some of his economy-centred statements include:
“We will make $XXXX available in additional support for Canadian businesses.“
“If you own a business and you’re wondering what you can do, reach out. We need your help. Canadians need your help, and our government is ready to work with you to maximise your impact.“
“We’re now talking about $XXXX to support people and businesses… the new Canada Emergency Response Benefit will provide $XXXX a month for up to four months to people who are not getting paid as a result of COVID-19… we’ll also be boosting the Canada child benefit for families in May.”
Scott Morrison came forward to assure Australia that he would personally supervise the economic arrangements. People were told about the economy regularly and precisely.
For instance, on 20 March, he announced the diversion of funds to nearly seven areas of healthcare and securing of a ‘retention bonus’ to ensure continuity of the workforce. On 7 April, waivers of rents and deferrals to be covered were announced with a personal touch.
“The arrangements will be overseen through a binding mediation process. Banks also must come to the table here and provide the support to the landlords, and I would particularly send that message to international banks operating in Australia.”
In the Indian case, the communication was stunted, particularly given the dire straits in which its national economy lies. The growth numbers for India were depressing even before COVID-19 reached the country. The Central Statistics Office estimated a nominal growth rate of 7.5% for FY21, the lowest in the last 17 years.
After the outbreak, the situation wasn’t any less alarming, with the estimated total cost of lockdown being at least 8.08 lakh crores in nominal terms; translating approximately to 4% GDP.
However, in his national monologues, Prime Minister Modi found it appropriate to only superficially touch the economic situation. On 19 March, he announced the establishment of a ‘COVID-19 Economic Task Force’. That was the only time so far that this ‘task force’ found mention in the Prime Minister’s speeches.
In his 24 March address, no economic measures were announced. He merely said:
“The nation will have to certainly pay an economic cost because of this lockdown.”
On 14 April, he mentioned economy only to weigh it against human lives.
“From an economic only point of view, it undoubtedly looks costly right now; but measured against the lives of Indian citizens, there is no comparison itself.”
France’s Emmanuel Macron spoke about reserving protective gear to cater to the needs of hospitals and medical staff on a priority basis, and how deliveries of the same would be made across the country soon after. Further, in a heartfelt move, he said:
“We also have a duty to healthcare professionals to look after their children: a basic childcare service is in place from today in nurseries and schools. We also owe them peaceful journeys and rest… taxis and hotels can be made available for them. The State will pay.”
Trudeau informed Canada about the various favourable-affirmative actions that his government had already taken or was planning to take to assist the healthcare sector of the country. People were updated on the exact issues in this regard.
He told Canadians how the federal government was coordinating with “the provinces and territories, the public health agency, and the experts” to mobilise more protective gear. He also told them how the government was working with Thornhill Medical, CAE ventilators for Canadians, a Starfish Medical-led group and Nobel Prize winner, Dr Art McDonald, to develop and produce indigenous ventilators.
He also spoke about the government facilitating creation of virtual platforms, such as Wellness Together Canada, for mental health.
Trudeau also notified:
“To ensure that more Canadians can have access to the latest information on COVID-19, Health Canada will be holding its daily update at the same place at noon, starting tomorrow. Today, their press conference will take place after my remarks.”
The Indian Prime Minister showed immense gratitude for the services of frontline doctors and medical staff. He informed the public about the government granting licenses to private labs for testing. He also mobilised the masses to thank frontline workers from their balconies by ringing bells, clapping and lighting diyas (earthen lamps).
However, he made no mention of the understaffed hospitals, which have a frightening doctor-to-patient ratio of 1:10,926 against the WHO recommended ratio of 1:1000. He also didn’t speak about the PPE shortage that the frontline medical staff is facing, particularly in remote areas.
According to HLL Lifecare Ltd, a government-owned body tasked to procure PPE, the country ideally requires a minimum of one million PPE kits, 40 million N95 masks, 20 million surgical masks and one million litres of hand sanitisers.
Instead, as reported by the BBC, Indian doctors in some places have been forced to use raincoats and motorbike helmets as protective gear due to acute shortage. But the Prime Minister made no mention of this issue.
Instead, in his 19 March address, he proposed the following affirmative action:
“Friends, on Sunday at exactly 5 pm, we all stand at the doors, balconies, windows of our homes, and give them all a 5-minute standing ovation. We clap our hands, beat our plates, ring our bells to boost their morale, salute their service.”
World leaders, except in India, chose to discuss the plight of the youth in their speeches and interviews – ranging from school-going children to adults pursuing professional degrees.
The German Chancellor, who herself holds a PhD in quantum chemistry, addressed the cautious re-opening of educational institutions as:
“We must proceed very carefully, step by step by initially focusing on the final classes that have to take exams now, followed by those taking exams after that or are about to change schools. After that, we expect that the Conference of Ministers of Culture will present us with a detailed concept.“
Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore spoke extensively to his country about alternative ways of education amidst the pandemic. He talked about moving to “full home-based learning”, which would be done after consultations between the Minister of Education and schools.
Macron even addressed those segments of the French student community which don’t have access to technology and gadgets to adopt online learning methods. The scorching socioeconomic conditions of his people did not go unacknowledged and were instead attended to, with appropriate measures. The French President said:
“This is a priority for me because the current situation is deepening inequalities. Too many children, especially in working-class neighbourhoods… are deprived of schooling without having access to digital technology… inequalities between families are even more pronounced.“
Out of Trudeau’s daily dialogue with the Canadians, sometimes twice in one day, his entire addresses on 22 and 29 April were addressed to Canada’s student community. From launching the Canada Emergency Student Benefit that is aimed at providing monthly financial assistance to all the students throughout the summer season to Canada Student Service Grant that will pay students to volunteer in the fight against the pandemic, he announced a slew of targeted measures.
Trump also took out the time to congratulate the Class of 2020 in America, but addressed no actual issue that students and faculty are facing. He appreciated them for rising to the “challenge with remarkable poise and determination, demonstrating the character traits that define the American spirit—resiliency, responsibility, and a stalwart drive to succeed.”
He also immediately approved the Student Veteran Coronavirus Response Act of 2020 that relates to the payment of education benefits during national emergencies.
India, with 37.4 million students enrolled only in higher education as on 2018-19, other than those at the level of primary education and secondary education, along with the population of teachers, professors and other academicians, all concerns of the student community remained entirely unacknowledged.
While Lee Hsien Loong conveyed to Singaporeans the contents of his conversation with New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, particularly her message to them to be patient but determined in these tough times, Ardern herself informed her country about her warm exchange with British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who recently recovered from a COVID-19 infection.
“Upon learning the Prime Minister had tested positive for COVID-19… I sent a message to him to pass on New Zealand’s best wishes. He said that his thoughts were also, quote, “with all our friends in New Zealand.”… we want everyone in the UK, especially the Prime Minister, to know that we are thinking of them.“
Trudeau spoke about his discussions with First Nations, Inuit, and Metis Nation leaders regarding preparedness and mitigation efforts. He also talked about his coordination with specific Ministers providing updates on their respective departments, such as Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services and Minister of National Defence of Canada, to work on exceptional measures to protect the North.
On the other hand, Morrison not only addressed the strategic developments being worked out at home through National Cabinet meetings and continuous coordination with the opposition leaders, but also reached out to Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom to extend support.
The Indian Prime Minister only said the following:
“I have been in continuous touch with the States on how the fight against Corona should progress in India.“
Ardern very strongly put her foot down against the lockdown breach, including by her own Minister of Health, David Clark. Nothing deterred her from taking immediate action that not only punished the breach, but also kept the priority of fighting COVID-19 intact.
Her vital decisiveness made people aware of the consequences of breaking rules, even if committed by an individual in power. In less than mild words, she said:
“Under normal circumstances, I would sack the [health] minister. What he did was wrong and there are no excuses, but…. we cannot afford massive disruption in the health sector… For that reason alone… while he maintains his health portfolio, I have stripped him of his role as associate finance minister and demoted him to the bottom of our cabinet rankings… These changes are effective immediately. David Clark is under no illusions that I expect better and so does New Zealand.“
President Macron warned the French that defying instructions at this time of crisis translates to endangering the lives of everyone. He also cautioned the country of the dangers of asymptomatic transmissions.
Justin Trudeau disciplined not just the violators, but also potential violators. He spoke to his people like a strict father reminding his child that he would do whatever it takes to regulate their behaviour because that is the need of the hour. His rebuke ran as:
“We’ve all seen the pictures online of people who seem to think they’re invincible. Well, you’re not. Enough is enough. Go home and stay home. This is what we all need to be doing. And we’re going to make sure this happens, whether by educating people more on the risks or by enforcing the rules if that’s needed.”
Three days later, Trudeau addressed lockdown breaches again by calling such behaviour disappointing and dangerous while imposing a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all Canadians, the violation of which shall be punishable with fines and even imprisonment.
In India, even though the country witnessed a substantial number of blatant lockdown violations, such as swarms of migrant workers in different States at different times, crowded markets engaged in panic buying, a full blown marriage ceremony of the son of an ex-Chief Minister, a number of sacred gatherings across various religions, a political oath taking ceremony and an incident of mob lynching, the Prime Minister has mostly remained silent on this matter.
He particularly avoided commenting, in his 24 March address announcing the nationwide lockdown, on the huge crowds that gathered in some cities and towns on 22 March during his call to felicitate frontline workers. At the same time, he warned people against “irresponsible behaviour”.
Napoleon Bonaparte rightly said, “A leader is a dealer in hope.”
A unique feature of empathy is that when it flows from a position of power to the common man, it comes with a personal touch. The concept of “us and them” is wiped out in that moment when the leader of a country says or implies that she or he is no different from us, that they are as human as we are, and that they too have a family just like ours.
Angela Merkel shared with the Germans her pain of giving up her own right to freedom of movement and travel that she treasured immensely. She gracefully empathised with reason to really make her people understand:
“I know how hard these demands to us are especially in times of distress we want to be close to each other, we know ‘care’ as bodily proximity or touch but at the moment, unfortunately, the opposite is the right thing.“
Even though Trump has shown an apparent dislike towards the media in the United States, he still came forward to acknowledge that there has never been anything like this before and went on to say these five words that won many hearts:
“We suffer with one heart.”
Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong reminded people that he is “one of” them, while making a special appeal to the senior citizens of the country. He recognised the restlessness and frustration of being locked down in the house, of not being able to visit family and friends, while humbly requesting everyone to stay at home for their own safety.
However, the ultimate benchmark of compassion was set by Trudeau who spoke directly to all the little kids of Canada, thanking them and requesting them to hang in there because their Prime Minister understands their concerns.
“To all the kids out there, all of a sudden you’ve heard you can’t go on play dates or have sleepovers. Your playgrounds and schools have closed and your March break was certainly different than what you’d hoped for. I get it from my kids as well. They’re watching a whole lot more movies, but they miss their friends, and at the same time they’re worried about what’s going on out there in the world and what their future may hold. I know this is a big change, but we have to do this… Thank you for helping your parents work from home, for sacrificing your usual day, for doing math class around the kitchen table, and for trusting in science. We’re going to have more to say to you soon, so stay tuned.“
Prime Minister Modi called his citizens “friends” – perhaps the only flash of concern shown by him. Yet, no actual interaction took place on core issues, such as the economy, students, farmers, small businesses, lockdown violations and communalisation.
I am well aware of the problems you have faced – some for food, some for movement from place to place, and others for staying away from homes and families. However, for the sake of your country, you are fulfilling your duties like a disciplined soldier. This is the power of ‘We, the People of India’ that our constitution talks about.
Oddly, the “we” seemed to have appeared only at the behest of the Preamble of the Indian Constitution.
Communication or the illusion of it?
It is not a leader’s job to explain every little detail to the masses. But it is definitely a leader’s job to give direction, build trust, offer support and encourage faith, not in a religion but humanity, during a crisis.
While most world leaders tried their best to do so, a few simply pretended to converse with their people.
As George Bernard Shaw said, “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Srishty Jaura is a student of law at Faculty of Law, Delhi University. She has a Masters in Political Science.
Featured image (from left to right): New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.