How Women-Led Nations Respond to COVID: Lessons from Germany, Norway and New Zealand

How Women-Led Nations Respond to COVID: Lessons from Germany, Norway and New Zealand
Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany; Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand; and Erna Solberg, prime minister of Norway.

Women-led nations—like Germany, Norway and New Zealand—have been touted for their effective response to COVID-19 and relatively low mortality rates.

Only 11 women serve as heads of state and 12 women head government internationally—and yet they dominate discussions of successful crisis management. So what are these women-led nations doing differently?

We asked ambassadors from Germany, Norway and New Zealand what made their national responses to the global pandemic so effective. 

Four Ways Women are Effective National Leaders during the COVID-19 Crisis:

1. Candid Communication

[Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern] was very honest when she explained to the nation that we faced a stark choice: Either respect a really severe lockdown, or face the reality–as has happened overseas–of tens of thousands of New Zealand deaths.

So people trusted her when she said: We have to do the lockdown. We can beat the chain of transmission if we are a team of five million together.

They trusted her because they could see that she had authority—her scientific and medical advice—but also because she had empathy. She acknowledged the sacrifice the government was asking of the country.

—Rosemary Banks, ambassador of New Zealand to the U.S.

[Our] communication strategy was consistent, coherent, completely candid about what we know and what we don’t know. [Our] Chancellor [Angela Merkel] was able to explain the complexity of science and translate it into actual policy requirements. I think that was key for a general sense of credibility and legitimacy of what was happening.

—Emily Haber, ambassador of Germany to the U.S

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2. Plans in Place

We had a pandemic strategy in place. No discussions were needed about who would be paying for the tests, et cetera, because it was all in place. We have an intensive system of labs across the country so the tests were not just into one place but distributed federally and we did rigorous contact tracing.

On the health care side, we had a well-oiled machinery—but also on the bureaucratic side, we have an institutional and regulatory set-up in cooperation between the federal level and the states that always exists and that springs into action at the moment you need instant and rapid responses.

—Emily Haber, ambassador from Germany to the U.S. 

Even in the earliest days, before coronavirus actually reached our shores, the Prime Minister [Jacinda Ardern] was very visibly in control and working with her cabinet, with her Direct-General of Health and scientific advisors, with a wide range of government agencies, business representatives, civil society––together they devised a national response and summed it up in four words:

Go hard, go early.

—Rosemary Banks, ambassador of New Zealand to the U.S.

3. Collaboration and Inclusion

From the beginning, there’s been strong cooperation between the government, civil society and Norwegian NGOs, private businesses and others.  It’s the whole society getting together in order to implement the strategy that was laid out by the government in close cooperation with the Norwegian parliament and the political opposition. I think that has been the key in addressing COVID-19.

—Kåre Aas, ambassador of Norway to the U.S.

The role of civil society in any crisis, but suddenly in this, is huge. Because what a government actually asked people to do––that is, a lockdown in their homes and under sometimes very small space, not being able to pursue a normal life, possibly not to earn money––that is gigantic.

And if you want to weather the crisis, you actually need a collective effort by everyone and not only the government but also civil society and neighborhood environments. They are all part of that. And if that is not the case, then that is when the problems begin.

So civil society is part of a general effort in order to confront the crisis and get over it. It is indispensable.

—Emily Haber, ambassador of Germany to the U.S

4. Transparency

Norway is very much based on a transparent and legitimate political system—which also means that measures taken by the government have been fully understood by the public.

We have an app that people can download where you can see the spread of the virus. One-fourth of the population—or 25 percent of the population—have this app that can be used by them, but also for the government to see the spread of the virus.

—Kåre Aas, ambassador of Norway to the U.S.

Watch the full discussion on “Effective Leadership in the Time of COVID-19.”


Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace & Security seeks to promote a more stable, peaceful and just world by focusing on the important role women play in preventing conflict and building peace, growing economies and addressing global threats like climate change and violent extremism. GIWPS engages in rigorous research, hosts global convenings, advances strategic partnerships and nurtures the next generation of leaders.