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Helen in Auckland
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Helen in Auckland

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Helen in Auckland

At time of writing, Metro Manilla, where I presently reside, stands at 144,000 cases of Covid-19. This is half of the total of cases in the Philippines. As I look out at the 'pearl of the orient,’ I wonder about those indirectly affected, cut off from livelihoods, friends and pastimes, as we remain in partial lockdown in a cloud of uncertainties.

Across the world, foundations and think tanks are scrambling together data to recognise the true impacts of lockdown on our mental health and to advise us on how we might mitigate further damage through Covid-19 waves to come.

One such think tank is the Helen Clark Foundation, headed by the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and ex-Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, where we worked as colleagues for 8 years.

In August, Helen kindly took time from her grueling schedule to share her personal experience of lockdown and discuss with us the topic of loneliness and her take on the handling of the pandemic by female leaders.

My sincere thanks to Helen for sharing her hopes, worries and insights. And my thanks to you, dear visitor, for your continued interest during these extraordinary times.

Best wishes,
Minh Pham
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Helen Clark is not used to being stuck at home. As former PM of New Zealand and UN official, her default mode is on the road. So - how does a world leader cope with a world in standstill?

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Sabbatical

“I’m one of those people who quite enjoyed the lockdown, because normally my life is so busy. Rushing here, rushing there, getting on a plane, getting off a plane.

And for the first few weeks of the lockdown, people hadn’t yet adapted to Zoom calls, which because of where my work is tend to be awkward time zones of New Zealand.

So I enjoyed it, but with one downside, and that was my very elderly father and not being able to go near him. Luckily, he has good care around him.

But for me, it was like a sabbatical at home.”
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Helen speaking to her hundreds of thousands of social media followers at the beginning of the New Zealand lockdown. 

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“We were lucky in New Zealand because we were allowed to go out. So I did a tremendous amount of walking around my neighborhood and taking photos.

I would talk to my neighbours, walk along and people would shout out,

'There’s Auntie Helen, please come and take a photo!'"
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Social media posts showcasing Helen's walking tours through her neighborhood in Auckland.
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Physical distancing

“There’s a difference between being isolated and being lonely. In New Zealand, we didn’t talk about ‘social distancing’. We wanted people to be connected. Instead we called it ‘physical distancing.’ You can be very connected while you isolate."


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Third week in lockdown.

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"There was research done around the third week of the lockdown here, which asked the same question around loneliness during a previous census in 2018: around 3.5% said they felt lonely at least some or all of the time. The same question in 2020, during the lockdown, stood at 10.6%.

And the most effected age group was young people between 18-24, with 20.8%. Young people were so used to being sociable and suddenly they were deprived of that.”
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"And that’s why it’s so important to close the digital divide and access to Wi-Fi and broadband. Because that is such a great way for people being able to continue to be connected even if they’re a long way away.”
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Women Leaders

A couple of days before our interview with Helen, she was appointed co-chair of The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response (via video-call - see photograph!).

She was now responsible for investigating the WHO's handling of the pandemic as well as the ways member states implemented the organization's guidance. A weighty task.

We were curious: What was it about women leaders and pandemic politics?


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“On average, the women leaders have done very well. Not every woman has done well. We can think of countries where the results have been disastrous.

But I think people are recognising the achievements of women such as Jacinda Ardern, the female Prime Ministers of the Scandinavian countries, Angela Merkel, of course, the woman leader of Taiwan, as well.


Photograph: A young Helen, a young woman leader.
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Women leaders (left to right): Tsai Ing-wen (Taiwan), Katrin Jakobsdottir (Iceland), Jacinda Arden (New Zealand), Angela Merkel (Germany), Sanna Marin (Finland)

"So, what is it about them?

It is a style of leadership that is often associated with women.

First is empathy.

Secondly, they were seen to put health security of the people absolutely first. There was no argument of: 'Oh we can’t do that because of the economy.' They knew that if people aren’t health secure, the economy would be rubbish anyway.

Thirdly, these women leaders don’t have huge egos. They’re there for a job. They’re not there for the glory. They’re practical and focused.

And where men have adopted this style, they have also done well. I think of the President of Korea, for example, who has done extremely well handling this pandemic.”
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I don't think so!

“It’s very important now that leaders are very honest with their public. This is not going to go away anytime soon.

We see breathless reports about vaccines being around the corner. Hello?! I don’t think so!"
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"So the conversation leaders need to start having with their public is, ‘How do we go forward for the long term? What’s it going to require of us?’

Rather than these frankly crazy scenes in the northern hemisphere of people crowding onto beaches. We have to get it into our head that physical distancing remains important."
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"Just being real about how long we’re going to have to stick with these measures is important. It would be so tragic to see an almost inevitable resurgence of cases because people let their hair down and forgot the lessons of the first wave.”





Photograph: Still from the documentary "My Year with Helen" by Gaylene Preston.
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