The First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon issued a public apology after a photograph of her without a mask at a recent event went viral. On Wednesday, the 50-year-old leader of the Scottish National Party, admitting her breach of COVID-19 protocols, said, “Last Friday, while attending a funeral wake, I had my mask off briefly. This was a stupid mistake and I’m really sorry… I talk every day about the importance of masks, so I’m not going to offer any excuses. I was in the wrong, I’m kicking myself, and I’m sorry.” Sturgeon’s statement, even at the outset, is thoroughly jolting since the words “stupid mistake” to account for guilt have hardly ever left a world leader‘s mouth, let alone guilt attached to the dire consequences brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a time when several political leaders are unabashedly playing host to grand-scaled events and religious celebrations, hypocritically later preaching the importance of wearing masks, Sturgeon’s admission of her oversight comes as a welcome relief. It shouldn’t – since essentially, all politicians should harbour such leadership – but it does. Thereby pointing to the paucity of humility in world politics. A void that, in recent times especially, is being increasingly filled by women leaders across the globe.
Why, would a male leader of state ever deprecate himself over breaching COVID-19 norms? I can count off my fingers, politicians in India that have flouted social distancing codes since the pandemic began. Has even a single one had the decency to express remorse over their actions? Can’t modesty find space in the alleged “cutthroat-ness” of the political arena?
How Women Leaders Are Inspiring Humility In Politics
Women leaders in 2020 have shown that the phenomenon of injecting sensitivity into politics isn’t just possible, but also very achievable. Sturgeon, isn’t the first to take accountability for falling short of expectations. In September, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had notably been slammed for clicking a non-socially distanced selfie with a crowd of people. Soon after the news flew, the Labour Party leader issued a humble apology saying, “In that particular photo I made a mistake… Yes, I should have moved further forwards and I should have asked them to step apart as well… and I acknowledge that.”
Hospitality businesses can't make money at Level 2 because of single server and social distancing rules. Meanwhile, the person responsible for the rules is self-serving and not social distancing. pic.twitter.com/4HUMKJNkU4
— David Seymour (@dbseymour) September 18, 2020
It is not so much a matter of ego as it is about true leadership when an elected representative has the strength to say “I made a mistake.” Some may argue: How does it matter to people? Isn’t the damage already done? How does it make a difference now? But it does make a world of difference when a leader apologises. It communicates to the citizens that the one they have elected is as human as them, as susceptible to making mistakes as they are, and therefore, fall within the purview of the same laws as everyone else does.
And this humanness extends far beyond apologies. It spans the entire breadth of politics, including policies and optics. Recently, we reported that Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel during her pre-Christmas speech, while discussing technology for online classes, had the blunt courage to say, “I don’t know, this is not my area of expertise and I don’t want to interfere.” Would any other world leader emulate her honesty? Or would they never, thinking it would “lessen” them, even though the public knows they have an administrative cabinet behind them to advise on effective policies?
"I really am sorry, from the bottom of my heart. But if the price we pay is 590 deaths a day then this is unacceptable."
— Richard Chambers (@newschambers) December 9, 2020
How Many Male Leaders Would Publicly Admit Guilt?
A fair leader is effective only so far as their work towards progress isn’t commanded from a high-standing pedestal, but when they believe in walking shoulder-to-shoulder with the masses. Which is exactly what Sturgeon and Ardern have depicted through their no-mask apologies. Their respective expressions of modesty evidenced that the coronavirus doesn’t estimate colour, politics or power of positions. Are male politicians working towards that end? How far have they succeeded in maintaining a balance of sensitivity in politics? And if not, why haven’t they? Is it because the public admission of guilt would punch a hole in their wide-chested masculinity?
The pandemic has, over and above pre-existing arguments, been successful in bringing to public notice the need for more women in politics. Not only have leaders like Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan and Mette Frederiksen in Denmark been lauded for their adept handling of the virus spread in their countries, but leaders like Erna Solberg in Norway and Sanna Marin in Finland have also been hailed for infusing their COVID-19 policies with much-needed emotional empathy. And their countries have, inarguably, been better for it.
Views expressed are the author’s own.