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Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Key to Leading Through Coronavirus: ‘Put Your Ego as a Politician Aside’

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Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir says that humility and listening to the science have been the keys to leading her country through the coronavirus pandemic, and that she hopes the global outbreak will be an opportunity to revive global discussions on climate change.

“What we can learn from this is that it’s important to put your ego as a politician aside and learn from those humble scientists, who have been faced with a crisis nobody could expect,” Jakobsdóttir told journalist Katie Couric during a TIME 100 Talks discussion on Thursday.

According to Johns Hopkins University’s global coronavirus tracker, Iceland has 1,803 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 10 confirmed deaths, ranking it among the lowest in Europe. Jakobsdóttir is one of several female leaders across the world who have been praised for their management of the coronavirus, alongside Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “I don’t think it is a coincidence,” said Jakobsdóttir, adding that several male leaders have also been managing their response to the crisis efficiently. “Being ready to admit that we are all are learning by doing, and probably will make mistakes. That has been the biggest issue of leadership, and maybe that comes easier to women than men.”

Iceland has also not recorded any cases of new transmissions for several days this month. Jakobsdóttir told Couric that the island nation’s success in controlling the pandemic among its population of 360,000 people came down to acting early, and ramping up testing efforts, which are available to residents free of charge. According to the latest data, more than 57,000 people have been tested, and citizens are now able to use a contact tracing app that can record where they have been and who they have met to trace any transmissions of the virus.

The prime minister credited the efforts of Iceland’s citizens for fully supporting government measures and advice. In contrast to other countries, such as the U.S. and the U.K., where there have been protests against lockdown measures, Jakobsóottir said that apart from a handful of exceptions, society had pulled together to fight the epidemic. “Iceland is a small country, and what we sensed during this pandemic was a great solidarity,” Jakobsdóttir said. “You could say that the responsibility was placed on the shoulders of each and every one of us. We all need to be a part of this if it is going to work, and I think that has actually worked.”

Jakobsdóttir also expressed her hopes that listening to the science in this current challenge could be applied to other global challenges, namely climate change. “It’s never been more important that [climate] continues to be a top priority, and we might use some of the lessons learned in this pandemic in that fight against the climate crisis,” she said, emphasizing Iceland’s commitment to fulfilling the Paris Agreement and becoming carbon neutral no later than 2040.

Unlike other countries, Iceland has not closed down its kindergartens and primary schools, but instead introduced social distancing measures and limited class sizes at certain times. Jakobsdóttir said her own son had still been attending school but for two hours a day, instead of a full day. Looking ahead, the prime minister confirmed plans to hopefully reopen the country’s borders on June 15, but stressed that a final decision to do so would depend on a rolling analysis of the situation. “We are planning for everybody who comes here to get a COVID test when they enter the country,” she added.

Reflecting on the first five months of the year, Jakobsdóttir concluded that it was very different to what she had expected. “I think the most important lesson is you never really can tell what challenge you will meet, and you always have to be ready to learn.”

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields sharing their ideas for navigating the pandemic. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

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