Stars are born: (Health) ministers and the COVID-19 crisis

by Barbara Waldner

Stars are born: (Health) ministers and the COVID-19 crisis

The spread of COVID-19, the new Coronavirus, has quickly developed into a cross-border health crisis. While it has impacted the world, the European response to this crisis has raised questions about the variety of responses – or lack thereof – seen at a national level. Whereas they had been unknown figures on the international stage, a number of Ministers of Health have gained unparalleled visibility and public recognition. We introduce the new household names in health of the future to you in this article.  

The position of the Minister of Health has often been less desirable than others and played a rather minor role in public discourse. Despite figures such as Jens Spahn successfully reversing this trend in Germany, he has largely proven to be an exception to the rule. However, COVID-19 has health ministers on the front stage to such a level that some observers have called for Spahn to become the next German Chancellor.

This article looks at four ministers who have become household names during the COVID-19 pandemic in their respective countries and beyond: Oliver Véran in France, Lukasz Szumowski in Poland, Leo Varadkar in Ireland, and Rudolf Anschober in Vienna.

 

The new arrival: Olivier Véran in France

In France, Emmanuel Macron is the central figure in waging the “Guerre Sanitaire” (Healthcare War), against the coronavirus thereby coining the war analogy which has widely been used during this pandemic. However, he is sharing the spotlight more than ever during this pandemic with his trusted lieutenant Olivier Véran. Macron appointed 39-year-old neurologist Olivier Véran as Health Minister on 16 February 2020, one day after France confirmed the first COVID-19-related death on European soil.

With no time to familiarise himself with the position, Olivier Véran was dropped into this healthcare crisis as if by a parachute and appeared in press conference after press conference. As it turns out, he has done so in a way which resonates with the French public.

His popularity among the French population has consistently risen. Opinion polls show that former Health Minister Agnes Véran had an approval rate of 21% amongst the French public. Meanwhile, after only six weeks in office, Olivier Véran has become the third most-liked French political figure of all time with an approval rating of 35% (after Nicolas Hulot at 50% and Nicolas Sarkozy with a 36% approval rate) and the preferred political figure with a current political mandate in France.

Véran’s experience as a healthcare practitioner has been of great advantage in his communication with the French public as he complements his role as the government’s face when it comes to the pandemic in a humane and approachable way. The French public have thanked him for his openness. While his predecessor Buzyn refused to go into live TV discussions, Véran has openly confronted criticism and welcomed debate.

 

The doctor who helped Mother Theresa: Lukasz Szumowski in Warsaw

In Poland, health minister Lukasz Szumowski is dominating the headlines. In a country known for its fierce political rivalries, Szumowski, a cardiologist, has stayed away from ideological debates in the national conservative government. The crisis has put him in the spotlight and he now appears on television daily, speaking calmly to his fellow countrymen. His recommendations on how Poland should proceed in the face of the current threat – especially the lockdown – has been adopted by most other Central and Eastern European states, from the neighbouring Czech Republic and the Baltics to Slovenia and Croatia.

Szumowski is now the most trusted politician in the country. As of April, 51% of the Polish population trusts Szumowski and his trust level is now above the president’s Andrzej Duda (44.5%). Only 12% of respondents declared that they do not trust him. Even the opposition are fond of his politics, which is rare in a country that is politically deeply divided into a camp around the national-conservative government and its liberal opponents.

His popularity among the Polish public seems to stem from his devotion and his honest approach. In Catholic Poland, the story about Szumowski which is mentioned the most as an emblem of this personality and trustworthiness is the one about him working for Mother Theresa in Calcutta after studying of medicine in Warsaw. In Poland, Mother Teresa is venerated as a saint. Szumowski, too, is deeply religious, which is well regarded amongst the Polish general public.

His approach in addressing the public is also well regarded as he does not partake in blame-games or political standoffs with the West. His only rival is COVID-19. One prominent picture of sleep-deprived Szumowski went viral, and politicians and the Polish public alike thanked him for his commitment. His honesty, his political neutrality, his technical accuracy and dedication are convincing the public that he is the right man for the job.

 

The return to medical practice: Leo Varadkar in Ireland

Looking at Western Europe, the political figure which stands out the most is not a health minister, but a former one. Ireland’s prime minister Leo Varadkar. Varadkar left behind his medical career in 2013 and became Ireland’s youngest-ever prime minister in 2017. In March 2020, he decided to resume practicing, following the Health Service Executive’s national appeal to former healthcare professionals to re-register. Having rejoined the Medical Register in March, he now supports the HSE by conducting phone assessments with potentially COVID-19-infected patients once a week.

The New York Times commented on Varadkar’s return to the medical profession with the title of their articleHow a Pandemic Rescued the Political Image of Ireland’s Leader”. And indeed, this politically opportune moment comes at a time where Varadkar’s party Fine Gael lost the highest percentage of voters in the 2020 Irish general election, thus losing 12 seats in the Lower House. Fast forward one month later, Varadkar is enjoying widespread public appraisal for his management of the healthcare crisis in which he was quicker to act than many country leaders, leading to the successful suppression of the first wave of the outbreak in Ireland. Mr. Varadkar is  a man for a crisis and his stance was positively  compared to the UK’s response to this crisis. Truly, Varadkar successfully re-established himself as a strong leader during this crisis.

 

The ÖVP is green with envy: Rudolf Anschober in Vienna

For more than 16 years, Rudolf Anschober (Green Party) served as a minister in the state government of Upper Austria, which at the time constituted the first coalition between the ÖVP and the Greens in Austria. In January 2020, he was promoted to the Austrian government and the former primary school teacher is now in the front line in the fight against the spread of the new coronavirus in Austria.

Since the coronavirus reached Austria, he has provided information on current figures and measures on an almost daily basis, but always pleaded for a calm approach to the crisis. This policy of a calm hand was well received by the population in the first weeks. By April, Anschober became the second most trusted politician in Austria with a 49% approval rating second only to the young Chancellor Sebastian Kurz with 51%, himself having gained a lot of public approval due to his handling of the current crisis (prior to this, his highest approval rating during either of their political terms had been 37.5%).

Anschober’s rising importance will be detrimental to the political balance in the Austrian government. At the last National Council election, the ÖVP led by Kurz had succeeded in gaining votes and shaking off the competition by nearly 20 percentage points. This meant that Kurz was free in his decision to choose a coalition partner, and it was clear that this partner would only have a minor say in the coalition and his policymaking. Now, however, the Greens have gained political momentum, and Anschober managed to shake off his party’s image as the fearmonger by presenting novel developments on COVID-19 in the right way. It is becoming apparent that tensions may be rising in the ÖVP due to the consistent praise for the Green Minister of Health for his handling of the crisis. It remains to be seen whether this will upset the collaboration between the coalition partners in the future.

 

Takeaways: The X factor of crisis management

What characteristics do the new opinion leaders with high-approval rates have in common?

The Austrian media research company Media Affairs has singled to the reasons why Austria’s Anschober became so popular amongst the Austrian public: “Anschober scores with a very strong crisis communication - with calm, fact-based arguments and by using all media and channels intensively.” This, certainly, can also be said for Véran, Varadkar and Szumowski. They have been widely praised for their calm, reassuring style of communication while not downplaying the situation. Of course, all of them have been omnipresent in national press conferences, which has not only boosted their level of prominence (bar from Varadkar who was already a prominent figure in national politics) but also popularity.

Lastly, it is important to point out that Anschober, Véran, Varadkar and Szumowski have been praised in their role as knowledgeable experts. Apart from Anschober, all of the aforementioned ministers are former doctors and are adept at communicating technical terminology to a lay audience. Not only that, having a medical background often comes with the ability to deal with stressful situations and a lack of sleep. This mix between expertise and demonstrated commitment to solving emergencies. In the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, as is true in so many areas, it is a combination of both rhetoric and actions which does the trick.

 

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