Around the corner from Dublin’s historic St. Stephen’s Green lie Ireland’s Government Buildings. Here sit the offices of the Irish prime minister—or Taoiseach. Since February, political ownership of this most prized piece of real estate has been up for grabs, following a general-election result that left no party with a clear claim to power. Then the pandemic struck.
Ireland looked up from its own troubles to see the coronavirus outbreak hurtling toward its shores. It had a diminished leader, a political crisis, and a health system that had for decades been a source of domestic controversy, dispute, and angst. Yet, three months on, the incumbent, Leo Varadkar, remains in situ, and most pundits now expect him to stay in office as part of a power-sharing arrangement. And while Ireland’s response to the pandemic has been far from perfect, particularly in relation to retirement homes and testing, its overall performance appears to have held up in comparison to many other European nations. In fact, Ireland today finds itself watching the two countries it knows best—Britain and the United States—with a partially justified (though rarely acknowledged) sense of schadenfreude.
Ireland’s experience, however, illustrates only part of the pandemic’s counterintuitive leadership story, in which political strength appears to offer no obvious guide to national performance. The other part is the emergence of largely anonymous public-health experts as overnight celebrities, trusted authorities, and, to varying degrees, surrogate leaders. In war, it is generals who vie with prime ministers and presidents for power and affection; today, it is chief medical officers.