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Brené Brown on COVID-19: “We are still vulnerable if the most vulnerable are threatened.”

5 min
Headshot photos of Melinda Gates and Brene Brown in black and white on an illustrated background
On a recent episode of her podcast, “Unlocking Us,” author and researcher Brené Brown caught up with philanthropist Melinda French Gates where, during their wide-ranging conversation, they discussed women’s leadership during the pandemic.

Read an excerpt from their conversation below; to hear more, listen to Brené’s podcast, “Unlocking Us” for free exclusively on Spotify.
Brené Brown: The response to COVID in countries led by women, in just looking at the data, is different.

Melinda French Gates: Absolutely. And you know why? Because these are people I talk to, these are the leaders that were—we talk to and coordinate with. I talked to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Three weeks earlier I talked to Chancellor (Angela) Merkel. In both of these cases, at the time, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern—New Zealand had just stopped their outbreak—this was months ago—but what was she thinking about when I got her on the phone? She was thinking about all the island nations around them and how to protect them because they were all so vulnerable. She said, “Yes, we’ve done a good job here, but we have to think about everybody around us.” So that was my conversation with her.
Three weeks earlier, I had talked to Chancellor Merkel and I was praising her because they’d done such a good job at that point on the response, particularly with testing and contact tracing, and she said, “But, Melinda, the thing I’m most worried about are our vulnerable populations. Our big numbers, our macro numbers look good, but,” she says, “I’ve got these pockets that I am so incredibly worried about that we are not yet reaching.”

And so I see these women thinking about everybody else and the full view of society, not just the macro numbers and looking good on the global stage. At the time I talked to Chancellor Merkel, they were taking patients in from other countries around them because they knew it was the right thing to do and their ICUs weren’t full at the time. That’s incredible.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a press conference at Parliament on February 15, 2021 in Wellington, New Zealand
Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern Gives COVID-19 update during a press conference at Parliament on February 15, 2021 in Wellington, New Zealand.
Photo by Hagen Hopkins | Getty Images
Brené Brown: But you know what that also is? Family systems thinking.

Melinda French Gates: There you go. There’s your background. Yeah, totally.

Brené Brown: It is. Because our family is only actually as safe as the most vulnerable member of our family. And it’s not about what the Joneses across the street think when they look over. Or does everything look good? Do the numbers look good? Is it the ego? It’s actually, “We are still vulnerable if the most vulnerable, unseen, least powerful, least influential people are threatened.” It’s about what you said in the beginning. I wish people could see the Zoom. We’re on Zoom right now. Melinda and I are on Zoom. And when you were talking about, there’s not a right or wrong way of seeing things, but you made these hand gestures that almost reminded me of the yin-yang symbol. You’re like, “You know, women kind of come at the world this way, while men see the world this way.” And I think that holistic systemic thinking—I’m telling you, as someone who takes care of kids and parents right now in my life, systems thinking is not an option for me.
President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen is looking at a piece of art
President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, after meeting with the European Council focused on the Covid-19 pandemic.
Photo by Thierry Monasse | Getty Images
Melinda French Gates: No, not at all. Because you know inside your family. I always think of us as a family, as a beautiful mobile hanging from this thin thread above, and if one person is out of kilter on that mobile, the rest of us are out of kilter. And that’s the same that’s true for the world. When Bill and I call on these global leaders right now, and so many of them are very nationalistic, thinking, “I’ve gotta have vaccine for my own country”—but it’s so interesting, when I talk to Ursula von der Leyen, who’s the head of the European Commission right now, she immediately was thinking—she has seven children, OK? She and her husband have raised seven children, and she was immediately thinking not just about the European nations, but she was already thinking about countries in Africa, because she knew—and this is the whole conversation we have with global leaders, is if we don’t take care of everybody with COVID, this disease is going to bounce around the world for years, and we are going to see so much more death, and guess what? We also won’t have a swift recovery, even in our own country, because we are all connected. Our travel industry won’t go back to normal, our manufacturing industry, our supply chains are messed up.

We have to think of the global family. We are a global community living on one planet, and we so often like to cover our eyes and not think about that. And yet women do.