Comment Politics

Why are women so good at fighting coronavirus?

There is no common policy or ideology among leaders, so what has made the difference?

THE pandemic is changing so many things for so many people, but does this now include the way women in charge are perceived?

There has been a narrative that the countries that have handled their response the best are those with women as the head of their governments. Is this true? And why?

Almost everyday I have seen someone new share something that alludes to certain nations having had a good response in relation to controlling the spread of the virus and keeping deaths low.

This usually includes the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern; Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel; Finland’s Prime Minister, Sanna Marin; Norway’s Prime Minster, Erna Solberg; and Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen.

There is no common policy that they have all adopted and stringently followed, and the leaders do not all lead parties that are in similar positions on the political spectrum. They include left leaning coalitions of Finland and Taiwan, to right of centre governments in Norway and Germany.

If there is no pattern in ideology or policy approach, does it come down to effective leadership? Countries that would generally be assumed to have poor leadership have suffered hard. The UK, The US, Russia, Indonesia and Brazil have all had lacklustre approaches that have led to very high numbers of new cases and deaths daily. Coincidentally, these countries all have men as their head of state or national governments.

Taiwan acted in January and rolled out mass testing, much earlier than other nations. Due to this, the country was able to avoid going into lockdown. However, there could be a reasonable element of foresight as Taiwan suffered worse than others in the 2003 outbreak of SARS. Germany rolled out a comprehensive programme of testing and tracing along with a lockdown trying to restrict the spread. However, Germany has a robust healthcare system and it helped roll out testing and deal with increased strain.

One interesting leader is New Zealand’s Ardern, who acted fast due to a government advisor having a background in healthcare and virology noticing the signs of what was to come and pressing the government to act.

The country was closed when there had only been six deaths reported and this was crucial in controlling the spread. Her leadership throughout the process led to over 80% of New Zealand citizens saying they had trust in their government’s response. However, her response has probably also saved her job. With only four months to go until their parliamentary elections, even with her response to the bombings and her fame, it was not likely she was going to win the election.

Ardern giving compassion to communities affected by terrorision. Credit: New Statesman

Ardern enjoys worldwide fame for her genuine caring responses in crisis. In her response to the Christchurch Mosque bombings, she showed compassion and understanding rather than creating an environment of blame of ethnic minority groups. Ardern’s method of spreading her message involves doing Facebook live announcements and bringing policy and health experts in to answer questions from the public. This means there can be a wide accessible audience with a better understanding of what people can and cannot do. Is this caring nature and practical thinking significant in why these women have been so successful?

Gender stereotypes would stipulate that women are to be maternal, caring, organised and generally having most characteristics that would lead to the assumption of high emotional intelligence. However, men’s gender roles are more along the lines of being strong, concise, and not being caught in thinking with emotion but rather thinking in a practical way.

Usually if it is a female in power there is often the perception that they are either difficult and bossy, or weak and too swayed by their emotion. Men are perceived to be strong and effective in their leadership, even though they were likely doing nothing different to their female counterparts.

But in this pandemic, perhaps what we need is someone who can use their emotion in response. A response to a pandemic requires an approach that is rooted in caring and is not considering the most effective way to run society, rather the most effective way to keep people alive.

Finland’s Prime Minister. Credit: BBC

Norway’s PM communicated to the country’s children on television to answer their questions and let them know it is okay to be scared.

Finland’s PM is the first millennial to be a head of government and used her understanding of social media influencers to spread government policy to its citizens.

Angela Merkel has given compassionate briefings to her citizens and has used her comprehensive science background to better explain the way virus spread. Her reaction to the migrant crises already showed thinking with empathy when forming public policy approaches, even with strong international opposition.

Chancellor Angela Merkle. Credit: Reuters

An approach which involves caring for your neighbours and vulnerable while establishing that whole nations are in this together has led to unity among citizens.

However, this trend of assuming women are better leaders for this pandemic is perhaps a conclusion that requires a lot of specifics to be reached.

Not all female leaders have had such success, Belgium’s caretaker government is led by Sophie Wilmes and Belgium has reported some of the highest death rates in the world.

Recently, healthcare workers even turned their backs on her in protest whilst she was on an official visit. Could this show that Ardern and Merkle are exceptional circumstances, or is it perhaps down to the fact her administration is a caretaker government in a country that regularly see’s its government collapse?

An environment like this would make it difficult to have clear united policy and even the best leaders would struggle.

Approaching the matter in this way by assuming women do a better job, however, erases the achievements of countries led by men.

I’m sure many would feel men have had enough praise for their work in politics. But ignoring the achievements of countries led by men in tackling the virus could lead to policies being overshadowed that are actually effective.

Leo Varadkar has been applauded with his steady handling of the pandemic. Credit: The Guardian

Ireland does not have an agreed functioning government from its recent elections and is still being led by Leo Varadkar. They have entered their first phase of easing their lockdown and deaths are at their lowest levels since March.

Effective leadership and clear messaging from Varadkar meant that they successfully controlled the spread and managed an early peak to their curve.

However, Varadkar did train as a doctor, so perhaps his Hippocratic oath and the wish to look after the vulnerable was a part of what led his response.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also been praised for his firm attitude with his government’s dealing with the virus.

For a country with a population of 25 million, a global economy and very dense urban populations, it is an impressive feat that there have only been 2600 cases and sixty-six deaths.

This is likely due to large trust in the government and its competency. However, perhaps Morrison was so quick to respond to this crisis because his response to the last crises – the wildfires at the start of the year – had been so heavily criticised.

Austrailian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Credit: The Guardian

The examples above seem to show that it is likely a compassionate response that is needed alongside a clear and comprehensive approach to communicating this to citizens. It is obviously a good thing that female leaders are being given appropriate praise for saving lives, but with a closer inspections it seems to be what they are doing over what their gender is.

Featured image credit: CNN.com

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