Are female leaders more successful at managing the coronavirus crisis?

Plenty of countries with male leaders have also done well. But few with female leaders have done badly

On 1 April, the prime minister of Sint Maarten addressed her nation’s 41,500 people. Coronavirus cases were rising, and Silveria Jacobs knew the small island country, which welcomes 500,000 tourists a year, was at great risk: it had two ICU beds.

Jacobs did not want to impose a strict lockdown, but she did want physical distancing observed. So she spelled it out: “Simply. Stop. Moving,” she said. “If you don’t have the bread you like in your house, eat crackers. Eat cereal. Eat oats. Eat … sardines.”

The 51-year-old Caribbean premier may not have the global profile of Angela Merkel or Jacinda Ardern, but her blunt message exemplified firm action, effective communication – and showed another female leader getting the job done.

From Germany to New Zealand and Denmark to Taiwan, women have managed the coronavirus crisis with aplomb. Plenty of countries with male leaders – Vietnam, the Czech Republic, Greece, Australia – have also done well. But few with female leaders have done badly.

Ardern, 39, New Zealand’s premier, has held Kiwis’ hands through the lockdown, delivering empathetic “stay home, save lives” video messages from her couch and communicating daily through non-combative press conferences or intimate Facebook Live videos, her favourite medium.

Her insistence on saving lives and her kindness-first approach – urging New Zealanders to look after their neighbours, take care of the vulnerable, and make sacrifices for the greater good – has won her many fans, while her emphasis on shared responsibility has united the country.

Choosing to “go hard and go early”, Ardern imposed a 14-day quarantine on anyone entering the country on 14 March and implemented a strict lockdown two weeks later, when fewer than 150 people had been infected and none had died. New Zealand has recorded just 18 deaths; public trust in Ardern’s government is greater than 80%.

From left; the director of the South Korean Centers for Disease Control, Jung Eun-kyeong, Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg, and the prime minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir.
From left; the director of the South Korean Centers for Disease Control, Jung Eun-kyeong, Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg, and the prime minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Composite: AP/Reuters/Sigtryggur Ari Johannsson

In Germany, Angela Merkel has been hailed for direct but uncharacteristically personal public interventions, warning that up to 70% of people would contract the virus – the country’s “greatest challenge” since 1945 – and lamenting every death as that of “a father or grandfather, a mother or grandmother, a partner …”

Thanks to extensive testing from the outset, plenty of intensive care beds, and the chancellor’s periodic forthright reminders that Covid-19 was “serious – so take it seriously”, Germany has so far recorded fewer than 5,000 deaths, a far lower figure than most EU countries.

With a doctorate in quantum chemistry, Merkel’s clear, calm expositions – a clip of her explaining the scientific basis behind the government’s lockdown exit strategy was shared thousands of times online – have also helped propel public approval of the fourth-term chancellor’s handling of the crisis above 70%.

In nearby Denmark, meanwhile, the prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, acted equally firmly, closing the Scandinavian country’s borders as early as 13 March, and following up a few days later by shutting all kindergartens, schools and universities and banning gatherings of more than 10 people.

That decisiveness appears to have spared Denmark the worst of the pandemic, with fewer than 8,000 confirmed cases and 370 deaths. Frederiksen’s no-punches-pulled speeches and clear instructions to the nation have been widely praised.

She even managed to show a sense of fun, posting a clip on Facebook of herself doing the dishes while singing along to the 1980s Danish popsters Dodo and the Dodos during the nation’s weekly TV lockdown singalong. The Scandinavian country’s youngest-ever prime minister, whose approval ratings have doubled to more than 80%, has now begun easing its lockdown.

Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen responded equally fast, activating the country’s central epidemic command centre in early January and introducing travel restrictions and quarantine measures. Mass public hygiene measures were rolled out, including disinfecting public areas and buildings.

In all, Taiwan adopted 124 control and contain measures in weeks, making a full lockdown unnecessary. It has reported just six deaths, and is now dispatching millions of face masks to the worst-struck parts of the US and Europe. Tsai’s warm, authoritative style has won her plaudits, even from political opponents.

Norway, with 7,200 cases and 182 deaths, this week began relaxing its restrictions by reopening kindergartens. The prime minister, Erna Solberg, told CNN she had made a point of “letting scientists make the big medical decisions”, adding that she thought her country’s early lockdown and thorough testing programme had been key.

Following an example set earlier by Frederiksen, Solberg also took the unusual step of directly addressing the country’s children, telling them in two press conferences – from which adult journalists were banned – that it was “permitted to be a little bit scared” and that she, too, missed being able to hug her friends.

Meanwhile, Iceland, under the prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s, leadership, has offered free testing to all citizens, not only those with symptoms, and has recorded 1,800 cases and 10 deaths. Some 12% of the population has taken up the offer, and an exhaustive tracing system has meant the country has not had to close schools.

Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin – who last year became the world’s youngest head of government – also moved decisively to impose a strict lockdown, including a ban on all non-essential travel in and out of the Helsinki region. This has helped her country contain the spread of the virus to just 4,000 cases and 140 deaths, a per-million toll 10 times lower than that of neighbouring Sweden.

Not all the women who have excelled in the corona crisis are national leaders. Jeong Eun-kyeong, the unflappable head of South Korea’s centre for disease control, has become a national icon after overseeing a “test, trace, contain” strategy that has made the country the world’s coronavirus role-model, with daily infections in single digits and a death toll of less than 250.

Jeong, a former rural doctor dubbed “the world’s best virus hunter”, has delivered no-nonsense daily press conferences, including demonstrating the ideal way to cough. While these have won praise, her work ethic – she has left an emergency operations bunker only for quick visits to a food truck – has prompted concern for her health.

Whatever conclusions we may draw from these leaders’ performances during the pandemic, experts caution that while women are “disproportionately represented to a rather startling degree” among countries managing the crisis well, dividing men and women heads of state and government into homogenous categories is not necessarily useful.

Complicating factors may be at play. Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University, notes, for example, that women leaders are more likely to be elected in “a political culture in which there’s a relative support and trust in the government – and that doesn’t make stark distinctions between women and men. So you’ve already got a head start”.

In addition, it may be harder for men to escape “the way they are expected to behave” as leaders, Gerson told The Hill website. And since the very best leaders are both strong and decisive and capable of displaying feeling, women could, perhaps, “lead the way in showing that these are not competing and conflicting attributes, but complementary – and necessary for good leadership”, she said.

• This article was amended on 28 April 2020. An earlier version incorrectly described Sanna Marin as the world’s youngest head of government.


Jon Henley and Eleanor Ainge Roy

The GuardianTramp

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