The fact is, women lead better in coronavirus

At this point in the pandemic, Germany has emerged as the country with the best coping strategy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks on during the first faceto-face EU summit since the coronavirus disease outbreak in Brussels on July 20 (photo credit: REUTERS)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks on during the first faceto-face EU summit since the coronavirus disease outbreak in Brussels on July 20
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Of the many questions raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, among the most relevant to the man in the street must be whether or not his political leader handled it well. Nominees for those who made a mess of it are offered on an almost daily basis as the numbers of victims of the disease increase, unemployment figures soar, protest demonstrations and workers’ strikes multiply, and government policy, if it exists at all, changes day by day leaving populations angry and confused.
As the pandemic continues its course across the world and increasingly looks as if it will be around for the foreseeable future, or at least until an effective drug is found to contain it, comparisons between countries will be made in a search for short-term answers. Indeed, such comparisons are already on record, and the winners so far are those countries led by women.
How is it possible to make such an assessment? Statistics are not much help. To begin with, they are constantly changing as countries which were thought to have emerged from the COVID-19 woods find themselves dealing with a second, often worse wave. Few validated figures are available, but those that are, point to remarkable similarities in the confirmed cases of the illness and the number of deaths as a percentage of the population country by country. One study of the figures in New York showed a death rate of 0.28% of the population, which an off the cuff comparison between six countries confirmed as fairly typical. Long term, it will no doubt be the health of a country’s economy after the lockdowns and widespread layoffs at the height of the crisis, and the gradual lifting of restrictions in the later phases, which will be the best indicator of leadership success.
Meantime, one way already available to us for measuring the effectiveness of governments in dealing with the crisis, is through a close look at the reactions of the respective populations. What was the level of cooperation between a government and its people; where did the people express trust in their leaders; which countries experienced unrest and angry protests, and where was confusion the most common reaction? The answer to such questions may tell as something about leadership style.
At this point in the pandemic, Germany has emerged as the country with the best coping strategy. Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose personal rating had dramatically dropped due to her liberal policy on immigration, rose 30% during the crisis. She decided early on that there should be a complete lockdown, accompanied by widespread tracking and testing of possibly infected individuals. On March 18, Germany closed all schools, restaurants, places of entertainment and nightlife. The chancellor made a rare television appeal to the population to cooperate in what would be a fight involving all Germany’s citizens against the spread of the virus. Herself a highly qualified scientist, she assured the people that all decisions would be based on expert advice and would be fully explained to them as the crisis developed. She assured them that the health service was well able to cope with all the demands on it and that she would convene the medical departments of all Germany’s universities in one coronavirus task force. Merkel is known to be rational, analytical and cautious and in the words of her biographer, Stefan Cornelius, she learned early on not to put herself at the center of things.
In the economic arena, Germany is again likely to be a winner. By mid- July, unemployment figures were only 6%, most factories had stayed open and the majority of workers had remained on the payroll due to a preexisting system set up to deal with temporary situations. In addition, Merkel has steered the European Union into establishing a substantial fund to assist those countries in the Union most hit by the pandemic.
Compare this record with that of US President Donald Trump, who from the moment the virus hit the US, rejected the role of scientists in formulating a COVID-19 policy. Indeed, he had previously dismantled the scientific infrastructure in government, so there was no policy in place to deal with the problem. On March 10, the president gave a press conference in which he claimed that America was fully prepared, “and doing a great job. And it will go away. Just stay calm and it will go away.” The fact was, there was chronic underfunding of the public health service and millions of Americans had no insurance for medical assistance. Doctors and scientists warned that hospitals would not be able to cope, that there was insufficient supply of protective gear and no funding in place to purchase more. At a later stage, the president suggested that sunlight or certain household detergents could kill the virus, and until recently, he steadfastly refused to wear a mask. Meanwhile, the disease was killing thousands of Americans and causing economic chaos. At the time of writing, 22% of Americans say they cannot pay their next month’s rent or mortgage.
Across the world in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Adern had closed the country’s borders and was holding daily television and social media briefings, addressing the nation as “our team of five million.”
From the beginning, she laid out the pandemic policy as consisting of four stages of lockdown and the conditions which would have to be met before moving to the next one. Employees were guaranteed a percentage of their normal income while the lockdown continued and all members of the cabinet, including the prime minister, would take a 25% cut in salary. She included scientific experts in her briefings, always deferring to their opinions and she frequently consulted other world leaders. The media described her leadership style as emphasizing authenticity, the importance of trust and the priority of the common good. In June, all restrictions in New Zealand were lifted and the island was declared virus free.
Another island nation was not so fortunate. To begin with, its prime minister, Boris Johnson fell victim to the disease at an early stage and was compelled to hand over daily briefings to the public to a variety of deputies. The general consensus about the way COVID-19 was handled in the UK was that it was taken seriously too late. The tracking and testing system which was belatedly introduced, broke down almost as soon as it began and local authorities were left to make their own rules about restrictions leading to widespread confusion about which operated where.  Nevertheless, on June 11, Johnson declared that it was “premature to say that the UK had made mistakes.” On the other hand, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of Denmark was one of the first leaders to take action to contain the virus. The country’s borders were closed, schools were immediately shut down and social gatherings were limited. In her first press conference, the prime minister emphasized that fighting the disease was a joint effort between the government and the people and she promised 90% of normal earnings from public funds to all employees unable to work. She followed this with a special press conference for children and when she was able to relax some of the restrictions for some people, she made a special appeal to the country’s elderly saying, ‘We want the weakest to be the strongest and I know this is a tough request.’ Russian President Vladimir Putin was another leader who decided to leave a policy for containing the virus to local authorities. He made an early decision to close the border with China, but apart from that, the official line from state media was that Russia had nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, amidst contradictory restrictions, by May 18, Russia was second only to the US in the number of people in the country infected with the disease.
Next door in Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin, at 34 the second-youngest state leader in the world, was heading a coalition government which included four other women under the age of 40 in ministerial positions. In mid-March she called into action an existing Emergency Powers Act to inject funds into the health service and social services in order to cope with the pandemic. The country’s borders, all schools, museums and libraries were closed, and public gatherings were forbidden. The media described the prime minister’s leadership style as “analytical but warm.” Across the world in Brazil, President Bolsonaro was calling the coronavirus, “a little flu” and accusing the media of hysteria. When Brazil’s death rate overtook China’s, he commented, “So what?’”He failed to produce any policy for dealing with the disease, leaving state governors to deal with it in whatever way they chose. And then he caught COVID-19.
In contrast, Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg had introduced a strict pandemic policy by March 12. Borders were closed, except for workers employed in neighboring Sweden, schools and other public places were placed off limits and social distancing was made mandatory. This political leader, with a background of political science and sociology, expressed particular concern for Norway’s children saying that she recognized that they were being especially affected by the new restrictions and the atmosphere around the threat from the illness. She arranged a special press conference, together with the Minister for Children and Families, to answer questions from children and to explain to them ways in which they could help during the crisis. By the end of June, the country was operating as usual albeit with social distancing still in place.
I could not leave this illustration of different leadership styles without quoting from the prime minister of Iceland, Katrin Jacobsdottir, who also happens to be the chair of the council of women world leaders. She remarked during a television interview, “In a crisis situation, it is important to put your ego to one side and to rely on experts.” To which she added, “Maybe it comes easier to women.” Following her own advice, her daily press conferences were held with the director of medicine in Iceland, as well as representatives of the police, the head of Social Security and a variety of scientists to answer questions. She presented her policy for dealing with the disease as a part of public security, Thus there would be a system of tracking and testing resulting in compulsory quarantine for those who were ill or in contact with anyone who was. 50,000 people in Iceland were given tests and 92% of those who should be in quarantine were traced. The media described the prime minister’s style as, “inspiring solidarity.” What emerges from this partial comparison of the effectiveness of political leaders in dealing with a virus which has disrupted the lives of millions and caused the death of thousands, is that the women are simply better at it. Maybe as Norway’s prime minister has said, because these women come from countries with different societal norms, maybe as New Zealand’s prime minister claimed in one of many interviews, because women do not have the burden of living up to the tough and authoritarian image of their male counterparts, maybe as Jacobsdottir of Iceland put it, because women find it easier to put their egos to one side and maybe because women place compassion before pride. Whatever the reason, the fact is. 
The writer is an author, former journalist and former head of the British Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation.