female leadership "The female leaders skipped the phases of denial, anger, blame, and acceptance that paralyzed their male counterparts."
Image via Unsplash/Lindsey LaMont

Only 10 countries in the entire world are led by women, those women don’t have the luxury of failing. Here’s how their response to COVID-19 has been more effective.

Out of a total of 196 nations in the world, only 10 are led by women. Yet many of the countries with the most successful responses against the pandemic have women at the helm. In Germany, Prime Minister Angela Merkel -—a former scientist— reached out to her nation early and laid down the law with no equivocation. She told the German people that they were facing their worst crisis since 1945 and that they needed to take the coronavirus seriously.

She then immediately enacted massive testing and clear containment guidelines. The result is that Germany, a country of over 80 million people, has only 5,000 reported deaths. In contrast, Italy and Spain, which reported their first cases around the same time as Germany, have four times more deaths per capita. New York State, with a population of 20 million, has over 17,000 deaths. 

New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern sealed off the borders and locked down her country when it had only 6 cases of COVID-19. New Zealand is currently reporting 1,479 cases and only 19 deaths. 

Like Merkel and Ardern, Erna Solberg of Norway, Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, Katrín Jakobsdóttir of Iceland, and Sanna Marin of Finland all acted quickly, decisively, transparently, and clearly. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson, and the ineffectual leaders of Italy and Spain shine for their mismanagement and lack of leadership.

Ignacio Varela, a Spanish news commentator, observed that the female leaders skipped the phases of denial, anger, blame, and acceptance that paralyzed their male counterparts. They not only saved hundreds of thousands of lives, but they are getting their economies to recover sooner. Needless to say, these women’s containment measures have earned them the continued trust of their citizenry and high approval numbers. Angela Merkel has a 70% approval rate.

This phenomenon can’t be reduced to the stereotypical explanation that women are better nurturers and are simply mothering their countries. The male leaders of South Korea and Singapore, and Governor Gavin Newsom of California also handled the pandemic well. But the response of many male leaders has been a disgrace. 

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Political ideology may be partially responsible. I wonder if the populist leaders’ insistence in downplaying the dangers of the coronavirus is related to a male fear of being perceived as weak or vulnerable, or whether, in their delusion, they want to project an air of invincibility.

It’s remarkable that from Trump in the U.S. to Johnson in England to Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Bolsonaro in Brazil, they all dismissed the risks as if they were trying to prove their superiority against the virus. None of the women leaders condescended to their citizenry. They did not treat their citizens like children. 

With the exception of Taiwan, which is a young democracy, these women were elected in developed countries with long-established social democracies where women enjoy more equality, their citizens rely on a robust social safety net, and the state does not put profit over people. 

In the United States, Michigan Governor Gretchen Wittmer, a Democrat, also acted decisively to contain the pandemic in her state. But she had to fight pushback from President Trump himself who criticized her response and encouraged the people of Michigan to revolt against her measures

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The federal response to the pandemic has been calamitous. It seems that in America business takes precedence over people. From President Trump to Governor Cuomo (yes, him), to Governor Kemp of Georgia who was busy opening bowling alleys and tattoo parlors last week, not to mention Ron De Santis in Florida, the priority of their concerns seemed to be first for the economic consequences of the pandemic and then for the loss of lives. 

Nothing else explains why the United States had no containment measures until it was too late. China reported its first case on January 21 yet measures were not taken in the United States until over two months later, even as the exponential spread in China, Italy, and Spain was evident. This delay, which is mainly the result of our leaders’ arrogance and their fear of an economic downturn, is the reason why the United States has become the epicenter of the pandemic with over one million cases and more than 61,000 deaths. 

Besides ideological explanations, it’s worth observing that the female prime ministers responded effectively because they are highly qualified leaders. Since only 10 countries in the entire world are led by women, the women who are able to shatter the political glass ceiling and win democratic elections have to be quite formidable. Women at the top of their professions have to work twice as hard for their achievements. They do not have the luxury of failing. They are held to a higher standard. These remarkable women are real, effective, and inspiring leaders.

The pandemic has revealed in very stark terms that mediocre male politicians everywhere get away with murder. No one would withstand in a woman the incompetence we have seen from the overgrown babies that lead some of the world’s largest economies. Meanwhile, the United States is still too backward to elect extremely qualified female leaders to the highest office. Perhaps one day we’ll learn a lesson from the success of these extraordinary women.

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