Women leaders winning the war on coronavirus

Female leaders against coronavirus (Photo by The Guardian)

Photo by The Guardian.

Figures out recently comparing how efficiently countries have dealt with the coronavirus pandemic show that among the top 12, seven have a female leader. Any regular followers of my blog will know I’m a big fan of New Zealand’s plain-speaking Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.

So, imagine my delight when I heard that she was one of the seven. The story has also made the news in several newspapers and was on BBC Radio 4’s Weekend Woman’s Hour last Saturday.

As we probably all know by now, the success story of New Zealand is largely due to Ms Ardern taking swift, decisive action from the very start and speaking clearly to fellow New Zealanders, even the children, for instance in her brilliant Easter Bunny press conference. She imposed self-isolation on people entering the country when there were just six cases of coronavirus in the whole of New Zealand and soon afterwards closed the borders to foreigners. Total deaths to date, just 21.

So apart from Saint Jacinda, who are the other superwomen on the list?

Germany’s Angela Merkel, whose approval rating is skyrocketing at more than 70%, has spoken clearly to her country about the virus. With a background in science, she has explained in a calm, level way how the virus works and what the effects could be to each and every person in the country. She told Germans the virus was ‘serious’ and to ‘take it seriously’ as it could infect up to 70% of the population. There was massive testing right from the start, and numbers have been far lower than in neighbouring countries. Although this week, after a slight easing of restrictions, numbers have started to creep up again. It will be interesting to see how Ms Merkel handles that.

In January Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-Wen introduced travel restrictions and quarantine measures, as well as public hygiene rules such as disinfecting public areas and buildings. Full lockdown was not necessary thanks to the 124 measures brought in to control and contain the virus. The country has reported only seven deaths and is now sending 10 million facemasks to the US and Europe.

Returning to Europe we have the four female-led Scandi countries. Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen, took swift action, closing the country’s borders on 13 March and a few days later closed all nurseries, schools and universities. She spoke directly to children and also banned gatherings of more than 10 people. To date the country has reported just 533 deaths.

Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg told CNN that early lockdown and thorough testing had been key in the country which has reported just 219 deaths. But she used a similar trick to Frederiksen and spoke directly to children. In fact she held a children-only press conference, where no adults were allowed. She told the little ones it was ok to feel scared and then answered their questions like ‘Can I have a birthday party?’ and ‘Can I visit my grandparents after going to the shopping centre?’

In Iceland, under prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, free testing has been offered to all citizens, not only those with symptoms, something which will help with research into COVID-19's spread and fatality rates. Thanks to the high amounts of testing and advanced tracing system, schools have not needed to be closed and only 10 people have died from the disease.

Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin became the world’s youngest leader, aged 34, when she was elected last December, and as a Millenial, she used social media influencers to get her message across about the dangers of coronavirus. There was a strict lockdown, with a ban on all non-essential travel in and out of Helsinki and the country has had just 267 deaths.

So apart from finding novel ways to reach people, through children or social media, showing their human side and their compassion, what have these women done to keep infection rates so low? In general they took, sometimes unpopular, decisive action early on. They didn’t wait until their country was in the grip of the virus, they didn’t put their economies first, or even their own political careers. Instead they watched events developing in other countries, put the lives of their citizens before money and politics, and they acted. Fast.

Meanwhile at a time when the world needs to be pulling together to fight this global crisis, the invincible populist male leaders have tried to use the situation for their own gain; denying the severity of the disease, blaming other countries, blaming the World Health Organisation and, in the case of Trump, withdrawing essential funding to the WHO at this most vital time.

Brazilian leader, Jair Bolsonaro described coronavirus as a little bit of flu and declared that he was fit and athletic so wouldn't suffer if he caught it. Trump who, like his Brazilian counterpart, saw it as something not too worrying, despite his own First Lady taking the situation far more seriously, said he didn’t see himself sitting behind the oval office desk wearing a face mask. The country has now lost more than 80,000 souls to the killer disease.

Then there’s Boris Johnson who also thought it would be like flu but having been in intensive care himself must now surely have more respect for the disease. However, even he thinks we can start to ease lockdown while daily deaths are still in triple figures, and he is aiming for schools to start re-opening in June.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the female leaders in both Scotland and Northern Ireland have criticised the PM, saying it’s too early to ease lockdown and they are both still pushing the Stay at Home message. To be fair, the male First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, has also chosen not to ease up on lockdown just yet, just as there are plenty of male leaders around the world who are also doing a good job fighting the pandemic. So while we can’t say that all male heads of state make wrong decisions dealing with coronavirus, it is, however, certainly true that more female leaders make the right ones.

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coronavirus female leaders

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