Covid sheroes 

ByMihir Srivastava

Jun 12, 2020

Women-led governments have done much better in the trying times of the pandemic, displaying decisive leadership and commanding trust of the nation

“I did a little dance,” said Jacinda Ardern, 39-year-old Prime Minister of New Zealand when she was informed that no new cases were reported, nor are there any active cases of Covid-19 in the country. New Zealand will soon resume a normal life, albeit with social distancing.

It’s not a mere coincidence that most of the countries led by a woman have done exceedingly well to contain the spread of the pandemic, perhaps to the anguish of many of their male counterparts across the world. It’s not that all men in leadership positions have fared badly during the present crisis, but there’s hardly any example of a woman leader faltering.

World leaders like Vladimir Putin of Russia and Donald Trump of the US, who have in the past been seen flaunting their masculinity, and are essentially patriarchal in their disposition, have failed to deal with the pandemic. Their sprawling countries remain global hotspots. The local media has described them as part of the problem, and not crisis mitigators.

Such leaders have a lot to learn from their female counterparts like Arden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin – who last year became the world’s youngest head of government at the age of 34, Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Jeong Eun-kyeong who’s the unflappable head of South Korea’s centre for disease control.

Just 100 miles from China from where the pandemic originated, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was one of the first world leaders to initiate decisive mitigation efforts, a set of 124 measures that included the National Health Command Centre carrying out island-wide testing, banning travels from China, including cruise ships. Strict social distancing norms were introduced that were subsequently followed by other countries.

This is not coincidence. Many studies have shown that women can be better leaders. Zenger and Folkman researched in the US for years the authority in strengths‐based leadership development. In as many as 16 researches differentiating leadership competencies, they found that women excelled in a majority of areas like “taking initiative”, “resilience”, “practising self-development” or “a drive for results”.

It’s the drive for results that inspired Katrín Jakobsdóttir, prime minister of Iceland when she offered free testing to all citizens. Germany, which initially had a very high number of cases and rising fast, was able to keep death figures in terms of percentage one of the lowest in Europe, much less than neighbouring France and Italy, thanks to the prompt actions of a result-oriented government under Merkel. The health infrastructure was geared up to deal with the worst-case scenario in Germany, is perhaps the only country with huge excess capacity.

What was the leadership style in all the countries that did well, particularly under women’s guidance? They never lost control and nor were they paranoid. Their strategy was based on the proper understanding of the virus, based on the ground realities and resulted in a pragmatic response that contained the spread. They also opted for resumption of normal life as soon as possible, with due precautions in place.

Ina Ross, a Berlin-based academic who has a busy schedule taking online classes eight hours a day, feels that Germans “trust” Merkel, her words carry weight and therefore people listen to what she has to say, what she wants them to do. Merkel, on the last leg of her political career, as she will not seek re-election, has already created an incredible political legacy.

Ina feels she has nothing left to prove. “She’s not driven by ego, is a pragmatic leader. And being a scientist helps,” explains Ina.

Jacinda Ardern prime minister of New Zealand at her office // Instagram-Ardern

Ina lays emphasis on trust Merkel commands — no one asks questions when she makes a decision. This is a big distinction between Merkel and American President Trump. In the latter’s case, people view with suspicion all his actions, wondering if he’s driven by some hidden agenda. For example, he was allegedly favouring the product of a particular pharmaceutical company for treatment of Covid-19.

However, Hannu Tikkala, a Helsinki-based political correspondent for Yle—a Finnish broadcasting company—has a contrarian view. He feels that the gender of the leader “has nothing to do” with how the pandemic is handled in a country, but “the capability of the leaders and how the society functions.”

Finland managed the pandemic “fairly well” as “the cabinet (collective leadership) introduced some unprecedented actions. For example, “We closed schools. This didn’t even happen during the Second World War,” points out Tikkala.

“It’s hard to tell which actions prevented the spreading of the virus,” he adds and gives credit to the citizenry at large for observing “the restrictions and recommendations.” As far as the role of Prime Minister Sanna Marin is concerned, he says “She has been a robust leader” in articulating her vision of what needs to be done, in active consultations with the healthcare experts. She has done well, but there’s always a scope for improvement, feel many Finns, informs Tikkala. All said and done, her approval ratings are high.

Madeline Schneider, 31, a Public Policy Consultant living in Berlin, feels that “women-led states were comparatively better in coping with the crisis” due to a certain set of reasons. Schneider feels women’s leadership kept ‘people in the loop’, appropriate actions were initiated well in time, and restrictions were communicated clearly (to people at large) and implemented in a ‘transparent manner’.

“Female heads of government also conveyed in a credible manner that they understand the sensitivity of restricting personal rights and would relax them again as fast as possible,” she explains and points to the trust factor as Ina did.

“The extent of the pandemic was initially misjudged or concealed in many male-led countries such as the UK, the US or for that matter Brazil, which are now heavily affected by consequences of the pandemic,” says Schneider.

Like Margeret Wheatley, a renowned American writer and management consultant who studies organisational behaviour, famously said, “Leadership is a series of behaviours rather than a role for heroes.”

(Cover: Sanna Marin Maiden trip to Germany as prime minister of Finland with Merkel.   Photo: Instagram-Marin)