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Women Leaders in the Covid-19 Pandemic: What Is the Secret to Their Effectiveness?

They went for early interventions and followed the science. They communicated with their people with empathy and patience. They apologized when they made mistakes. Is this a kind of leadership that only women can wield?

By Bernie Quimpo


Do women really make more effective leaders in a global crisis such as a Covid-19 pandemic? The belief that they do has gained a lot ground recently. But what is the real score?

A quick look at the global situation during this still ongoing Covid-19 pandemic shows that two of the best performing world leaders in dealing with the crises are women: New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen. 

Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand

When the pandemic broke out in March 2020, PM Ardern put New Zealand on an early lockdown. With this and other strong science-based measures, New Zealand never allowed the pandemic to gain momentum. By 19 March 2021, New Zealand with a population of 4.9 million recorded 2,444 cases with 2,363 recoveries and 26 deaths—and an 80 percent confidence in the leadership of its Prime Minister. Last October, Ardern led the Labour Party to a resounding electoral victory, winning a majority of Parliament and a strong mandate to rule.

In the Covid Performance Index of the Lowy Institute in Australia, New Zealand ranked first among 98 governments in terms of effectiveness in fighting the pandemic. (The Philippines ranked 79th, Indonesia 85th, and the United States 94th.) The Lowy Institute study was completed on 30 December 2020.

The 39-year old Ardern is a trained communicator and makes the best use of her communication skills to demonstrate empathy, which partly explains the high level of public confidence and trust in her. And she is the first head of government to bring her baby to a meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York—in one of the few times that this dreary debating club had really something interesting going on.

On 29 March 2021 she announced that she was finally planning her wedding to long-time fiance Clark Gayford.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and former Vice-President Chen Chien-jen celebrates New Year’s Day at the presidential office. (Photo: CAN) 

Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan 

Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen did not put the whole territory on lockdown at the start of the pandemic but she pursued a vigorous and strict program of testing, contact tracing and isolation measures to control infections. By 19 March 2021, Taiwan with a population of 23.57 million had 1,004 total cases, 959 of them recovered, and with only ten deaths. Taiwan took third place in the Covid Performance Index of the Lowy Institute, outranked only by New Zealand and second-placer Vietnam.

To its credit, Taiwan was able to do this without being a member of the World Health Organization (WHO). Tsai, who has a style of governing similar to that of New Zealand’s Ardern, was closely in contact with her people, relied on early strong intervention, big data and artificial intelligence, and daily press briefings. It helped that in 2020 she had a vice-president who is a Johns Hopkins-trained epidemiologist, Chen Chien-jen.

What about the other women leaders? Also hailed as among the foremost fighters against the pandemic soon after it broke out were several woman leaders that included Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway and, as many expected, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

All are believers in early decisive intervention, mindful of the advice of scientists and experts, and skilled empathetic communicators. All were enjoying great public support as their countries registered low numbers of Covid-19 infection cases and deaths. That was their situation in the early half of 2020. The pundits were warning that things could change drastically for these women leaders.

Finland’s President Sanna Marin and her husband, Markus Räikkönen. (Photo: The Australian)

Finland’s Sanna Marin

Today Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland is confronted by a third wave of the pandemic and has just declared a new lockdown with the possibility of stronger measures to be taken if conditions worsen. And yet Finland still has one of the lowest numbers of Covid-19 infection cases in Europe, 58,064 with 750 deaths as of 02 March 2021 out of a population of 5.5 million. Finland ranks No. 16 among 98 countries on the Lowy Institute index.

At 35 among the youngest heads of government in the world today, she found time to get married last August to her long-time partner Markus Raikkonen. 

Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen (center) greets her supporter during the 2019 election. (Photo: AFP)

Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen

As to Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s Denmark, the country today is easing restrictions: schools are partially open and small shops are opening, after a rigid lockdown at the beginning of March 2021. Recently she had to make a tearful apology for ordering the culling—without solid legal basis—of millions of minks after a few were found to have been infected with a variant of the coronavirus.

Yet she continues to enjoy the confidence of the Danish people, although her approval rating is no longer what it was during the first three weeks of the pandemic: 88 percent. 

As of 27 March 2021, Denmark had recorded 227,049 cases of Covid-19 infections with 2,413 deaths, out of a population of 5.8 million. Denmark is No. 17 on the Lowy Institute index, a notch below Finland.

Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg. (Photo: Nord News)

Erna Solberg of Norway

Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg recently had to make a public apology for breaking one of her own regulations, a ban against large parties. This happened even as the country confronted a third wave of the pandemic, with a highly contagious variant of the virus first discovered in the United Kingdom now stalking the land. That was why once again Solberg imposed another set of strict restrictions to contain the new surge of the virus. 

A late-breaking news story is that she is under police investigation for the violation. Norway, however, still holds low numbers of Covid-19 cases—92,469—and deaths—956 out of a population of 5.328 million. The country is No. 18 on the Lowy Institute index, a rank lower than Denmark. And the country is arguably still one of the success stories of the pandemic.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel confronts former US President Donald Trump during the G7 Leaders Summit in Quebec, Canada. (Photo: AP)

Angela Merkel of Germany

Meanwhile the fortunes of Chancellor Angela Merkel took a sad turn: after being praised to high heavens during the first wave of the pandemic last year, Germany mutated in a few months into an object lesson on… overconfidence?

Now much of the world now looks upon Merkel’s leadership with a feeling that can only be expressed in German: schadenfreude.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Germany hit the ground running because of the science-based measures that the long-serving Chancellor took. A scientist herself, she took her cues from scientists and experts. The country locked down early and imposed rigorous restrictions, and largely controlled the number of infections and deaths. But the neglect of nursing homes and the refusal of the federal states to unite behind the strong measures she proposed soon took their toll and the number of cases and covid-related deaths began to multiply.

As of 27 March 2021 Germany had 2,772,694 cases, with 76,404 deaths, out of a population of 83.02 million. And the country’s ranking on the Lowy Institute index had come down from near the top to No. 55. 

Chancellor Merkel had announced that she would not be seeking reelection this year. Germany’s performance in the pandemic will be a dim part of her legacy. 

Moldovan President Maia Sandu attends a news conference in Chisnau, Moldova. (Photo: Reuters)

Maia Sandu of Moldova

A lesser-known woman leader who, against great odds, may yet become one more success story in the saga of the pandemic is President Maia Sandu of Moldova, elected last November after years of sexist attacks against her by political rivals. She leads a country that was once a part of the Soviet Union and is now one of the poorest in Europe. 

Landlocked and with meager resources, Moldova under Sandu in early March 2021 became the first European country to receive a free supply of vaccines from the WHO-supported COVAX Facility, a global procurement mechanism to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines. Though she has the support of the European Union, President Sandu struggles not only against a raging pandemic but also a hostile parliament and the old problems of abject poverty and corruption.

A cursory look at the performance of women leaders in the pandemic as late as March 2021 confirms the finding of a study made in August 2020, which covered 194 countries and was published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum that “female leaders had been reacting exceptionally well to the pandemic, keeping infection levels low and coming up with inventive ways to keep their citizens safe and well-informed.”

End of an era

How do you explain the apparent faltering of Germany’s Angela Markel in recent months? The fact that she is a lame duck leader and the looming general elections may have a great deal to do with the debacle: in recent days she could barely press a one-week lockdown on the leaders of federal states. Most German politicians would have nothing to do with such unpopular measures as pandemic restrictions. Hence, she was not getting much support even from her own base.

Moreover, a recent study involving 20,000 respondents in the G-7 countries as well as India, Kenya and Nigeria—the Reykjavik Index—indicated that only 41 percent of respondents in Germany said they were very comfortable with a woman being head of government, in spite of Merkel’s prolonged chancellorship. That means she has spent a lifetime in politics beating the odds. That only makes it more amazing she was de facto leader of the European Union for many years, and from 2016 to 2020, she actually led the existing international order.

Listen now to Princeton University historian David Bell. He writes, “A different sort of charismatic leadership has proven more effective, with women leaders shining. Ardern, Merkel, Frederiksen, and Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan have emphasized compassion and patience, rather than war and victory. They have not posed as commanders dispatching brave conscripts off to the front, but rather as mothers and daughters sharing the fears and privations of their fellow citizens.”

Let it not be said, however, that only mothers and daughters can exercise that kind of leadership, which in fact springs from the better part of human nature. Men can also exercise that kind of leadership if they remember that they are fathers and sons and are not too busy looking tough and knowing-it-all. 


Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of PinterPolitik.


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