When women lead, the virus loses

Updated: Jun 21, 2020, 20:14 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

What do Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Germany and Kerala have in common? Low COVID-19 death rates and women in charge.

(Top row from left) Kerala's Health Minister K K Shailaja, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-Wen; (bottom row) Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin, Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Iceland's Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel
(Top row from left) Kerala's Health Minister K K Shailaja, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-Wen; (bottom row) Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin, Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Iceland's Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel

C Y GopinathToday I became aware of a country I'd never heard of before: Sint Maarten, somewhere in the islands of the Caribbean. It's only 34 sq km in size and has a mere 42,844 people, but it's a full fledged parliamentary representative democracy. Its prime minister is a 51-year-old teacher called Silveria Jacobs.

This little-known dot of an island welcomes 5,00,000 tourists a year. Watching the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world, on March 11 Silveria Jacobs extended travel restrictions from 14 to 21 days. The next day she postponed the Carnival, a major festival that would have attracted thousands. Five days later, on March 17, a French couple returning from France to their home in Sint Maarten brought the novel Coronavirus back with them.

Silveria Jacobs
Silveria Jacobs, prime minister of Sint Maarten, that has just 77 COVID cases and 15 deaths

Sint Maarten has only two ICU beds. If the virus took hold, it could quickly overwhelm the island's healthcare system. Jacobs did not want to lock her country down and knew that strict distancing alone might keep the pandemic at bay. On April 1, she spoke to her people, delivering a three-word message: "Simply. Stop. Moving," she said. "If you don't have the bread you like in your house, eat crackers. Eat cereal. Eat oats. Eat… sardines."

As I write this, Sint Maarten has had a total of 77 coronavirus infections and only 15 deaths.

Six other countries have acted swiftly and decisively and kept their death rates down: Taiwan (7 deaths), New Zealand (22), Iceland (10), Finland (323), Norway (238) and Germany (8,776). Don't be misled by Germany's larger number — it only reflects its much, much larger population compared to the other countries. Together, these countries represent the best, most efficient, empathetic and effective responses to the pandemic.

All six countries are led by women.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-Wen; New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Arden; Iceland's Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir; Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin, only 34; Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg; and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel.

To this list let's add one of our own — Kerala's remarkable Health Minister K K Shailaja, hailed as the Corona Slayer. She reacted early and swiftly, flattening the death curve before it could even take off. Compared to Maharasthra, with 2,969 deaths, Kerala has seen only 15 people die.

Match these against the six worst-hit countries in the world — Donald Trump's USA, with over 2 million cases and 1,12,469 deaths as of yesterday; Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil, #2 in deaths; Vladimir Putin's Russia, in third place, followed by Boris Johnson's UK and Modi's India.

Notice anything? All are headed by autocratic, macho, science-denying, aggressive strongmen, noted for their lack of empathy and humane instincts. Their countries are paying a heavy price.

So here's my question: are women better leaders than men when it comes to solving a complex problem like a pandemic? Would we be better off with more women in power?
It's true that countries like South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and Greece, led by men, have also kept death rates down. And, at least one woman-led country, Belgium, has seen overwhelming deaths.

But if it's not their gender that makes them better leaders during a pandemic, what else could it be? Consider these images — Jacinda Ardern, PM of New Zealand, apologising for her casual home clothes as she streams Facebook live videos telling Zelanians, "We're all in this together." Her approach of putting kindness and saving lives first has paid rich dividends. Unlike Trump, she has not wasted time playing the blame game and her press conferences have been non-combative.

Denmark's PM Mette Frederiksen posted a video of herself singing along with the weekly lockdown show while doing the dishes.

Dr Zoe Marks, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, says there's nothing inherently female about empathetic leadership. Franklin Roosevelt was well-known for his cosy 'fireside chats' with America during the depression.

Rosie Campbell, professor of politics at King's College, London, says that leaders who have displayed humility and vulnerability against the pandemic have proven the most effective.

Unlike Ardern, though, Germany's Merkel is not famous for her warmth; her PhD was in quantum chemistry. Yet she went on TV and calmly explained the science behind her testing strategy to her fellow Germans in clear simple terms. The same willingness to follow the science, led Merkel and Iceland's Jakobsdottir to push for a massive testing and contact tracing strategy. Deaths were minimal.

While the world's hyper-masculine leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro belittle the crisis and applaud themselves for doing nothing to save no one, a handful of women have been showing that a little humility, a little warmth and a little science are what you need in the middle of a pandemic.

Germany's hospitals had so many unused ICUs that they began accepting patients from nearby France. That should tell us something.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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