Want a well-run pandemic response? Put a woman in charge

As Boris Johnson’s Britain notches up 100,000 deaths, the statistics for female-run countries are incomparably better. But is the connection as simple as it looks?

January 29, 2021
Photo: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

If it’s possible for a plague to have a pin up, then Jacinda Ardern is it. She is the female prime minister whose quick and decisive actions have succeeded in holding Covid-19 deaths in New Zealand down to just 25 in a population of around five million. On any metric, Ardern has one of the best records in the world for containing the deadly virus. Is it the Jacinda effect? Or are women leaders better at battling the disease?

Ardern, now in her second term, had already established a record for meeting terrible national adversity with grace and empathy after the mosque shootings in Christchurch in 2019 which left 51 dead. She also has the geographical bonus of being prime minister of distant and sparsely populated New Zealand. Locking down and shutting out the world was devastating to the economy, but it was a whole lot easier than locking down Britain.  

But Ardern’s relative success in limiting the impact of Covid-19 is not unique. However brutal it feels to reduce individual deaths to global statistics, there is a striking correlation between countries with women leaders and low death rates. Order the world by the number of deaths per million, and it is not only female-led New Zealand that stands out: Under Erna Solberg, Norway has had 103 deaths per million—in striking contrast to neighbouring Sweden’s 1,128, where Stefan Löfven left the reins in the hands of anti-lockdown epidemiologist Anderst Tegnell.    

Iceland, (Katrín Jakobsdóttir) has 85 deaths per million, and Taiwan (Tsai Ing-wen) has, astonishingly, just 0.3. Angela Merkel’s Germany was a world leader on testing and although its standing has since slipped well behind the best, it still stands out in the rest of Europe for keeping the death toll well below 1,000 per million. Male-led France, Italy and Spain—and of course Britain—have all experienced a far higher rate of death.   

And outside OECD countries, Kerala, whose highly effective health minister KK Shailaja was voted 2020’s top thinker by Prospect readers last summer, has had a total of just over 3,600 deaths in a population of 34m. And if the numbers are less impressive right now, Shailaja is at the helm of the fight back and the local rate of death remains strikingly low.  

Meanwhile male leaders, and especially those on the authoritarian, populist right, have a miserable record. As prime minister of the UK, with a grim 1,504 deaths per million, Boris Johnson set out by defining himself against “girly swot” over-prepping. Statistically, he is now in the company of ex-president Donald Trump (1,297 deaths per million) and Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro (1,036) who, despite younger populations, have blundered their way to almost equally bad results. Just as the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash flattered women leaders, so too does the pandemic suggest that faced with unprecedented crisis demanding swift but thoughtful action, women do better than men. Don’t they?

That was certainly the conclusion of research published last August by a group of developmental economists based in Liverpool and Reading. They concluded that female-led countries performed “systematically and significantly better.” One of the Liverpool researchers, Professor Supriya Garikipati, summarised the “female effect” as quicker, more decisive reactions and a readiness to prioritise lives over livelihoods, a choice which as the crisis grinds on is looking better for prosperity too. Globally, the study found, countries led by women have six times fewer deaths than those led by men. “In almost all cases,” Garikipati said, “they locked down earlier than male leaders in similar circumstances.... it has certainly helped these countries to save lives.”

But is gender the full story? What about Scotland and Nicola Sturgeon? Sturgeon has won admiration across the UK for her willingness to communicate her administration’s thinking and recognise error. Polling consistently records that she is viewed positively by unionists as well as nationalists, right as well as left. YouGov finds not only that she is thought to have managed the pandemic well, but voters say she is “a leader,” “in touch” and “stands up for normal people.” Then look at the figures. Of course, Scotland is not entirely in control of its destiny and some of its problems are historic. But overall, Scotland has a worse death toll than England.

So is there a way of explaining the exceptions as well as the rules? Last month, another piece of work evaluating national leadership in the time of Covid came to different conclusions. Without disputing that many female leaders had better records than their male counterparts, academics at Memphis led by Leah C Windsor argued that some countries led by men—India and Australia for example—had managed to contain the virus almost as effectively as those led by women. They suggest there is something else going on, closely related but different. They identify the qualities of government that distinguish the most effective leadership at this time of national emergency – trust in government, for example, empathy, and a strategic approach—and they suggest it is not, or not only, the gender of the leader that matters. 

Their conclusion is that a country that values these qualities, qualities that are often attributed to female leaders, will—this is not rocket science—be more likely to elect women. “Given a position of leadership, women leaders are then better able to capitalize on particular cultural values than men, and more likely to turn those values into pandemic management successes than men leaders, while countries without those values fare worse, regardless of whether they are led by men or women,” they suggest.

So here’s a thought experiment. Imagine Theresa May as the UK’s pandemic prime minister. Ignore her political misjudgements over Brexit, and recall instead her all-consuming risk avoidance as home secretary. She was always an exasperating politician, most especially for male colleagues ganged up in the effortless superiority of the Notting Hill set of which Johnson was an associate member. Her dogged attempts to find some common ground between the ERG and the EU, her unmistakably anguished determination to claw sanity from the grip of the obsessives were out of tune with a polarised nation. But surely they would have had more chance of persuading voters facing national catastrophe that she was acting in their interests than her successor’s reckless optimism.  

It was Thomas Jefferson who pointed out that we get the government we deserve. Divided nations choose divisive leaders. The groundhog day gloom of Brexit lent lustre to Johnson’s bombastic wit. It is worth reflecting that he may be symptom as well as cause of Britain’s Covid failures.