WHEN deciding who is stronger or more skilled, the English language has an expression that talks about separating the men from the boys. But when it comes to global management of the coronavirus, it may be more accurate to separate the men from the women. Three countries — Germany, New Zealand and Taiwan — have stood out in their handling of the global pandemic. Is it a coincidence that all three are currently run by women?
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is a scientist by training. Her rational and informed decision-making in this time of crisis has led to Germany having one of the lowest fatality rates for the virus, 1.6 per cent. Compare that with 12pc in Italy, though both countries have a large ageing population. Germany’s adroit handling of the public health emergency can be attributed to an early commitment of resources in fighting the pandemic and taking measures such as stocking up on test kits and procuring extra hospital beds and ventilators. As a result, Germany is now in a position to accept critically sick patients from other European countries.
Similarly, Taiwan, a country that does not even have access to WHO due to Chinese pressure, has managed to keep its infected cases very low (less than 400) by acting early on travel restrictions and mandating face masks. Under the leadership of President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan is now able to donate masks to Europe. In January and February, while other countries were debating whether or not to take the coronavirus threat seriously, Germany, Taiwan and New Zealand, were acting decisively. In New Zealand, where 11 deaths have been reported thus far and the number of recoveries exceeds new infections, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took the bold step of shutting borders early despite having an economy heavily reliant on tourism.
Most importantly, all three women communicated clearly and did not backtrack on what they said, thereby building trust so that the instructions they issued were followed closely by citizens. Instead of wasting time on blaming predecessors or downplaying the threat posed by this deadly virus, they were truthful and demonstrated an emotional intelligence found largely lacking among the male leadership of traditionally powerful countries like the US and UK, both of which are currently led by men who have blundered profusely amidst the crisis.
The PM should take his cue from women leaders.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson started off by rejecting the idea of a lockdown or social distancing, favouring instead the bizarre idea of ‘herd immunity’ whilst callously informing the public that they will “lose loved ones”. It was only after several people died, epidemiologists confirmed that herd immunity isn’t possible in the absence of a vaccine, and members of his inner circle came down with the virus while Johnson himself ended up in hospital that he made a U-turn on his policy.
Likewise, President Trump was unable to remain consistent in these perilous times. Until the second week of March, he insisted on comparing the highly contagious coronavirus to the flu. By making wrong comparisons and being indecisive about testing and social-distancing measures, he has managed to make the US the epicentre of the virus, with the largest number of recorded cases of any country. When questioned by reporters about his failings, he turns on them in true narcissistic style.
In contrast, the women leaders seem far less concerned about their own image or self-congratulation and far more willing to work seriously in these testing times. They aren’t bothered about becoming cult figures worshipped by their supporters, or appearing macho as Boris Johnson did when he claimed, not too long ago, that “he shakes hands with everyone, even coronavirus patients”.
Pakistan has the benefit of learning from other countries and assessing how much of a difference good leadership makes. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Imran Khan has demonstrated tendencies similar to Trump and Johnson. By not addressing the nation on the pandemic until March 17, he acted very late. And even then there was no clear plan. In the initial press conferences, he appeared enamoured by Boris Johnson’s approach of “taking it on the chin” which is proving detrimental to Britain with each passing day as the death toll continues to rise.
Like Trump, Khan had downplayed the threat by equating it with the flu and suggesting that warmer weather may dissipate it. Self-absorbed and prone to blaming his predecessors for healthcare inadequacies, he seems as unconvinced as Trump when suggesting a lockdown, thus making it less likely for others to abide by the restrictions. He would be much better off taking his cue from the women leaders of Germany, New Zealand and Taiwan, who have prioritised effectively, acted decisively and earned the trust of their compatriots.
The writer is a London-based lawyer.
Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2020