There can never be true winners from a deadly pandemic which has now “officially” claimed over 300,000 lives worldwide. Yet as the Covid-19 months slip by it seems to me that, in general, women leaders are having a better crisis than the men.
I don’t mean that Coronavirus is proving to be deadlier to those of us with xy chromosomes. I am certainly not talking about victims of the upsurge in domestic violence, which is no less shocking for having been so widely predicted before lockdown. It just seems that those women in the public sphere – from governors to carers to online jokers – have displayed a broader understanding of the situation in which we all find ourselves and, as a result, they have promoted better outcomes.
Rule One is make “no mistakes”. The men have not been slow to rush in with their seldom brilliant ideas. (By the way when did anyone last see Melania Trump?) After the Prime Minister’s big new lockdown proposals left the nation nonplussed on Sunday, the acute Camilla Tominey took to the front page of the newspaper formerly nicknamed The Daily Borisograph.
“Only a government devoid of women could have drafted a plan so full of holes”, she femsplained. It was difficult to argue with her point that the government largely overlooked the domestic and personal sides of the lockdown while going into unworkable and sometimes contradictory detail on how to get the economy working again. Crueller commentators suggested it was a plan which could only have emanated from public school boys with wives and cash-in-hand cleaners at home.
From her place of social distancing, the former Cabinet minister Amber Rudd chipped in pointedly: “[It] seems extraordinary that it still needs pointing out that excluding women from decision making will lead to bad government”. She’s right about the handling of this outbreak. Countries with elected female leaders are represented disproportionately among those who have dealt with it effectively.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would be the pin-up if that wasn’t sexist. Her government shut down the country and its borders on 15th March imposing a strict test, trace, isolate regime. Ardern took a 20% pay-cut. 21 deaths from the virus later, she’s lifted the lockdown declaring that 4.9 million “Kiwis” have won the war over the virus.
In Taiwan (pop 24 million, C-19 deaths 7) President Tsai Ing-Wen imposed similar restrictions earlier than New Zealand as soon as the bad news broke in the neighbouring People’s Republic of China.
Germany (population 83.8m, deaths 7,861) is the outlier of the big Western Democracies not just for having a woman leader. It has so far escaped with a significantly lower toll. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s doctorate in Quantum Chemistry may have helped her explain to Germans clearly what R is and why it is important to keep it below 1.
Scandinavia and Northern Europe currently have a number of female prime ministers, rightly being celebrated by British Vogue for “doing an exceptional job right now”. The statistics speak for themselves. Mette Frederiksen of Denmark (population 5.8m, deaths 537); Erna Solberg of Norway (5.3m, deaths 232); Sanna Marin of Finland (5.5m, deaths, 287) and Katrin Jakobsdottir (364k, deaths 10).
These records look like more than coincidences when fair comparisons are made with Ireland (4.9m, 1,497 deaths) and smugly permissive Sweden (10m, deaths 3,529) – neither of which have ever had a female prime minister. (UK population 67.9m, deaths 33,692; US population 331m, deaths 85,575).
There have been other outstanding women leaders around the world below the level of prime minister who have generally got under the skin of male bosses. Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan, is now seen as a potential running made for Joe Biden. Predictably, she has become a target of Twitter abuse and spite from President Trump.
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Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, defied Shinzo Abe demanding a tighter business lockdown. In Kerala, K.K. Shailajah, a member of the India’s Communist Party, is hailed as a “Rockstar health minister”. In every case these women pressed for and imposed tougher and quicker controls than their male rivals wanted.
It would be rash to suggest why women leaders have been more effective confronting Coronavirus. The old cliché about a woman’s greater capacity to multi-task may come into it. Women are firmly established in both the domestic and the public, working, spheres, and often understand how one can relate to the other. Boris Johnson only seemed to grasp this after the rough lesson of a severe dose of the disease.
As we mark Florence Nightingale’s bicentenary, it may be that women, whether from nature or nurture, have an instinct for the tough love necessary to get things done when treating victims of ill-health. Men see complex problems; women find straightforward if imperfect solutions.
This empathy extends to comedy during the crisis. Women worked out how much social media would matter during the crisis and they have been much funnier on it than the men. Victoria Emes lockdown parody of “I will survive” remains one of the earliest and most hilarious examples of Covid intuition. Twitching in a metallic blue leotard she flirts with giving too much information.
Any virtual episode of Have I Got News For You, in which the men invariably outnumber the women, shows how awkward the chaps are finding it all. They struggle without a laughing live audience, a bit like the Prime Minister at recent PMQs.
Two renowned male comic geniuses Rory Bremner and Armando Iannucci threw up their hands early on, protesting that satire is almost impossible in the age of Trump and Johnson, let alone Coronavirus. Catherine Tate and Dawn French found a way by reprising their roles as Lauren the Student and the Vicar of Dibley respectively. Both characters are well-intentioned inquiring women.
On Twitter Sarah Cooper describes herself as “@sarahcpr writer/comedian/#blockedbytrump/wrote 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings & How to be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings.” She pierced President Trump’s thin skin by the simple expedient of repeating his words as a young woman of colour.
It’s a trick that doesn’t always have to be at the expense of men. @meggiefoster managed to raise a chuckle from the notoriously hard to please Iain Dale, when she played both parts in a teenage catfight between Emily Thornberry v Caroline Flint. Jane Godley has even earned the first minister’s approval for her “salty” Glaswegian re-voicing of Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid statements.
As Amber Rudd implied Westminster is probably the exception that proves the rule of positive girl power. Scotland and Northern Ireland both led by women have rejected Prime Minister’s instructions.
There have been no women at the heart of Boris Johnson’s coronavirus war cabinet. Priti Patel holds the rank of Home Secretary but has not been trusted to appear in the frontline of the government’s response. Three female Conservative MPs – Maria Caulfield, Lucy Allan and Health Minister Nadine Dorries – had to delete their re-tweeting of a doctored video smearing and misrepresenting the Labour leader which was sent out by a far-right source.
Women experts have been allowed to join the men, in a Have I Got News For You ratio, at the government’s daily briefing. The Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries has often looked uncomfortable as she’s deployed to justify a male minister’s position. She is inclined to be blunt with “The Science” but “The Politics” demands evasion. Ruth May, the Chief Nursing Officer of England, has not been invited back after a strikingly comprehensible and compassionate turn at the lectern.
We will never know if this crisis would have been handled better had Theresa May still been prime minister. Comedy would surely have been more difficult. But on the evidence from abroad the UK would have coped better had we enjoyed more of a woman’s touch.
[National mortality statistics as at 1600BST on 14th May 2020 on Johns Hopkins University (CSSE) Covid-19 Dashboard]