Double X, No Why - GulfToday

Double X, No Why

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed has achieved the low Nordic rate of infections and fatalities in densely-populated Bangladesh.

The globe’s few female national leaders have tackled the coronavirus crisis more effectively and efficiently than many of their far more numerous male counterparts. Although women are the chief executives in only 10-11 per cent of the world’s 195 countries, the majority have acted promptly and decisively to the health and economic challenges posed by COVID-19, while some men have dismissed the threat posed by the virus and dithered, wasting precious time.

International media have celebrated the most prominent of these women. First among them is Chancellor Angela Merkel who warned Germans that up to 70 per cent could become infected and initiated aggressive testing for the virus. Consequently, Germany escaped the horrendous fatalities suffered by Italy and Spain.

In January, another internationally acclaimed woman, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen reduced travel with China, the global source of the virus, and imposed dozens of measures short of lockdown to prevent contagion.

After explaining to New Zealanders risks engendered when the virus spread, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern introduced lockdown and barred foreigners from entering the country.

Female leaders in the progressive Nordic countries have also done well. Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir provided free testing for all citizens and tracked virus cases. Schools stayed open. The world’s youngest prime minister, Finland’s Sanna Marin, 34, declared a state of emergency, established a $16 billion (Dhs59bn) economic support programme, and used the internet to warn countrymen and women of the dangers posed by the virus. Norway’s Erna Solberg, prime minister since 2013, has closed schools and universities, restaurants, bars and cafes and quarantined anyone who travelled out of Norway and Sweden. Denmark’s Premier Mette Frederiksen followed suit and is among the first to open up again — cautiously. Denmark not only kept control but also achieved a remarkable better than 50 per cent recovery rate.

Sweden is the Nordic exception. Under male Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, Sweden has adopted a less dramatic approach to the virus by refusing to enforce lockdown while gathering material and equipment to treat cases. While some Swedes try to carry on normally as if the virus does not exist, most stay at home and practice social distancing. Female Deputy Premier Isabella Lovin has warned, “We’re working night and day to save jobs in Sweden... but we can’t provide guarantees.” The results of the Swedish experiment are mixed. Lockdowns in other Nordic states have kept infections and fatalities low.

Global media have ignored less known leaders and veterans who have done well. In the Balkans, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, the first woman to hold the office, declared a state of emergency, closed schools, bars, malls and public transport and imposed curfew and initiated state aid for struggling businesses. Balkan countries with male premiers — Croatia, Slovenia and Kosovo — have also done well with virus containment.

Bangladesh’s long-time Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, 72, has so far achieved the low Nordic rate of infections and fatalities, although her country has a population of 160 million living in densely populated cities, towns and villages with poor health facilities. She has blamed repatriation of expatriate workers for contagion.

The US, which has never had a woman president, has nine female state governors. The most high profile, Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has called for a strict regime on the state of Michigan, where the death toll is third largest in the country due to Detroit, a former industrial hub. The state has more than 37,000 cases with a 10 per cent death rate. Whitmer’s slogan has been, “Stay home, stay safe.” Protesters, organised by right-wing Republicans, mounted the first US demonstrations against this policy although, according to projections, the Michigan death rate would have been 50 per cent higher. The current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, has, naturally, praised and encouraged the anti-lockdowners while the scientists advising him have called for restraint.

Women may be more successful in dealing with the pandemic because, in most cultures, they are from birth trained to be empathetic and care-giving while men are expected to be assertive and protective of their personal image.

Explaining in Forbes magazine why women might be more effective than men during the coronavirus pandemic, leadership psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argues that “cultures that see leadership as less masculine may not just be more likely to have women in charge, but also more likely to act in empathetic, altruistic and risk-averse ways, all of which reduce the damage of a contagious virus. When it comes to handling a disease, this is not a trivial or metaphorical matter: the traditional approach to facing illnesses (a tough or macho attitude) is a particular liability in the face of pandemics, especially if you are in charge, and people look to you for guidance on how to behave.”

Trump is definitely not empathetic, altruistic or risk-averse. He initially dismissed COVID-19 as a simple “flu” which would disappear quickly. Once he, finally, had to admit this was not the case, he continued to prevaricate and procrastinate. Consequently, he did not make serious efforts to contain and counter the virus for two months after being notified of its existence, losing valuable time and allowing the virus to spread. As a result, the US, with a million confirmed cases and more than 55,000 deaths, is the global epicentre of the virus.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson adopted the Trump attitude and modus operandi and his country, with 150,000 infections and 20,000 deaths, became a European coronavirus hub. By contrast, in Scotland — which has 6,000 confirmed cases and no deaths — female First Minister Nicola Sturgeon adopted lockdown and social distancing to contain the virus and has done her utmost to be truthful when speaking to the Scottish people. She has said that Scotland, which has already drawn up its own plan to reopen, may have to do so at a different rate than the rest of the UK. She has risked a backlash by warning that restrictions on pubs could remain until the end of the year, something her male constituents certainly do not want to hear.


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