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Women in power: Female leadership and public health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic


The coronavirus pandemic is impacting everyday lives, communities, economies, and exacerbating already existing inequalities. Some countries have been more successful than others at dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. A new study suggests that countries led by women leaders have fared significantly better than those led by men - on a wide range of dimensions concerning the global health crisis.

Flattening the curve was one of the biggest challenges in the early phase of the pandemic. Slowing the pace of the daily increase in new cases to prevent healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed aimed at reducing the peak and keep it under the threshold of capacity for national health services.

In general, the earlier the lockdown, the more successful the limitation of viral transmission

To flatten the curve, most countries imposed quarantine in various degrees at various times. They adopted lockdown measures, recommending that people stay home, work from home whenever possible, and respect physical distancing. The containment measures, together with fiscal and monetary aid, as well as employment and social measures, differed across countries. In general, countries that implemented emergency measures early on were more successful at containing the spread of the virus and required stricter lockdowns for a shorter period of time.

In medium to high-income countries the decision to take the pandemic ‘seriously’ was mostly due to political considerations regarding whether economic priorities should trump healthcare concerns. National leaders were faced with an urgent decision: prioritize economic growth and market openness or shift toward people’s wellbeing.

Leaders who opted for the former demonstrated a short-term vision and lack of understanding of the fact that social wellbeing (and a healthy environment) is the basis for a healthy economy. The results of the study show that this is the case for most men leaders, while women leaders did not hesitate to adopt precautionary measures, even when they posed immediate economic costs.

Of the 35 countries considered in the study, 10 have a woman-led government (Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway and Taiwan) while 25 have a male-led government (Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, Croatia, Czechia, Ecuador, France, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, Romania, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, USA).

Most women-led governments were more prompt at introducing restrictive measures in the initial phase of the epidemic, prioritizing public health over economic concerns and more successful at eliciting collaboration from the population. Female leaders acted quickly, implementing measures of lockdown early on as recommended by national health experts.

Female-led governments managed to flatten the curve more effectively and faster than male-led governments: the slope of the curve of daily deaths from COVID-19 is 4-times less steep in female-led countries. The study shows that female-led countries have consistently less deaths from COVID-19 per capita, a shorter number of days with confirmed deaths, a lower peak in daily deaths per capita, and a lower excess mortality.

Impacts of COVID-19 are lower in more equal countries

Most countries led by women are also those with a stronger focus on social equality, human needs and generosity. These societies are more receptive to political agendas that place social and environmental wellbeing at the core of national policymaking, and are usually associated with healthier communities, more resilient to external shocks. There seems to be a general trend with female leaders demonstrating more effective management of the pandemic by taking the problem seriously, listening to health experts, and acting quickly. This trend seems to confirm that progressive female leadership is more engaged on issues of health and wellbeing, social equality, sustainability, and innovation, making societies more resilient. Some of these governments have also launched an international alliance to promote, share and further implement wellbeing policies taking the focus off economic growth and putting it on issues that lead to social and ecological wellbeing (https://wellbeingeconomy.org/wego).

The COVID-19 crisis is showing us how political decisions directly affect health and social wellbeing. Women are elected and lead in societies where social and environmental wellbeing is at the core of national policymaking, and this affects a broad range of impacts from COVID-19.

The full article (preprint) Women in power: Female leadership and public health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic co-authored by Professor Jacqueline McGlade is available on medrixv.

Professor Jacqueline McGlade is Professor of Environment and Sustainable Development at the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP). She tweets @jacquiemcglade

Image credit: Sarah Nisi

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