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Female leadership and heroism in the face of pandemic

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (C) arrives during a ceremony to unveil the Cyber Security Investigation Office in New Taipei City on April 24, 2020. (AFP)
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (C) arrives during a ceremony to unveil the Cyber Security Investigation Office in New Taipei City on April 24, 2020. (AFP)
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27 Apr 2020 02:04:35 GMT9
27 Apr 2020 02:04:35 GMT9

Most of us have little concept of the devastating impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on the bodies of severely impacted victims. Yet courageous medical staff — often with woefully inadequate protective clothing — are staring death in the face every day.

A lot has been written about how men appear more susceptible to COVID-19 than women. However, one Italian study found higher contagion risks among working-age women; apparently due to their overrepresentation in essential sectors like medicine, social care and education. Some 73 percent of US health care workers infected with coronavirus are women. 

Women make up about 90 percent of nursing and social care workers. One in three US jobs held by women has been designated as essential (the figure is even higher for non-white women). Women are found in high numbers in cutting-edge scientific efforts to find a vaccine, while, as morticians, they are compassionately managing piles of dead bodies in epidemic hotspots. 

Even though less than 7 percent of world leaders are women, many of their countries — such as New Zealand, Germany, Taiwan, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark — are near the top of the global list for rapidly and effectively combating the epidemic. These states are today best positioned to cautiously relax emergency measures.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won plaudits for the swift decisions to close borders and enforce a lockdown (after only six cases) and her effective messaging; stopping the disease in its tracks. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg also implemented an early lockdown, allowing scientists to take the lead. Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir offered free tests to all citizens. The only Nordic state with a male leader — Sweden — gained notoriety for refusing to close schools and businesses, and it has since notched up one of Europe’s highest death rates.

Chancellor Angela Merkel (a scientist by training) bluntly but calmly addressed her nation at an early stage, with Germany’s world-class health system maintaining a mortality rate far below those of its near neighbors. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s rapid initiatives (such as inspections of planes from Wuhan as early as December and mandatory health checks) have meant Taiwan has only suffered six deaths so far, despite its proximity to China. Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs, from the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten, became an internet sensation for her no-nonsense public messaging, saying: “Simply. Stop. Moving. If you do not have the type of bread you like in your house, eat crackers.”

While it would be facile to claim that these leaders performed exceptionally well just because they are women, commentators have noted that, due to the extreme difficulties women face in reaching the top, they must be truly exceptional individuals (while figures like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson were born into privilege). All these leaders are exceptional communicators. Merkel is affectionately referred to as “Mutti” (mummy), and is respected for steadily steering Germany through successive crises. 

It was jaw-dropping how long it took many male leaders to perceive the crisis hurtling toward them head-on.

Baria Alamuddin

After decades of interviewing female leaders, I find them better attuned to the human consequences of policy decisions. Speaking to Indira Gandhi in the final hours of her life, she emphasized to me the importance of women’s ability to deal with details: Politics isn’t primarily about besting rivals, but improving the lives of society’s weakest, and protecting society against short and long-term risks.

It was jaw-dropping how long it took many male leaders to perceive the crisis hurtling toward them head-on. With the US in an election year, Britain negotiating Brexit and the EU undergoing a multitude of crises, statesmen appeared reluctant to focus on a lowly health care issue. They then found themselves embarrassingly out of their depth when the crisis hit — belatedly taking action several weeks later than their female counterparts. Trump famously denounced COVID-19 as a “hoax” created by his rivals and predicted that “like a miracle, it will disappear.” That’s not to mention his potentially fatal recommendations of blasting bodies with ultraviolet light or injecting people with disinfectant.

We are, meanwhile, facing an “epidemic” of domestic violence, as women find themselves cooped up with their abusers 24/7. Domestic violence reports have more than doubled in some countries, with horrific cases of women being tortured and beaten to death in Iraq, Latin America, India and elsewhere.

Gender violence was already at crisis levels before the coronavirus outbreak, with nearly one in five women worldwide experiencing violence in the past year. The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa coincided with a significant increase in sexual abuse against women and children. Ebola also led to a spike in maternity deaths as health care resources were diverted away from pregnancies.

About 20 percent of Iraqi women experience domestic violence, with 36 percent of married women reporting psychological abuse from husbands. Nevertheless, domestic violence is underreported, with so-called honor killings frequently logged as suicides. Lebanese women’s protection organizations are reporting exceptionally high volumes of calls.

Women in impoverished nations, refugee camps and conflict zones are the most vulnerable; living in crowded conditions and with minimal access to health care or clean water. Indeed, the UN is warning of famines of “biblical proportions” due to the pandemic’s economic fallout, potentially pushing hundreds of millions of people throughout the developing world to the brink of starvation and possibly killing far more than the virus itself.

Although the Arab world is behind much of the rest of the world in terms of female participation in the medical workforce, the Gulf Cooperation Council states are catching up rapidly. Female medical students frequently outnumber their male counterparts, with Saudi universities pumping out thousands of exceptional women medical graduates every year.

Women constitute 70 percent of the worldwide health workforce, but only 25 percent of leadership positions. COVID-19 crisis teams are almost exclusively men — disqualifying the best talents and marginalizing the viewpoints of half the population. Will nurses and care workers continue to be among the worst-paid segments of the workforce after the pandemic is over? 

Coronavirus isn’t just a temporary respite from the usual “masculine” business of politics. We may be entering an age of pandemics, where environmental and biological threats irreversibly transform our way of life, giving rise to challenges of famines, mass immigration, state collapse, exacerbated conflict for resources and, of course, gender violence. 

Given their proven record of success, we must ensure that women are properly represented at the highest levels in confronting this tsunami of 21st-century strategic threats.

  • Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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