As the world reels from the biggest health crisis we have seen in our lifetime, some countries have dealt with the coronavirus pandemic better than others.
"Germany, led by Angela Merkel, has had a far lower death rate than Britain, France, Italy or Spain," The New York Times recently reported. "Finland, where Prime Minister Sanna Marin, 34, governs with a coalition of four female-led parties, has had fewer than 10 percent as many deaths as nearby Sweden." "And Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, has presided over one of the most successful efforts in the world at containing the virus, using testing, contact tracing and isolation measures to control infections without a full national lockdown."
We mustn't forget the redoubtable Kiwi Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
"Ardern, 39, New Zealand's premier, has held Kiwis' hands through the lockdown, delivering empathetic "stay home, save lives" video messages from her couch and communicating daily through non-combative press conferences," London's The Guardian newspaper reports.
"Her insistence on… urging New Zealanders to look after their neighbours, take care of the vulnerable, and make sacrifices for the greater good—has won her many fans." It also produced results. The nation of 4.8 million people has recorded an astonishing 22 deaths, according to the government. New cases are down to zero.
Notice a trend here? All the leaders mentioned above are women.
Now let's consider which countries have done worst. According to statistics compiled by Johns Hopkins University in the US, the countries with the highest number of Covid-19 cases are the US, Brazil and Russia, in that order. The number of US cases, a mind-boggling 1.76 million, is over four times that of its nearest country. Brazil, at second place, has 438,812 cases, with Russia close behind.
Consider their leaders. President Donald Trump. President Jair Bolsonaro. President Vladimir Putin. One would be hard-pressed to find more emphatic, almost caricature-like examples of machismo amongst national leaders. Trump is on record suggesting injecting disinfectant to treat Covid-19 (He was being sarcastic, silly!), and Bolsonaro proudly takes the discredited treatment hydroxychloroquine, while suggesting naysayers can go have a fizzy drink instead.
"Macho isn't mucho," the former Hollywood star Zsa Zsa Gabor once wryly observed.
It is remarkable how many female leaders have made a real mark in handling the pandemic.
"How about Iceland's Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who has offered free coronavirus testing to all the country's citizens? Or Norway's Erna Solberg, who held a press conference just for children, telling them it was okay to feel scared?" Helen Lewis pointed out in an article in The Atlantic magazine.
However, the false binary of macho male versus nurturing female leadership is too simplistic. Sociopolitical dynamics are complicated. Nor is it so cut-and-dried. New Zealand's Ardern has a lot in common in temperament with Canada's Justin Trudeau. In the US, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has more in common with male Democrats Governor Gavin Newsom of California and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York than female Republicans Governor Gay Ivey of Alabama and Kristi Noem of South Dakota. And Xi Jinping, China's iron-fisted male leader, has led his nation to a stunning recovery after catastrophic initial missteps.
We need to look beyond male and female leaders and consider the broader sociopolitical perspective. It's not about whether women leaders are necessarily better. It's about whether nations which are congenial to women leaders are better.
Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University, told The Guardian that women leaders are more likely to be elected in "a political culture in which there's a relative support and trust in the government—and that doesn't make stark distinctions between women and men. So you've already got a head start."
"A country that elects a strongman—or where a strongman can hold on to power, once elections become a sham—is an already troubled country," Lewis writes in The Atlantic.
"So let's not flip the old sexist script. After centuries of dogma that men are naturally better suited to leadership, the opposite is not suddenly true. Women leaders aren't the cause of better government. They are a symptom of it."
This is broadly true for societies as well. How a society treats women is a telling guide to a society's health.
What's remarkable is how far we still have to go. Even some countries that consider themselves advanced have their work cut out. The US is still waiting for its first woman president. Just one out of four US senators is a woman. Angela Merkel is the only woman leader of G20 nations, a group of the world's 20 largest economies.
In South Asia, the situation is worse. We carry the heavy burden of the misogyny and patriarchal instincts of religious orthodoxy—this, unfortunately, cuts across all faiths. Our roster of women leaders is illusory, and many bask in the reflected glory of family connections.
Bangladesh's considerable strides in gender parity, sometimes outshining its South Asian neighbours, is encouraging. But what must never be forgotten is how much is left to be done. Our mindset is still deeply invested in patriarchy. We need to learn that providing half of the nation to realise its full potential benefits us all—materially and morally.
The full emancipation of women may take time, but it will surely happen one day. And all of us—men and women—will be the better for it.
(This article is dedicated to the women who have filled my life with love, joy and support. From you I learned first-hand to love, admire and respect women and support their inalienable right to equality and dignity. Thanks to you all, I learned how to be a real man.)
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a digital daily for South Asians in the United States.