Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 21, 2020
There's no knowing if women leaders will ultimately prove better in tackling the pandemic but some of Asia's alpha males could certainly have done better.
Women leaders and alpha males up against Covid19

In a recent Facebook post and address to the nation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned a phone conversation he'd just had with his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern in which the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to have featured prominently.

Citing his Kiwi counterpart's experience, he relayed to Singaporeans that circuit breakers had been essential to the South Pacific nation's fight against the outbreak, and that its numbers had begun to trend down only on Day 11.

"If we all comply strictly, as the New Zealanders have done, hopefully by our Day 11 we too will see positive results," Mr Lee wrote.

While his remarks were targeted at his own people, they also amounted to a tip of the hat to New Zealand and its remarkable leader, who not long ago made history by bringing her three-month-old baby into the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

When the virus arrived in her country, Ms Ardern was clear-minded and quick, raising the alert level to maximum, insisting that returning Kiwis self-isolate - all this when a mere six cases had been detected in her country. The health minister who violated the government-ordered lockdown by driving his family to the beach was demoted to the bottom of Cabinet rankings and told he would have been fired under normal circumstances. Perhaps there was a reason that from ancient times, China's guardian lions - shi - were depicted with a ball under foot for the male while the female version is shown with a cub.


Some of Asia's more successful battles with the coronavirus first identified in Wuhan have been in territories where women have been in charge.

They include Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as the small southern Indian state of Kerala where a woman holds the health portfolio.

In Europe, Germany and Norway - two nations that are winning favourable notice in the fight against the bug - are led by women.

In Germany's case, that is Chancellor Angela Merkel, and in Norway, Prime Minister Erna Solberg.

Indeed, the German numbers are impressive when compared with say, fellow EU nation Italy. The last time I checked, on Wednesday, Germany had over 134,000 cases and some 3,800 deaths and was taking tentative steps to ease the lockdown. Italy, on the other hand, had 165,155 cases of Covid-19 and more than 21,000 deaths.

Does it make a difference when women are in charge? After all, they do tend to reach for practical, common sense solutions and often seem to have a better sense of health situations within families.

"I will not say there are inherent qualities in women (that make them more suited to handle health crises)," says Professor Ravinder Kaur, a social anthropologist and gender studies expert who is currently a visiting scholar at Maryland Population Research Centre, in the United States.

"I would say though that through historically gendered roles they are more responsible for caring, nurturing and preserving life, and that makes them more empathetic towards suffering of others."

Under highly educated President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's response to the disease threat, honed with its experience with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak nearly two decades ago, is widely regarded as exemplary.

The island began screening arrivals from Wuhan on Dec 31, the day China informed the World Health Organisation about the coronavirus threat. Two days later, Taiwan activated its emergency operations centre. Subsequently, it linked its immigration database to the national health system.

Perhaps it helped, too, that Taiwan's vice-president Chen Chien-jen is an epidemiologist.

Nevertheless, that does not take away the credit due to the Tsai administration. To date, it has had six deaths and 395 confirmed cases. Compare that with Australia, also an island and with a population of a similar size. The country has nearly 6,500 cases and 63 deaths.

Meanwhile, restrictions, including a 14-day quarantine, continue for all arrivals into Taiwan. While it has managed to avoid a lockdown, wearing masks while using public transport is mandatory and it promotes social distancing.


To be sure, it may be too early in the fight to hand out accolades. This could well be a two-year effort. Besides, not every country led by a woman has been spectacularly successful. For instance, Bangladesh, considered one of the promising countries in meeting Sustainable Development Goals, has had 50 deaths among the 1,231 confirmed cases - a high level of mortality - signalling at the very least that testing for the virus has been inadequate.

And it isn't as if Taiwan hasn't had its stumbles. Its move to extend the winter break for schoolchildren so they could be prepared to return to class wearing masks led to hundreds of people going on vacation, and in some cases returning with the bug. The island, its gaze fixated on China, which regards Taiwan as a breakaway province, had not anticipated the virus entering through another open door.

It seems less in doubt to suggest that nations run by alpha male personalities could certainly have done better.

The American president's dismissive attitude in the early stages of the pandemic and the British prime minister's snobbishness in telling his people he was "taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people to go to the pub" as he announced their closure will be remembered for years to come.

The leadership in Beijing will have to reflect on whether lower-ranking minions reluctant to surface bad news worked against what was thought to be a foolproof reporting system set in place after the Sars outbreak, smudging its reputation and leading to a situation where Sinophobia is surfacing, whether in New York's streets or the checkout lanes of Australian supermarkets.

In Asia, the four leaders who affect a deliberate masculinity in office - and they live in Tokyo, Manila, New Delhi and Islamabad - have all been found wanting.

Mr Shinzo Abe has come across as an entitled dynast, and flat-footed in this crisis. More recently, he has been upstaged by Tokyo's Governor Yuriko Koike, seen as a potential prime minister. Her tough measures to tackle the outbreak are winning praise.

Mr Abe, for his part, has shared a video of himself lounging on a sofa with his dog, reading and sipping tea.


In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has been forced to extend a lockdown he imposed on March 16. Social unrest is growing after planned relief measures haven't worked everywhere.

The country has South-east Asia's highest number of coronavirus infections and 40 per cent of its known fatalities. While the government believes the lockdown averted a far bigger healthcare disaster, testing for the virus is only now gathering speed.

In New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's magnificent oratory and ability to connect with his people have masked a failure to prepare, even though the first Indian case was identified as early as Jan 30. India's lockdown only began on March 24, and left millions of migrant workers stranded on roads and highways, a human tragedy. Testing levels remain low.

In contrast, the southern Indian state of Kerala, run by a Marxist government, convened the first strategy meeting on Jan 25 and pandemic control rooms were set up in every district by the end of the month - just as the first case, a student who returned from Wuhan, was identified.

In Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan, the cricket legend-turned-politician, has been virtually sidelined by an army that has taken control of the battle against the pandemic.

Mr Khan had been reluctant to order a lockdown, fearing the economic damage it would cost and the hit to his own popularity, not to speak of upsetting a Muslim clergy that did not want restrictions on people gathering.

Tellingly, the Philippines national coronavirus task force also is led by a former military chief.

And in Indonesia, staring at what could be a disaster of epic proportions, a three-star army general and former special forces commander has been named head of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB).

In all three countries, the military, which has tasted power at various periods in history, is held in high esteem by the populace. Who knows what is to come when the dust settles.

This essay originally appeared in The Strait Times
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Ravi Velloor

Ravi Velloor

Ravi Velloor is Associate Editor and Speaking of Asia columnist with The Straits Times flagship of Singapore Press Holdings Group. A four-decade veteran of the ...

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