Wanted: Decisive Female Leadership to Defeat COVID-19
The image of President Donald Trump standing at a Florida rally in front of thousands of supporters just days after recovering from COVID-19 was a triumphant one. The message was clear: I, Donald Trump, president of the mightiest nation on earth, can beat COVID-19.
Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, just a few days after his stormy debate with the Democratic contender Joe Biden, was an opportunity for the president. Consistently trailing in the polls on the back of a COVID-induced economic slowdown, for Trump the diagnosis was like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Or, if you like, one of those “October surprises.”
The moral of the story, without taking any sides in the upcoming US elections, is that COVID-19 doesn’t just have myriad health effects, it also can have drastic political side-effects, or benefits, depending on which side of the spectrum you stand, and, for politicians, on their success or failure in fighting the pandemic.
COVID-19 has affected the status of many leaders worldwide. The equation is simple: good political leadership leads to public trust. In New Zealand, for example, only 25 people have died of the virus as of the time of writing.
Professor Michael Baker, a senior epidemiologist from New Zealand, and a member of the COVID-19 Advisory Committee at that country’s Ministry of Health, stated, ”In order to beat the virus, we need determined leaders who believe in science.”
When it comes to science, we don’t yet have unequivocal answers, but leadership and determination have proven to be important factors in combating the disease. The effect of the virus on political leaderships around the world could bring drastic changes in its wake, just as leaders can have a major influence on how we live alongside the virus.
In Israel, the COVID-19 pandemic caught us right after the third elections in the space of a year, and led us to one of the biggest crises of trust we’ve ever known.
At first, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the role of national COVID-19 presenter. His tactics — intimidation, self-praise, and “all clear” announcements, next to the data placing Israel in line with the leading countries in crisis management — worked in his favor, but not for long. Rising unemployment, confusing guidelines, a government incapable of making decisions — all these and more were met with a public desperate for leadership.
The poll results were clear. Were elections to take place in Israel today, Netanyahu’s Likud party would get only 26 seats, while in March, at the onset of the COVID crisis, polls showed an increase in Netanyahu’s standing, predicting 40 Likud seats.
With the rise in COVID morbidity rates in Israel, Likud’s performance in the polls has plummeted. Israel gradually conquered the dubious peak of the global charts of COVID infections per capita, and approval rates for Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis declined drastically. A vast majority of the Israeli public is clearly saying to the government — we don’t believe you.
The protests that began right after the March elections grew larger and larger. Victims of the COVID crisis joined the “Anyone but Bibi” faction. Business owners face calamity, as do the unemployed, as do parents who have been rendered unable to support or even feed their children. The citizens of Israel are used to facing threats, wars, and crises, but this time, unlike in the past, there is no horizon, no clear plan to bring order to the ever-increasing chaos, and no leadership.
Back to New Zealand. This month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won her country’s general election in a historic and impressive achievement for the Labour Party that she leads. By leading with responsibility and restraint, Ardern became a world-class leader, beating the virus, gaining the public’s trust, and finding creative ways of adapting to this new, challenging era.
Although women currently account for less than 7% of the world’s leadership, countries with women leaders showed exceptional success in dealing with the virus. Their accomplishment was a result of transparent management of the crisis, while at the same time providing a sense of security that created trust between them and their citizens.
COVID-19 will bring with it far-reaching change, affecting leaders both in Israel and worldwide. If we have the sense to learn from the clear results of the management of this crisis in different places around the world, we will see the rise of more and more women leaders.
At this time, we should say: “Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, sing a song! Arise, Barak, and lead your captives away, O son of Abinoam!” (Judges 5:12).
Sharon Rofe-Ofir is Deputy Head of the Kiryat Tivon Regional Council, a veteran journalist, and a member of the strategic headquarters of the National Women’s Council for Civil Security. She ran in the elections for the 23rd Knesset for the Women’s Voice party.