Fact check: Nations beating back COVID-19 are female-led, but it's more complicated than just gender

The claim: The countries most affected by COVID-19 are run by men, and the countries with the best COVID-19 response are led by women

For more than half a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced world leaders into the spotlight, with observers measuring their leadership capabilities by their ability to curb the virus and minimize harm. But a viral Instagram post claims their successes and failures may have more to do with who they are than how they lead.

The top half of the post notes the most affected countries are the U.S., Brazil, Russia, Spain, United Kingdom, Italy and France. Then it shows a collage featuring those countries’ leaders — all men.

The bottom half points out which nations managed the crisis best — Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Denmark — and shows a collage of those leaders. They’re all women.

More: Female world leaders are handling coronavirus crisis 'in a really impressive manner,' experts say

Women do lead the countries with the lowest COVID-19 death rates

It’s true that many countries with the lowest COVID-19 death rates are led by women.

Using the database Our World in Data, USA TODAY found that of the above listed male-led countries — excluding Spain, as its data was not available — the average number of deaths per million people is 444.75. Of the listed women-led countries, the average number of deaths per million is 50.75.

It’s important to look at the number of deaths per million — as opposed to the number of deaths in general — because of the different sizes of the countries being compared. The number of deaths can be accurately compared with this metric.

It may be disingenuous, though, to throw Russia into the mix with other male-led countries with high death rates because its average death rate per million is lower than some female-led countries' rates. Russia’s average death rate per million is 91.51. In comparison, Germany’s is 108.88 and Denmark’s is 105.83.

Both of those female-led countries’ rates are still significantly below the male-led countries’ second-lowest rate in Brazil, which has seen an average of 412.20 deaths per million.

Half a year into the coronavirus pandemic, those numbers are made more tangible by the way each country’s numbers are going up or down. Female-led New Zealand, for example, has effectively flattened the curve, with one new case as of Tuesday, while the U.S. has 54,448 new cases as of the same day.

The difference may have more to do with politics than gender

The fact that a woman was elected to lead may indicate that a country is open to diverse ideas. Rob Brezsny, who posted the original meme on Instagram, pointed to an op-ed by the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof when asked about the claim.

“We often joke that men drivers never ask for directions,” Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania told Kristof. “I actually think there’s something to that also in terms of women’s leadership, in terms of recognizing expertise and asking experts for advice, and men sort of barreling ahead like they got it.”

Still, as Kristoff notes, it’s speculative how the tendencies of one gender versus another might fare during a global crisis. It’s more likely the second half of Emanuel’s musings – politics and leadership style – would make a bigger difference.

The men who lead the U.S., United Kingdom, Russia and Brazil have another thing in common aside from gender: They subscribe to “illiberal populist” ideals, according to The New York Times.

Populism is a political ideology that’s anti-establishment, pitting one group versus another – usually, “the people” versus “elites.” When populism becomes illiberal, it emphasizes the idea that “isolationism and strongman-leadership are the ways to protect their countries against the perceived threats of globalization and return their countries to an imagined greatness of the past,” according to Policy Corner.

That mindset has not boded well for these leaders amid the pandemic.

“Very often (illiberal populists) rail against intellectuals and experts of nearly all types,” Steven Levitsky, co-author of “How Democracies Die,” told The New York Times.

For example, President Donald Trump gathered over 19,000 fans on June 20 at a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma – despite health experts’ recommendations. A few weeks later, that area saw a spike in COVID-19 cases.

President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday, June 20, 2020.
President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday, June 20, 2020.

More: Trump's Tulsa rally, protests 'likely' contributed to a surge in coronavirus cases, local health official says

In Italy, the governing team of ministers are drawn from the center-left Democratic Party and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.

The world’s female leaders, most of which belong to political parties that subscribe to democratic socialist ideals, have taken a different approach – one that emphasizes empathy, collaboration with experts and a no-nonsense take on the virus.

When the WHO declared a pandemic, Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, announced publicly that anyone traveling into the country would have to self-isolate for 14 days, one of the earliest and toughest measures worldwide, BBC reported. Just a week later, she locked down the country but was sure to “check-in” with everyone right after. She sat down on Facebook live, casually dressed, and answered questions.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen contained the virus there using testing, contact tracing and other isolation measures to halt the virus’ spread; that country never fully locked down.

The same trend regarding COVID-19 response and political ideology can be seen on a local level in the U.S. The New York Times reported that it took both male and female Republican governors longer to impose COVID-19 lockdowns than Democratic governors.

Outliers and other factors

Even still, there are outliers to the notion that political ideology and leadership style might be the biggest factor.

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, is the leader of that nation's Christian Democratic Union, a center-right party. But Merkel’s COVID-19 response has little to do with politics and more to do with her own background.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel wears a protective face mask as she attends a plenary session at The European Parliament in Brussels on July 8, 2020.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel wears a protective face mask as she attends a plenary session at The European Parliament in Brussels on July 8, 2020.

Merkel is a scientist. She has a doctorate in quantum chemistry, and before entering politics she was working as a research scientist, The Atlantic reported. When the pandemic broke out, Merkel turned to experts from scientific-research organizations and enlisted all university medical departments as a single COVID-19 task force.

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken a different approach as well.

When his wife fell sick with the virus, he made a point of being open about it and immediately went into self-isolation, the first major world leader to do so.

“We are following medical advice, as should all Canadians,” he said at a press briefing following the news.

Canada’s death rate per million people is 235.84. On Monday, the country saw 686 new cases.

On the flipside, some female leaders’ COVID responses have been perceived as failing. Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong, has been heavily criticized for her administration’s lax approach to the virus.

Regardless, much of the speculation over whether one gender is better fit to rule than another has to do with perception. In the U.S., both women and Republicans are more likely to say that men and women have different leadership styles, a Pew Research Center study found. But on a larger scale, 62% of all adults in the U.S. say neither takes a better approach.

Our rating: Partly false

We rate the claim that the countries most affected by COVID-19 are run by men and those with the best COVID-19 response led by women as PARTLY FALSE because some of it was not supported by our research. It’s true that the listed female-led countries have lower death rates per million people than the listed male-led countries. However, it’s misleading and lacking context to say those successes and failures are solely due to gender.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Nations beating COVID-19 are female-led, by coincidence