The COVID-19 pandemic is calling for a sense of solidarity amongst communities everywhere: that is the nature of a pandemic; it is a collective disease, as say opposed to the flu that is in its current form an individual disease. This spirit of solidarity is, however, not penetrative across countries and within countries due to another spirit, i.e. the spirit of competitive federalism or competitive nation-alism.
However, in the last week, conversations around the COVID-19 containment strategies have shifted to a few countries all over the world, where containment is being carried out successfully, with the number of cases either decreasing or stagnating. These countries would include Germany, New Zealand and Taiwan, among others like Denmark and Finland. While these aren’t the only countries that have been handling the outbreak in its current form efficiently, there is one common factor among these countries that is earning them some recognition, and that is the leadership of the country.
Around The Globe
Germany, that is being led by Angela Merkel, whose governing coalition had been in the news in the recent past due to tension due to tensions around the leadership, took to the media at the end of last month to speak about issues of restrictions on freedom that this pandemic might entail for everyone, but also particularly for women.
“For someone like me, for whom freedom of travel and movement were a hard-won right, such restrictions can only be justified by absolute necessity,” said Merkel, referring to her residence for a large part of her youth in communist East Germany. The country has been hit hard by this pandemic, although it has managed to curb its mortality rate to a low 1.6%, (in comparison to other European countries, and USA). She called measures of social distancing “indispensable”, despite the potential of the measures affecting her mobility.
Reports around how this pandemic is going to affect women have started surfacing, but given the gravity (and exceptionality) of the situation, researches and surveys around relevant issues are difficult to conduct, and intensive knowledge about the same will probably be available only in its aftermath. There have been a few reports around how the COVID-19 outbreak will affect those facing gender based violence inside the home. Other reports suggest that processes of socialization that dictate that women and girls often consume lesser food than the male counterparts inside the house might be a cause for the disease being more lethal for them; for instance, the virus is said to be more harmful for those who face issues of hunger and poverty, if it were to enter their bodies.
Despite being in the thick of the event right now, there is a global urgency to be able to make sense of it, but also a lack of information around definitive strategies. But that does not necessarily prevent effective programmes of containment to be available. For instance, Taiwan that is being led by Tsai Ing-Wen, a former law professor and the first female president of the nation has managed to keep cases in Taiwan at less than 400, with only 6 deaths so far.
While it is true that the population of Taiwan is only 2.38 crores, its proximity to the Chinese mainland is commendable when one considers the number of cases. Not only has it been effective in containment within the country, in the spirit of solidarity that this pandemic demands, it will also be donating 10 million masks to the USA and 11 other European countries. A reason for this can be attributed to Taiwan being one of the worst-hit countries during the 2003 SARS outbreak (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which helped the country prepare better for the current outbreak. Taiwan has universal health coverage, and the policies that Taiwan implemented in the wake of COVID-19 go far beyond just border control, as the Ing-Wen government recognizes that containment cannot be restricted to border control alone.
In this strain, one should also speak of the strict, but effective social distancing measures undertaken by Jacinda Ardern’s government in New Zealand. At nine deaths so far, New Zealand, while starting slow at the beginning, has managed to implement a level-four (i.e. complete shutdown of all non-essential services and gatherings) lockdown.
Its neighbor, Australia, headed by Scott Morrison (infamous for his quip about being in attendance at the rugby league game, soon after proscribing public gatherings of more than 500 people) has had a much delayed response to the pandemic. Despite having strong links of trade and transport links with mainland China, it did not implement stricter measures earlier on, leading to over 5000 recorded cases.
When the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 hit the world India was one of the countries most affected, especially in terms of its mortality rate which was 6%. While in terms of percentage, this was lesser than a lot of other countries, in terms of people in numbers, this 6% was much more than other countries because of India’s large population. Yet, we were not adequately prepared for the COVID-19 outbreak, which so far has more than 10,000 cases, and because of absence of rigorous testing, many are of the opinion that the number is much higher.
While a sense akin to competitive federalism might have been sowed among the Indian states, especially by the insinuation of a graded lockdown (where areas/states with decreasing or stagnating cases will be taken off lockdown) that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about in his last address to the nation on April 14th, measures being taken by women leaders in the states of Rajasthan and Kerala have been applauded.
KK Shailaja, the Health Minister of Kerala has been at the forefront of strong measures in fighting the spread of this disease. For instance, testing booths have opened up in designated areas in Kerala in order to conduct rigorous testing of the disease. After the outbreak of the Nipah virus that the state faced in 2018, Kerala has created a robust health care mechanism, especially in the event of another such outbreak. These mechanisms not only include testing and treatment, but also mental health training and counseling.
The state was prepared for another wave of the Nipah virus outbreak, with training of healthcare workers, and detailed guidelines, based on measures suggested by the World Health Organization (WHO), with the Ebola outbreak in Africa as the model. Availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) has also been a chief concern of outbreak control in Kerala, and Shailaja says that while the state still hasn’t reached a stage where healthcare workers aren’t able to tend to patients for the lack of PPE, they are in a dire situation right now because PPE is required in countries all over the world.
Another place in India, Bhilwara, in the state of Rajasthan that has seen no cases for five consecutive days is now being touted as the model to be used for the curbing of the outbreak. The Bhilwara Model, headed and popularized by Tina Dabi, an IAS officer and her team is also known as the ‘ruthless containment model’, which included strategies of isolation, aggressive screening in urban and rural areas, quarantine and isolation wards and rigorous door-to-door testing.
The city went on a complete lockdown on March 21st, two days after it got its first case, much before the rest of the of country did. Not only were hurdles of testing an issue for the city, there was also the additional responsibility of convincing the people of the city about the need for the lockdown, since no other city or state had announced it yet.
Dabi, and her team managed to implement a successful lockdown with essentials being delivered to people’s doorsteps and strictly monitoring the implementation of social distancing in its villages and towns. This model is now in the process of scaling up to be implemented in places all over the country. However, it is interesting to note here that several articles written around the Bhilwara Model, don’t even mention Dabi and her team.
Are Women Leading The Way?
It is important to recognize here that while this article speaks about women leaders leading their countries, states and cities through an effective COVID-19 lockdown; it is not suggesting that being a woman leader automatically gives you an edge over other leaders, or that women are more equipped to handle situations like pandemics because they possess certain inherent qualities. That would bring back similar stereotypes of women being more sensitive or cooperative, or other value-based judgements around them.
But as Arwa Mahdawi points to in her article in the Guardian, it is important to consider that being a leader for a woman is more difficult than it is for men, and while correlation does not necessarily mean causation, it is important to ask why national leaders that have responded poorly to the COVID-19 outbreak, for instance the USA, or Italy, are more widely discussed than other nations like Taiwan that have handled the outbreak much better. The collective nature of the pandemic makes it important to not just learn from other people’s mistakes, but also to be able to emulate other people’s successes (modified in whatever manner necessary to suit other socio-geo-political-economic contexts).