Talking Points

Beating Covid-19: Why culture matters more than leaders’ gender

It has been speculated that female-led countries, like New Zealand, fared better than male-led societies during Covid-19. In 2020, a study published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum found that countries led by women (including New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, and Taiwan) had better Covid-19 outcomes, thanks to their “proactive and coordinated policy responses.”

But more recently, another study – published by the University of Memphis in the journal PLOS ONE – came to a different conclusion: how egalitarian a country is matters more than a leader’s gender.

In other words, countries that prioritise the wellbeing of society as a whole are more likely to cope with a global pandemic than individualistic ones. Not coincidentally, though, egalitarian societies are also more likely to elect female leaders: all 16 female-led countries identified in the study rated as ‘egalitarian’.

So, how does this all work?

Researchers compared 175 countries based on cultural individualism and power inequalities among citizens, looking for a link between these two variables and their Covid-related mortality rates.

Interestingly, culture was a threat to Covid-19 survival in the US, where both individualism and “power distance” are extremely high. On the other hand, in countries where these variables were low – like New Zealand – the pandemic response has been significantly more successful.

While acknowledging that leaders are important during a crisis, researchers concluded that it takes collective cooperation to halt a virus’s spread. And this comes “more naturally in egalitarian societies, where people grow up with the understanding that everyone’s well-being depends on the well-being of the community.”

On top of that, egalitarian countries tend to have policies like universal health care and paid sick leave in place – both of which “made it easier for people to stay home and protect themselves, and others, from Covid-19.”