NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND – MAY 29: Jacinda Ardern speaks to a young supporter on May 29, 2020 in Napier, New Zealand. (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)
Though the overall trend of cases and deaths has declined, particularly in Pennsylvania and the Northeast, many areas of the U.S. are experiencing surges of COVID-19 infections.
Aptly, a historian of the 1918 pandemic described the American response to the coronavirus threat as “incomprehensibly incoherent.”
Which countries are doing better? Which are handling the pandemic as badly as or worse than the U.S.? What explains the differences? What can we learn?
The poster child for success in dealing with coronavirus is undoubtedly New Zealand.
On the same date, Pennsylvania reported 693 new positive cases.
Strong, decisive leadership by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is credited for much of the progress. She banned all foreign travel into the country and imposed a nationwide lockdown.
In addition to Ardern’s leadership, some observers have attributed New Zealand’s success to structural factors.
For example, unlike the U.S., New Zealand has a parliamentary system with a method of allocating legislative seats by proportional representation. The government includes smaller political parties and the indigenous Maori people, facilitating inclusive policy responses to COVID-19.
Another possible explanation is New Zealand’s social welfare system. Similar to social democracies in Europe, New Zealand has comprehensive benefits based on need and good outcomes such as high life expectancy and relatively low poverty.
This is important, since coronavirus has disproportionally harmful effects on the poor and people with underlying medical conditions. With its piecemeal social safety net, economic and social inequality, and disappointing health outcomes, the U.S. is especially vulnerable.
One of the more intriguing variables affecting national policies toward COVID-19 is the character of the governing party.
Prime Minister Ardern is a social democrat, leading the Labour Party since 2017. Labour heads a governing coalition that includes, interestingly, the nationalist New Zealand First Party.
Ardern gained international recognition for championing a ban on semi-automatic weapons after the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, in which a white supremacist and alt-right supporter killed 51 worshippers and wounded 49.
It has not gone unnoticed that several nations encountering problems with coronavirus spread – such as the U.S., United Kingdom, and Brazil – are led by right-wing, populist parties, some of which are openly hostile toward science and eager to play cultural politics with face masks.
In fact, there appear to be no significant differences in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths among nations led by populist, liberal, or social democratic parties.
There are other possible theories explaining positive national responses to the pandemic, but each has its detractors.
For instance, noted success stories Japan and South Korea are culturally homogenous. However, New Zealand is proudly multicultural.
Perhaps because of their previous experiences with pandemics such as SARS and MERS, Asian governments seem to be more effective in tackling the coronavirus than European and North American states.
The exception, of course, is China, which boasts success but observers are skeptical.
Finally, is it a coincidence that the leaders of some of the most effective policies – Ardern, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, and Tsai Ing-wen, president of Taiwan – are all female?
Is there something about women that makes them better leaders during a public health crisis? Are women more likely to prioritize the ethics of care? Or, does female leadership only appear to be superior because of the failure of toxic masculinity?
Sadly, whether the key to national success in the age of coronavirus is politics, social policy, or leadership, the U.S. has the worst of all worlds.
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College, in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears on Mondays on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.
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