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Pandemic leadership: beware of anecdotes

Leaders with science training have not outperformed other leaders in terms of their countries’ coronavirus responses, write Joachim Wehner (LSE) and Mark Hallerberg (Hertie School).

When the coronavirus struck in 2020, some countries with seemingly world-leading levels of pandemic preparedness turned into COVID-19 disaster zones. During March 2020, British prime minister Boris Johnson boasted about shaking hands with everybody, attended a rugby match and hosted a “baby shower” just two days before advising the public to stop non-essential contact. In the United States and Brazil, national leaders railed against lockdowns while COVID infections and deaths accelerated. Aghast at these failures of leadership, some argued that female leaders, non-populists and those trained as scientists do better than males, populists, and non-scientists. For many, German chancellor Angela Merkel personified these hypotheses. As a female non-populist scientist, she was said to exude “the calm confidence expected of a former research scientist with a doctorate in quantum chemistry”.

Understanding why and how countries responded to the pandemic is crucial if we are to learn the lessons and save more lives next time. Multiple factors likely played a role. Yet crucial decisions by national leaders at the outbreak of the crisis have shaped the trajectory of the disease. Some leaders responded quickly while others dithered or denied, contributing to avoidable deaths. It is natural that this raises questions about systematic patterns in leadership characteristics that can help to account for such differences. Striking anecdotes can give clues and inspire hypotheses – but we should be careful not to generalise from a handful of high-profile examples. Sample selection bias can lead to the wrong conclusions.

Read the full article here.

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