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Words matter: Political and gender analysis of speeches made by heads of government during the COVID-19 pandemic

Background The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on political leadership around the world. Differences in how leaders address the pandemic through public messages have practical implications for building trust and an effective response within a country.

Methods We analysed the speeches made by 20 heads of government around the world (Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Finland, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, New Zealand, Niger, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Scotland, Sint Maarten, United Kingdom, United States and Taiwan) to highlight the differences between men and women leaders in discussing COVID-19. We used an inductive analytical approach, coding speeches for specific themes based on language and content.

Findings Five primary themes emerged across a total of 122 speeches on COVID-19, made by heads of government: economics and financial relief, social welfare and vulnerable populations, nationalism, responsibility and paternalism, and emotional appeals. While all leaders described the economic impact of the pandemic, women spoke more frequently about the impact on the individual scale. Women leaders were also more often found describing a wider range of social welfare services, including: mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence. Both men and women from lower-resource settings described detailed financial relief and social welfare support that would impact the majority of their populations. While 17 of the 20 leaders used war metaphors to describe COVID-19 and the response, men largely used these with greater volume and frequency.

Conclusion While this analysis does not attempt to answer whether men or women are more effective leaders in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, it does provide insight into the rhetorical tools and types of language used by different leaders during a national and international crisis. This analysis provides additional evidence on the differences in political leaders’ messages and priorities to inspire citizens’ adhesion to the social contract in the adoption of response and recovery measures. However, it does not consider the influence of contexts, such as the public audience, on leaders’ strategic communication approaches.

Dada, S., Ashworth, H. C., Bewa, M. J., & Dhatt, R. (2021). Words matter: political and gender analysis of speeches made by heads of government during the COVID-19 pandemic. BMJ Global Health, 6(1), e003910.

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