Article Text

Words matter: political and gender analysis of speeches made by heads of government during the COVID-19 pandemic
  1. Sara Dada1,2,3,
  2. Henry Charles Ashworth1,3,4,
  3. Marlene Joannie Bewa3,5,
  4. Roopa Dhatt3,6,7
  1. 1Vayu Global Health Foundation, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  2. 2UCD Centre for Interdisciplinary Research, Education and Innovation in Health Systems, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
  3. 3Women in Global Health, Washington, District of Columbia, USA
  4. 4Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  5. 5Department of Community and Family Health, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida, USA
  6. 6Division of General Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine, Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, District of Columbia, USA
  7. 7Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, University of Miami, Miami, Florida, USA
  1. Correspondence to Sara Dada; sara.dada{at}


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.

  • health policy
  • health systems
  • Public health
  • communication
  • leadership

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See:

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Supplementary materials

  • Supplementary Data

    This web only file has been produced by the BMJ Publishing Group from an electronic file supplied by the author(s) and has not been edited for content.


  • Handling editor Seye Abimbola

  • Twitter @dadasara3, @HenryCAshworth, @BEWAJ, @RoopaDhatt

  • Contributors SD developed the study methodology with the guidance of RD and collected the data for this study. SD and HCA conducted the analysis and wrote the initial draft, with key input from JB. RD provided edits and feedback. All authors revised the manuscript before submission.

  • Funding Funding for the publication fees of this research was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (INV-005944).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Ethics approval This research did not require an institutional board review approval. Data were collected online from publicly available and accessible speeches and did not involve any human subjects.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement All data are available in the public domain at the links provided in the supplementary material. Specific transcript data can also be shared on request.

  • Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.