In between Trump’s erratic and non-scientific ideas and Bolsonaro’s outright refusal to acknowledge the virus, the US and Brazil, as well as India and Russia have a lot in common in how they dealt with the pandemic — and they are paying a heavy price for it.
There was a fair share of randomness in how the pandemic moved from China to the rest of the world. There’s no particularly good reason why Italy would be the first non-China hotspot and Spain would follow. But now, as the months have passed and the entire world was exposed to relatively the same risk, the effects of individual countries’ approaches and policies become much more impactful.
Coincidentally or not, the four countries with the highest coronavirus tally are also countries led by authoritarian, nationalistic leaders, whose main motivation was not to keep the situation under control, but rather to preserve their strong-man image.
There are other striking similarities: their respective countries were unprepared for the disease, and the initial reaction was to downplay the risks and focus on the economy. Furthermore, the curve is far from flattened in these countries and the disease is still going strong.
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“Strong” leaders with a propensity for falsehoods
The myth of the powerful, manly leader is strong in these countries. Take a look at President Trump, who won’t wear a mask because he thinks it would make him look weak. Vladimir Putin is the epitome of the politician who rules with an iron fist. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro called the virus a “little flu.” India’s Narendra Modi strayed from the pack and took rapid lockdown action in the first phase, but he too used the pandemic to further his agenda.
It’s instructive that although all these leaders display a similar love of authoritarianism, their approaches to managing the pandemic had both differences and similarities — an important reminder that while authoritarian leaders follow a similar playbook, their approaches can be different.
For instance, Modi’s coronavirus policies were criticized for lacking substance, his rhetoric tended to echo that coming from China. The pandemic was a threat to India’s brave people, and those fighting it were heroes. But for Bolsonaro, things couldn’t be more different. He accused the media, governors, and even his own allies of fear-mongering and said that the country must continue as normal and ignore the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Russia and the US tried to downplay the problem as much as possible, but couldn’t deploy the same scorched-earth approach as in Brazil. In Russia, there “was no coronavirus” at first — just a mysterious rise in pneumonia cases. Trump’s “It will all go away” and “We’re going substantially down, not up” ring clear of downplaying and wishful thinking. Or, as some would call it, fake news.
Economically too, there were different approaches. In Washington, buyouts and bailouts are the bread and butter. A $2 trillion aid package was deployed to save jobs and bail out companies, with a great deal of support being offered to America’s largest companies.
In Russia, there was no need for the country to express support for large companies, because that’s not really necessary.
“The entire Russian system is based on supporting Russian big state business. All the tools already exist: You go to the president or cabinet to ask for something, like preferential loans, at any time. These companies already have so many opportunities to do this that there is no need to come up with any new procedures,” Konstantin Sonin, an economist and professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, told Politico.
Again at opposite poles, Modi and Bolsonaro had different approaches. Bolsonaro’s entire idea is ignoring the coronavirus and focusing on the economy, while Modi hoped to enforce a tight lockdown and deal a decisive blow to the outbreak, even at the risk of paralyzing the economy.
Both approaches seem to be failing. After some initial success, cases are growing dramatically in India, as for Brazil, the domino effects of the health crisis have naturally spilled onto the economy.
But for all these differences, the end goal is the same: to send a message of strength and fear. Authoritarian leaders thrive on fear, dislike science, and want to emanate power — regardless of the costs to their citizens.
Never let a good crisis go to waste
It’s not just the coronavirus reaction — authoritarian leaders also love to take advantage of crises to push their agenda. In Russia, the plan was pretty straightforward: consolidate power. Russian authorities granted the government increased powers and stealthily deployed a face monitoring network, with critics pointing out that Putin’s Russia is already looking like a surveillance state.
For Modi, the goal was stoking nationalism and fueling hate, while also sparking the fire of economic nationalism. Meanwhile, Trump and Bolsonaro have been using the crisis to dismantle environmental protection.
It’s unfortunate, but not exactly surprising: even as their countries are suffering dramatic health crises,
A necessary conversation
Of course, not everything can be pinned on authoritarian leadership. These are four of the most populous countries on Earth, so that definitely played a role. There’s also something to say about their political system, as all four countries have a federal system.
“There are certain advantages and disadvantages to the way a country is organized politically in this type of situation. So in the case, it’d be highly unlikely that the United States could mobilize everything in a way that China kind of did,” Richard Carpiano, Professor of Public Policy and Sociology at the University of California, Riverside, told ZME Science.
“There is this sort of criticism, that of the federal government and the way the response has been so much focused on the state level. People have really been looking towards governors for help — and are regarding governors favorably,” Carpiano added, referring principally to the US.
But the number of people alone does not say the whole story. We’ve seen Vietnam, a country of 100 million people, become a major coronavirus success story, without a single fatality. We’ve seen countries such as Germany, Japan, and the Philippines have much better per capita rates.
The decentralized political structure may also have something to do with it. In the US, messaging was confusing and decentralized and defers to state governments for the majority of policy development, which has led to vastly different actions by governors, with vastly different outcomes.
But the fumbling of the initial response, the disregard for science, the systematic smoke-and-mirrors tactics deployed to mask the problem, the lack of support for affected communities, this is something that should not be addressed.
As the crisis subsides, we need to have a conversation about what happened.
“I’m sure we’re going to have some sort of post COVID review panel, like what we did after 9/11 in the United States to see what happened. Then we’ll have like a real conversation around public health and probably about pandemic preparedness, and all that. Or gosh, I hope so,” Carpiano adds for ZME Science.
The pandemic has shown the best and the worst in our leaders, and as expected, it has fueled nationalism and authoritarianism. We’ve already seen how damaging this can be if the fire is allowed to run rampant.
Ultimately, this is a reminder we should pay much more attention to two of the things we usually take for granted: public health and democracy.