Presidents and pandemic


Well, the United States President becomes the third important leader to be caged. First, it was UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, then the Brazilian President Bolsonaro, and now President Trump.

With more than 200,000 deaths, the United States is the worst hit Covid country in the world. With over 40,000 deaths, UK is the worst hit country in Europe. And with nearly 145,000 deaths, Brazil is the worst hit country in Latin America.

Strangely, the three leaders from different parts of the world share one common characteristic. They consistently ignored sane advice and showed utter disregard for those practices that value reason over risk. They moved around freely, failed to maintain social distance, met people, shook hands with several of them, addressed public gatherings, and avoided wearing mask. They played Don Quixote and let the virus overwhelm them.

Leadership matters, especially during crisis. The pandemic has shown three types of it. There are some who led by action and example. The New Zealand prime minister and the German Chancellor represent this group. When her doctor contracted the disease, Angela Merkel quarantined herself.

India’s prime minister represents the second group. He has sincerely followed the experts’ advice. Not many may recall but on March 24, toward the end of his televised speech, Modi cautioned people not to take any medication without consulting doctors, in case they show any symptoms of Covid infection. He then said, “Any sort of medical experimentation can put your life at risk.” That statement has care written all over it.

The three leaders affected by Covid 19 belong to the third group. Two of them – Bolsonaro and Trump went beyond being blithely reckless. Each one of them repudiated science and entertained exaggerated notion of self-importance. The Brazilian president was so imprudent as to let his two health ministers resign in quick succession. Trump was no less disdainful. He openly admitted consuming the drug hydroxylchloroquine when his experts said otherwise. Johnson too boasted that he shook hands with people while on a visit to a hospital that was treating coronavirus patients.

Boris Johnson, however, may have been influenced by the advice his experts offered him. The latter once believed that herd immunity would make the virus go away. Johnson therefore opposed lockdown and social distancing measures. Hospitalised for seven days, three of which were in the ICU, a chastised prime minister later said, “Things could have gone either way.” When the second wave of infections hit the country, he was no longer his arrogant self. He imposed strict restrictions on gatherings and people’s movement.

Bolsonaro initially dismissed Covid 19 as ‘little flu’. When he recovered from Covid infection, he, unlike Johnson, became more emboldened and said that Brazilians should not be forced to take a vaccine. Trump was equally contemptuous, if not cynical. He alleged that the pandemic was a Democratic Party hoax aimed at derailing his presidency. He disfavoured people around him wearing masks and even asked a reporter in a press conference to remove it. The Republican governors went along with him, as did several of his aides. None of them wore a mask.

However, age and weight do not sit favourably on Trump’s side. Among the three leaders, Trump is the oldest. He is 74 whereas Bolsonaro is 65 and Boris Johnson, 56.  Trump suffers from another risk. Weighing about 110 kgs, the six ft 3 inches president is also obese. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those aged between 65 and 74 are at a higher risk of a hospital admission compared to people under 30. It is noteworthy that eight out of 10 Covid 19 related deaths in the United States are among people aged 65 years and older. We can only guess how President Trump will behave when he emerges out of isolation.

Several US presidents have fallen ill during crises. Wilson suffered from Influenza during 1918-19 when Spanish Flu ravaged several parts of the world. The US administration and Wilson’s wife were not transparent about the president’s illness. Similarly, the four-time President Roosevelt, handicapped by polio, and weakened and tired by war efforts, died immediately after World War II, as did Nehru after the Chinese debacle in 1962. Roosevelt’s deteriorating health was common knowledge. Trump too has been open and upfront about his illness. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Falstaff says, “Thou seest I have more flesh than another man, and therefore more frailty.” The question is will Trump or his administration continue to be transparent about his frailty.

Pradeep Krishnatray is former director, Research and Strategic Planning, Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, New Delhi



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