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The strongman follies

  • Published at 05:45 pm May 21st, 2020
US President Donald Trump speaks about administration efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine
File photo: US President Donald Trump speaks about administration efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine as Dr. Debbie Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci listen during a coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic response event in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, US, May 15, 2020 Reuters

At a time when coronavirus is ravaging the world, good leaders are hard to find

The great calamity of our times is the global coronavirus emergency coincided with authoritarian governance in crucial countries. 

For example, earlier this week, Brazil recorded almost 20,000 new cases in 24 hours, as well as 888 deaths. It’s the third-worst-hit country, just behind Russia, with the US way ahead. These three markedly different nations on three separate continents share only one common factor: A bullying president who has serially denied, obfuscated, and mismanaged the health crisis.

Less than five months into the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s glaringly obvious some places have done much better than others in handling the complex challenges facing all of us. In India, the southern state of Kerala comfortably outperforms every other part of the country. Across the ocean, Taiwan and Australia have identically-sized populations, and the same advantage of being island nations with strong border controls. But the former has less than 400 cases, while the latter has recorded over 5,000.

Many coronavirus successes are ascribed to female leadership. But while it’s true that Germany (under Angela Merkel), New Zealand (Jacinda Ardern), Finland (Sanna Marin), and indeed Taiwan (Tsai Ing-wen) have scripted remarkable stories of competence paired with compassion, the highest mortality rate of any country in the world (number of deaths relative to population size) is Belgium, led by Sophie Wilmès.

Yet, if a woman president or prime minister is no guarantee of enlightened leadership, the reign of of populist strongmen does reliably indicate that things will go very badly in the Covid-19 era.

Thus, there can no surprise that the four worst affected countries by total number of Covid-19 cases -- the UK is just behind Brazil -- each have macho-men leaders who have publicly dithered over mask use, mostly because they didn’t want to appear vulnerable in photographs (some anti-Asian racism is also at work here).

Earlier this month The Lancet wrote about Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro what also applies with great precision to the other three as well: “[He] continues to sow confusion by openly flouting and discouraging the sensible measures of physical distancing and lockdown … such disarray at the heart of the administration is a deadly distraction in the middle of a public health emergency and is also a stark sign that [the country’s] leadership has lost its moral compass.”

In its 2018 cover story tracking the emerging phenomenon, Time magazine said: “In every region of the world, changing times have boosted public demand for more muscular, assertive leadership. These tough-talking populists promise to protect ‘us’ from ‘them.’ Depending on who’s talking, ‘them’ can mean the corrupt elite or the grasping poor; foreigners or members of racial, ethnic or religious minorities. Or disloyal politicians, bureaucrats, bankers, or judges. Or lying reporters. Out of this divide, a new archetype of leader has emerged. We’re now in the strongman era.”

But all the posturing and swagger in the world makes no difference at all to Covid-19. You can’t trash talk or humiliate a virus, and those kinds of clownish antics only increase the chance of infection.

What does work is homework, as well as humility, empathy, and established trust across your constituency. The leaders who have been most open and honest with their people have all done much better than others who promised that the problem would soon go away. Denial -- no matter how ferociously enforced by the courts, police, and state apparatus -- has proven deadly, again and again and again.

This is what happened in India, where the prime minister Narendra Modi leveraged his genuinely extraordinary reserves of social and political capital to shut down the country with just four hours notice in March, declaring: “The war in Mahabharat continued for 18 days, we have won this war in 21 days. The entire country has come together to fight against the threat of coronavirus and we will definitely win this war.”

But those three weeks passed, and the virus crisis only multiplied. Two months after Modi’s stirring call to arms, India eclipsed China’s official (albeit most likely manipulated) tally of total coronavirus cases. There are worrying signs Mumbai is shaping up like New York, a pandemic epicentre with exponential spread. Meanwhile, millions of migrant workers headed out from the cities to the rural heartland, taking the contagion with them.

With bombast exposed as sham, the actual heroes of our times look like 66-year-old KK Shailaja, the Communist Party of India’s health minister of Kerala. Universally known by the affectionate honorific “teacher” (she was a school science teacher before entering politics), this diminutive icon never stops repeating that teamwork and transparency are the reasons for her state’s success. 

She says: “Fighting an epidemic like corona requires scientific temper, humanism, and a spirit for inquiry and reform. Superstition, credulity, emotionalism, and irrationalism will derail the whole process.” Would-be strongmen should pay attention. 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.