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Populism and Coronavirus Crisis Management: Long Live Denial

What do Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Boris Johnson have in common ? They have all underestimated and minimized the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their largely populated countries. How can their actions and reactions (which sometimes defy logic and reason) be explained ? Is it the fear of looking weak ? Or a complete mistrust of science ? Or even a disproportioned ego which led them to believe their countries and people would be invincible and untouchable ?

Ever since the first days of the outbreak, scientists from all over the world agree the most important precaution against the coronavirus is wearing a mask or face-covering tissue. It is a simple measure and does not require much effort nor cost. Yet, Donald Trump and members of his administration refused to wear masks. In public appearances, including visiting hospitals, covid-19 wards and even mask-producing factories, they have been spotted without face coverings. Many explain this by the fact that Donald Trump has a tremendous amount of pride and would be looking “weak” if seen wearing a mask. Trump supporters claim it is a form of submission to wear a mask in public. Moreover, and that goes back to before the pandemic, Trump has expressed a great misbelief and lack of trust towards science and facts. However, the coronavirus pandemic isn’t just another “hoax”.


In less than a month, more than 2.47 million cases were confirmed, and more than 100 thousand lives claimed. Despite these scary numbers, Trump did not change his stance: no mask, no clear Federal Government policy on lockdown, advocating for a reopening of the economy while cases still skyrocketing, etc. The problem does not only lie on the president, but also on his supporters, who flooded the streets of many states where lockdown was imposed, claiming it was a “violation of liberty and human rights”, while it was nothing but an attempt to keep them safe from a deadly virus.

Further south, newly-elected-populist-far-right president Jair Bolsonaro expressed similar views on the pandemic. He was seen in mass gatherings and protests advocating against social distancing and lockdown. This has created political unrest within his cabinet, with the resignation of two consecutive Health Ministers and the Justice Minister, who had different views on the management of the pandemic. Today, more than 1 million cases and nearly 50,000 deaths were recorded in Brazil.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Boris Johnson has been widely criticized for his “herd immunity” idea, and his bragging about shaking hands of people he meets. In mid-March, when most of the world had gone into lockdown or was preparing to do so, London was still a vibrant partying city and coronavirus seemed far away. The situation became less amusing when the Prime Minister contracted the virus and was admitted to an Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Eventually, coming out of the hospital, Boris Johnson ended up imposing a strict lockdown, but the damage was done. Today, nearly 300,000 cases were recorded, and 40,000 lives were claimed in the United Kingdom.

The reactions from these leaders raised many questions: why live in such denial? Why not just impose a lockdown, social distancing and create a climate of trust and leadership? The answer is that all three have to preserve their image as strong leaders who have to be looked up to by their electorate. They do not want to “ride the wave” and look weak when all they thought they were dealing with is “a flu-like virus”. They still considered themselves invincible and refused to see the extent of the crisis. They also were too afraid of affecting their economy and unemployment rates. What they did not seem to understand is that while an economy can always recover from a crisis, a deceased human being won’t have the same chance.

It is crystal clear that Trump, Bolsonaro, Johnson and any other leader who refuses to impose lockdown and social distancing measures are wrong. To understand why, take a look at countries such as Germany, Slovakia, New Zealand, or the UAE. Since the very beginning of the pandemic, a strict lockdown was imposed, mass testing campaigns were run, and the population was made aware and well-informed by their leaders and governments. They knew the facts. They were not fooled. They were not lied to. They were not misled. This allowed them to be responsible and assess the risk by themselves. These countries, and many others, are now coming out of confinement with record-low cases and deaths, all thanks to heads of states who led by example, and populations who were made aware of the risk they were facing.

No country was prepared to face a crisis like this one. But while some stood out and faced the music, others like Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson chose to live in denial and were more afraid of a fall in approval ratings than they were of a rise in death rates. They are now paying the price.

This article was initially published in The Phoenix Daily.


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