A catastrophic pandemic and a calamitous presidency combined to give the United States the world’s worst pandemic death toll. That was essentially confirmed by Dr. Deborah Birx, President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force coordinator, who told CNN most deaths in the United States could have been prevented. And yet — cold comfort — Trump might not have been the worst leader of the pandemic. Others arguably botched the crisis even worse than Trump did, and the list tells you a lot about the state of global governance.
It’s hard to top the response of Nicaragua’s near-eternal President Daniel Ortega and his wife, who responded to news of a pandemic by calling people into the streets for a festive parade they called “Love in the Time of COVID-19” — a perversely fitting allusion to the work of Gabriel García Márquez, whose novels seamlessly blend fact and hallucination. The reckless move horrified human rights activists and scientists alike.
It’s hard to top, but not impossible. There’s Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, where the health care system stands on the verge of collapse, and the unchecked spread of the virus has spawned variants now threatening other struggling countries.
Bolsonaro has echoed Trump’s claims about hydroxychloroquine, squandering emergency pandemic funds on the useless treatment. He has fired health ministers for refusing to go along with his COVID-19 denial and claimed Brazilians might be immune to the “little flu” because they swim in sewage and nothing happens to them. Bolsonaro, who himself became infected, called on Brazilians to protest antivirus measures and joined them in the streets. Few people wore masks, and he gleefully shook hands — sometimes after coughing into his own.
Another president who caught the virus while playing it down is Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Early on, he advised Mexicans to “live life as usual.” Even after he became infected, he rejected requests to wear a mask. He says he will wear one when corruption is eradicated in Mexico, a distant prospect. As in the United States, mask-wearing became highly politicized, a development that contributed to the climbing death toll.
Earlier this month, Mexican authorities quietly released a report showing the real count is 60 percent higher than the official figure, putting Mexico neck and neck with Brazil for the world’s second-highest pandemic death toll behind the United States.
Coincidence? Populism seems to be a co-morbidity in a pandemic, raising its deadly toll.
Then there are the dictators, like Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, who described the pandemic as nothing more than a “psychosis” and prescribed vodka and saunas to prevent it. Lukashenko, who has faced months of mass protests after a disputed election last summer, has blocked commonsense measures to slow down the virus at almost every turn.
Yet many Belarusians have resisted his negligent approach — just as many have pushed back against his dictatorship. Ignoring his calamitous advice, individuals practiced social distancing, held crowdfunding campaigns to buy supplies for hospitals and, in the end, have probably helped to keep the virus and the death toll in Belarus from spiraling out of control.
In Turkmenistan, another post-Soviet dictatorship, the government has set a new low for denial by banning mask-wearing and any discussion of the pandemic. The use of the word “coronavirus” has reportedly been outlawed in media or health information materials. Turkmenistan still claims it hasn’t had any coronavirus cases, a claim no one believes.
In Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen has held power since 1985 (making him one of the world’s longest-ruling heads of government), the first move was denial. He welcomed cruise ship passengers shunned by other countries for fear of the pandemic. Gradually, his response turned to repression, banning criticism and arresting those who complained, then using the emergency to tighten the regime’s grip.
In Africa, yet another authoritarian populist, President John Magufuli of Tanzania, also dismissed talk of a global emergency. He told people not to bother with masks or vaccines, claiming that three days of prayer eradicated the virus in Tanzania. To make his point, he claimed to have submitted samples of pawpaw fruit and said they came back positive, ridiculing scientists. Magufuli died this month. Authorities say he died from heart complications, but members of the opposition say they have it on good authority he died of COVID-19.
It’s impossible to cover all the outrages by populist demagogues and assorted tyrants. (Apologies if I left out one you found particularly offensive.) Every world leader made mistakes, but there’s something uniquely malignant about the manipulations and deceptions of the most outrageous players.
As for Trump, these other leaders remind us that he wasn’t alone in his mishandling of the pandemic. He has a lot of competition for the title of worst pandemic president. But he’s still a contender.