How a COVID diagnosis can affect a leader’s chances


In a world with about 200 national leaders of every stripe and ideology, the COVID-19 virus has zeroed in uncannily on one group: the new breed of right-wing populists.

It was true in Europe, where in addition to Boris Johnson’s near brush with death, the virus also struck former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi, a giant of European right-wing populism who, in many ways, was Donald Trump before Donald Trump.

And it has been true in the Americas, where — along with the president of the United States — four other leaders have acquired the infection: Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras, Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala, and Jeanine Áñez of Bolivia. (One could add Luis Abinader of the Dominican Republic, although he was sworn in after overcoming the disease during his election campaign.)

Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez’s Twitter account shows a distinct lack of social distancing. She’s in the middle with the wooden crucifix. (Twitter)

All five of those presidents are right-wing populists who present themselves as law-and-order leaders — but are accused by their opponents of autocratic tendencies.

The virus has also hit cabinet members in the governments of President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Dictators have been afflicted as well — including Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, who described the pandemic as a “psychosis” and recommended treating the virus with vodka.

Left-wing and centrist politicians have been hit, including the Socialist deputy prime minister of Spain — but even there, the virus first reared its head in the far-right populist Vox Party, whose secretary-general tested positive in early March. Vox has spearheaded anti-lockdown protests in the country.

Honduran humility 

The leaders have reacted differently to their COVID experiences, both as patients and as politicians. And their supporters also have reacted differently to their illnesses.

Some COVID-struck politicians have emerged with something like a newfound air of humility.

“Many think this is a game and it is not until they see a relative who gets sick, or when they get sick themselves, that they understand the seriousness of this issue,” Honduras’s Hernandez said after emerging from hospital in July. “I tell you, the truth is I don’t wish this on anyone.”

“I thought about what would happen if I could not be with my family anymore,” he added — wearing a mask as he admonished the Honduran people to take responsibility as individuals. “COVID has come to change our lives.”

Braggadocio from Bolsonaro

At the other end of the spectrum, Brazil’s Bolsonaro confronted his diagnosis with his typical bravado. He had little choice, having frequently dismissed COVID as a gripezinha or “little flu” and said that “as an athlete” he would suffer only a mild case.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro looks on during a press statement at the Alvorada Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Sept. 28, 2020. (Adriano Machado/Reuters)

When he and his wife did become sick in July, he announced that he would treat himself with the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine promoted by Trump, and soon made a full recovery.

But COVID did not put a dent in Bolsonaro’s aggressive and confrontational style. Six weeks ago he told assembled journalists that “when it gets one of you wimps (bundaos), your chance of surviving is quite a bit lower.”

But unlike his near-fatal stabbing during the 2018 presidential election campaign, Bolsonaro’s COVID experience did not boost his popularity in a country that has lost nearly 150,000 people to the disease.

Trump of the tropics

Bolsonaro is similar to Trump in many ways in that he draws more support from men than from women, more votes from evangelicals and people without higher education, and runs up his biggest vote margins in some of the country’s more forgotten regions.

Brazil is, if anything, more polarized politically than even the United States. Brazilians mostly reacted to their president’s diagnosis along those partisan lines.

Bolsonaro’s popularity has gone up more recently; about half of the country now approves of his government’s performance. 

But a deeper dive into those polls suggests that the sudden rise in approval ratings was linked to the unprecedented generosity of the social programs set up to deal with the economic fallout of COVID in the period after Bolsonaro’s recovery, and did not coincide with his illness and recovery in July. 

“It’s the 600 reales ($144CDN a month) in the pocket that’s popular, not Bolsonaro,” wrote Brazilian political analyst Thomas Traumann in Veja.

Those benefits will be short-lived, however.

“The approval of the government will fall gradually as the benefits are cut from 600 to 300 reales, and then drastically as millions are left with nothing” by the end of the year, Traumann predicted.

Meanwhile, COVID continues to kill nearly a thousand Brazilians a day.

How voters see it

Looking around the world’s democracies, it appears that voters judge the illnesses of their politicians by three different yardsticks. 

The first and strongest is their pre-existing ideological affinity. Those who sympathize with Bolsonaro or Trump will express condolences and regret that others are “politicizing” a health matter. Those who dislike them will see the hand of karma at work.

But for those who are open to changing their views, gestures of post-COVID empathy, humility and greater understanding can soften hearts — gestures such as the one Boris Johnson delivered when he expressed his thanks to two nurses, “Jenny from New Zealand” and “Luis from Portugal.”

“It could have gone either way,” he said, looking chastened.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson applauds outside 10 Downing Street during the Clap for our Carers campaign in support of the NHS on May 14, 2020. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

The third factor appears to be whether voters see the illness as a matter of bad luck — or the consequence of bad behaviour.

Johnson was widely criticized for his country’s slow and inefficient response to COVID, which led to it becoming the world’s epicentre for a time.

But unlike Trump, Johnson did not invest his own political capital in minimizing the disease, nor did he ever encourage the flouting of public health rules and guidelines, much less throw his support behind anti-mask and anti-lockdown movements.

Trump has done all of those things, repeatedly, and continued to do them right up to his own diagnosis. 

Double standards of care

But none of the other leaders who have contracted COVID have done so with an election looming. Most were close to the start of their terms of office. Johnson had been in office just nine months, and Bolsonaro 18. Giammattei and Anez were just a few months in when they fell ill.

Trump is just one month away from an election in which over a million votes have already been cast. Even if he were asymptomatic (he’s not), his quarantine period would eat up half of the remaining campaign time.

It also seems highly likely that infections will continue to rock his entourage, his cabinet and perhaps his family. He attended a fundraiser in a private home in Minneapolis after aide Hope Hicks had already tested positive. It is not unlikely that other people — donors, rally attendees, Secret Service agents or staffers — will become sick and trace their illness back to contact with him.

The president may yet make a full recovery and return with a loud “told-you-so.” But the timeframe suggests it will be difficult for him to do that before voting day.

Some more equal than others

And things could get worse for Trump politically now that he has been moved to Walter Reed Army Hospital.

Bolsonaro never set foot in a hospital during his convalescence. Johnson, on the other hand, was in an intensive care unit. But the fact that he was treated in the country’s NHS public health system, like any other Englishman, saved him from allegations that he was compounding his COVID incompetence with hypocrisy and special treatment.

Should Trump now receive gold-plated medical care at taxpayer expense, while trying to strip public health care from millions of Americans who actually pay those taxes (unlike Trump himself, reportedly), that could create a very different impression. 

And Trump’s treatment will be scrutinized for how it compares to what other Americans are receiving — and how it squares with his own previous statements.

A note issued by Trump’s personal physician on Friday listed the medications the president is taking. Notably missing from the list is hydroxychloroquine, a drug he frequently promoted to others as a miracle cure for COVID but which the FDA has warned is dangerous.

Needless to say, “disinfectant” and “sunlight” are also not part of the treatment plan. Other Americans who followed the president’s advice have had reasons to regret it.

At Walter Reed, Trump can count on the best medical attention in the world. But it’s difficult to imagine how that would help him with any American voter who has lost a family member, a friend, or a job to the ravages of COVID-19.

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