The most powerful leader in the world has tested positive for the coronavirus.
President Donald Trump confirmed his diagnosis in a tweet early Friday, joining a growing list of world leaders who’ve contracted the virus. That list includes leaders who’ve downplayed or mishandled the pandemic at points, including Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
These figures are, in many ways, symbols of their failed policies, but also of deeper problems in the systems and societies they oversee.
Whether Trump’s diagnosis will reshape his response to the coronavirus is unknowable at this point, and the same goes for whether it will change how the country perceives his leadership during the pandemic.
By many metrics, the United States has failed to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Trump’s positive coronavirus test comes about eight months into the pandemic, with the United States leading the world in both number of cases and deaths: more than 7.2 million confirmed and more than 208,000 dead.
The president downplayed the pandemic early on, and knowingly misled the public, as he admitted to journalist Bob Woodward. He worked against his own government’s guidelines, encouraging states to reopen prematurely. He has been wishy-washy on mask-wearing and has hosted major rallies in recent weeks — mass gatherings that violate states’ pandemic restrictions.
Much of this was “magical thinking” — that somehow the United States would overcome the coronavirus, that it would just go away without intervention and restrictions. That was never going to happen. As Vox’s German Lopez writes, that magical thinking has guided Trump before and after the pandemic hit the United States:
It’s a problem that’s continued through September — with Trump and those under him flat-out denying the existence of a resurgence in Covid-19, falsely claiming rising cases were a result of more tests. With every day, week, and month that the Trump administration has tried to spin a positive story, it’s also resisted stronger action, allowing the epidemic to drag on.
It’s challenging to make comparisons across countries, but elements of this “magical thinking” were shared by some of Trump’s populist counterparts abroad, and by authoritarian leaders in places like Iran and Belarus who minimized the virus.
How leaders responded to the pandemic, both before and after their coronavirus diagnoses, varied, as did the reactions of the public in their respective countries. But ignoring or underplaying the threat of Covid-19 only made the pandemic harder to contain.
Bolsonaro downplayed Covid-19, though his popularity has since increased
In Brazil, Bolsonaro confirmed he tested positive for the coronavirus in early July, when the country had the second-highest number of cases and fatalities, behind the United States.
Bolsonaro, perhaps more than any other leader, had aggressively dismissed the threat of Covid-19. He called the coronavirus the “little flu” and said in late March that “we’ll all die one day.” He opposed state governors’ decisions to impose lockdown measures, attended anti-lockdown protests, met with supporters without wearing a mask, and pushed for businesses to reopen despite the growing outbreak.
He lost two health ministers — one was fired, the other quit — during the public health emergency. He endorsed the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, the controversial antimalarial drugs, though there’s little good evidence they are effective in treating Covid-19. Bolsonaro attributed his recovery to those drugs, going so far as to taunt an emu-like bird with one of them.
Bolsonaro spent the three weeks in isolation with apparently minor symptoms, and announced at the end of July that he’d finally tested negative. His seemingly mild case helped feed into his rhetoric that Covid-19 wasn’t a big deal, just something played up by the media. And it bolstered his image among supporters that he was a tough guy who’d easily defeated the virus everyone else was scared about.
Still, as in the US, Bolsonaro’s reputation for mendacity makes his own statements hard to believe; shortly after he recovered, he claimed he was taking antibiotics for “moldy lungs,” which he blamed on being inactive during his isolation period.
“I knew I was going to catch it someday, as I think unfortunately nearly everyone here is going to catch it eventually. What are you afraid of? Face up to it,” he told reporters after his recovery.
“I regret the deaths. But people die every day, from lots of things,” he added. “That’s life.”
Bolsonaro did not really change his approach to the pandemic after he contracted the virus, still elevating the economy over public health measures. He has even said Covid-19 vaccinations won’t be mandatory.
Brazil had been deeply divided over Bolsonaro even before the pandemic, and his base of support, which includes evangelicals, remained pretty unshakable. But Bolsonaro has, remarkably, added to his popularity. It is now at record levels, largely because of newfound support among low-income and working-class Brazilians who are benefiting from emergency financial aid. Bolsonaro’s strategy of focusing on the economy was strategic, experts told me in the spring, a way to blame governors and everyone else when the economy crashed. But that hasn’t changed Brazil’s coronavirus trajectory: As of October 2, more than 140,000 Brazilians have been confirmed to have died of Covid-19, second only to the United States.
Boris Johnson showed the challenge of recovering from past mistakes
In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government initially flirted with a pandemic response strategy that would have avoided shutdowns, before finally reversing course and imposing lockdown restrictions at the end of March.
Still, in early March, Johnson joked about shaking hands with patients in the hospital.
Then Johnson tested positive for Covid-19 on March 27, and soon became so ill with Covid-19 that he was admitted to the ICU. He did not fully return to work until April 27, meaning the country’s leader was absent for a month during a national crisis.
Johnson’s return — and his very gracious thanks to the nurses and doctors who treated him — won him some goodwill, but it didn’t last. Johnson saw a small boost in his personal popularity after his diagnosis, but a brief uptick in approval for his government predated his Covid-19 test, when he announced lockdown measures.
Johnson in public statements did take the coronavirus more seriously, and the government continued to extend the lockdown into the spring, and emphasized the need to reopen gradually. But the government still faced criticism for failing to offer clarity on who should return to work and who should wear masks. Add to that a massive scandal involving Johnson’s top adviser, who defied coronavirus restrictions everyone else had to follow, and approval for Johnson’s government began to decline.
No, Boris Johnson catching coronavirus did not prompt a surge of support for the government. The surge had already taken place by 23 March - 4 days before the PM announced he had COVID-19 https://t.co/DHPyOsnm6f pic.twitter.com/BVkastVkET— YouGov (@YouGov) October 2, 2020
Ultimately, the prime minister couldn’t escape what critics saw as his early missteps at the start of the pandemic, including the delayed lockdown, continued problems with testing and contact tracing, and a failure to protect nursing homes. Even as Johnson’s tone changed, the government’s larger failures — some of which predated Johnson, including problems at the NHS — made those difficult to overcome.
The UK still has the highest death Covid-19 death toll in all of Europe, and Johnson has imposed new restrictions in September to deal with an upsurge of cases. But he is facing resistance from members of his Conservative Party, who now see him as an incarnation of the “nanny state” he once abhorred. The resistance also comes from a general loss of trust in government institutions and expertise, which Johnson’s Brexit campaign helped foster. And the UK is facing a dramatic recession, which could get a lot worse if Johnson doesn’t reach a Brexit deal — and he may not, given how he’s blown up Brexit talks.
The politics these leaders created made the pandemic harder to control
Trump and Bolsonaro and plenty of other governments have mismanaged or concealed information from the public about the coronavirus. In Iran, religious leaders knew of the pandemic early on, but resisted informing the public or taking measures. It turned Iran into an epicenter; senior clerics and government ministers fell ill.
Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko called the coronavirus a “psychosis” and said Covid-19 could be cured with saunas and vodka. His attitude extended to a feckless national response, which helped fuel mass protests against the dictator and his decades-long reign. Lukashenko admitted in July that he had tested positive but was asymptomatic. He, too, attempted to spin it as a strength, saying he “survived on his feet.”
This is not all that surprising in authoritarian countries, where information is tightly controlled and leaders are largely not accountable to the public.
But Trump and Bolsonaro and Johnson came to power by sowing distrust in expertise and the media. Undermining institutions, and the public’s faith in them, came with real costs in preparing and protecting the public from the pandemic. Unlike political investigations or corruption scandals or complicated trade talks, they’re a lot harder to spin away or distract from with misinformation.
Political failures have likely contributed to the course of the pandemic everywhere. But politics, ultimately, can’t overcome the pandemic. The main lesson for Covid-19 has always been that an outbreak in one area is a threat to everyone, everywhere. A leader in a country where the response is fractured, where public health messaging is confused, is vulnerable to Covid-19 because everyone is.