The Embarrassing Eight: How Not to Lead a Pandemic

Times of crises call for robust and reasonable leadership, and yet, the biggest pandemic in more than a century has largely witnessed an abdication of accountability, a slew of rudderless rhetoric, and a prioritisation of ego over effectiveness from the world’s foremost populist leaders.

Here’s how:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India

The spread of COVID-19 has yet again exposed Modi’s penchant for infantilising the Indian populace through mass appeals. There is nothing wrong in asking people to beat thalis or light diyas to project national unity, but their purpose rings hollow in the absence of any meaningful discussion on the most essential questions – how will large-scale testing for the virus be made available, how will the government’s rescue package identify and reach out to the most vulnerable, how will an already stuttering economy be supported and essential services maintained during and after the ongoing lockdown?

Modi has not underestimated the threat of the coronavirus in his pronouncements, but in refusing to constructively engage with the appalling shortages in India’s healthcare infrastructure, alongside his characteristic apathy for not calculating the time it takes citizens to adjust to his drastic decisions, he has displayed a chilling obliviousness to obvious pain that is now becoming synonymous with his administration.

President Donald Trump, the US

Donald Trump’s perennial distance from facts and science meant that he originally tried to frame coronavirus as the next “hoax” designed by Democrats to bring down the president. While the US may have announced a massive $2 trillion economic rescue programme, most of the measures are built to bail out big businesses thanks to Trump’s pro-corporate disaster capitalism. With the virus now making headway into the southern heartlands – where most of Trump’s supporters are – the president has more recently shifted from a cavalier to a combative (at least in words) attitude, positioning himself as ‘a wartime hero‘.

With Trump embroiled in his blame game and pursuit of distractions (the latest being mining on the moon), his dispensation may pay the ultimate price for their blatant disregard for healthcare (including the  dismantling of a special pandemic response unit set up by Barack Obama following the ebola epidemic) when Americans go to the polls later this year.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the UK

In the early days of the outbreak when the UK had not seen too many confirmed cases, Boris Johnson went about shaking hands with infected patients while his government flirted with the clinically unproven strategy of herd immunity. Predisposed to gallivanting himself, Johnson found it difficult to articulate in favour of social distancing in his press briefings, before facetiously announcing the “extraordinary” shutdown measures taking away “the ancient, inalienable right of the free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub”.

Openly expressive of his admiration for Winston Churchill, Johnson, unfortunately, has lacked the decisiveness of his idol, with his prevaricating proclivities replaced by greater clarity and urgency from his cabinet members who have risen in his stead following his hospitalisation on contracting the virus.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary

Global crises and increased authoritarianism often go hand-in-hand, with the concomitant disregard for proper procedure blatantly evident in the ostensible omnipotence of Viktor Orban in Hungary. At the end of last month, the Hungarian parliament passed the Enabling Act, which grants a carte blanche to Orban, allowing the executive to rule by decree indefinitely. Orban’s response to the pandemic has morphed from casual denial to scapegoating of foreigners to issuing a state of emergency. As part of his paternalistic plan to clamp down on the pandemic, Orban has handed control of a hundred “strategic” companies – businesses run by Hungarians or multinationals – to the military.

By politicising the disease and hurling blame at the opposition for holding up his Enabling Act before eventually enforcing it, Orban has seemingly cemented life-long power, rendering himself unaccountable and potentially ripping apart post-communist Hungary’s democratic fabric once and for all.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel

Under enormous domestic pressure to work in tandem with rival Benny Gantz to form a coalition government after three indecisive elections, the arrival of the coronavirus could not have been better timed for Israel’s beleaguered leader. Not only has the pandemic created a resurgence in his popularity (thanks to the rallying around the flag effect), but the trial of Netanyahu on corruption charges- slated to begin in mid-March- has now been postponed to the end of May.

With the potential formation of an emergency setup on account of COVID-19, Netanyahu could conceivably hold onto his position for the next 18 months, despite being a defendant in a criminal case. By passing controversial measures like the mobile phone tracking edict – normally used for “anti-terrorism” purposes – Netanyahu has triggered protests outside the Knesset, with many accusing him of using the crisis to morph into a “crime minister”.

President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil

Despite his own health minister’s warnings of how the Brazilian healthcare system could be overwhelmed by the end of April, Jair Bolsonaro has dubbed the virus as a “little flu” and “hysteria”. Many in Brazil suspect that the president himself may be a vector of the disease following his trip to the US in March, but Bolsonaro – infamous for his mendacity – has insisted that he tested negative.

Elected in 2018 on the back of successfully peddling conspiracy theories and half-truths, Bolsonaro has been explicitly urging people to get back to work in blunt defiance of the advice of The World Health Organization. Governors across Brazil have mounted a strong oppositional front to the president and impeachment requests have been filed in the congress against the leader whose video claiming hydroxychloroquine can effectively tackle the virus was taken down by Facebook.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico

Neurotically obsessed with holding on to his presidency, Obrador has been seen flouting social distancing measures repeatedly, having posted a video of himself hugging and kissing supporters at a rally in mid-March. A socialist at heart, “AMLO” (the acronym assigned to him) has proposed ambitious measures to safeguard the poor, but in the absence of a sound policy to revive Mexico’s less than stellar economy, such grandiose plans do not have a consolidated foundation. Mexico’s opposition party has called out Obrador for trying to create his financial stimulus by endangering pension funds and trusts, while others have been equally loud in their criticism of the Obrador government’s sluggish awareness programme regarding COVID-19.

Having ascended to the foremost leadership of Mexico through a campaign of “hugs, not bullets”, Obrador must temporarily let go of his gregarious streak if Mexico is to be stopped from embracing a health and financial meltdown.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan

After the Pakistan government failed to screen Shia pilgrims returning from Iran by placing them in ill-equipped camps along the Balochistan border, matters were compounded when the Imran Khan dispensation was similarly lacklustre in dealing with the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in mid-March. An absurd fatalism towards the pandemic encapsulated Khan’s attitude for much of March, premised precariously on Pakistan’s largely young population. Opposition member Abdul Qayyum has further called out Khan’s ineptness at arranging for interpreters, with a group of Chinese medical experts arriving in Pakistan apparently rendered futile on account of their inability to communicate mitigation measures to their Pakistani counterparts.

In the absence of strong coordinations with the provincial authorities, Khan, who has appealed to global institutions for debt relief amidst the crisis, has silently witnessed the military handing itself even greater powers, demonstrating the lopsided equation that Khan has been unable to address within his own executive setup.

Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.

Featured image credit: The Weinstein Company