Niharika Kulkarni/Reuters
People wearing protective face masks wait to receive a vaccine for the coronavirus at a vaccination center in Mumbai, India. The country has been suffering a record-breaking wave of infections.

Global populism: Big promises, poor pandemic results

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The five countries at the top of the global COVID-19 mortality tables – the United States, Brazil, India, Mexico, and Britain – have something in common: All had populist leaders when the pandemic began.

Like Donald Trump, heads of the other four governments also played down the importance of the pandemic or moved slowly to deal with it. They shared some habits, too – oversimplifying the pandemic, dramatizing their own responses, asserting their own solutions, and forging divisions along the way.

Why We Wrote This

Populist leaders swept to power in recent years on a wave of promises. But confronted by a public health emergency like COVID-19, they have performed significantly worse than traditional politicians.

The results were catastrophic, and that has had political repercussions, even though they tried to shift the blame onto others. Mr. Trump is widely thought to have lost the U.S. presidential election because of his mishandling of COVID-19; anger at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on the rise; in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s popularity is plummeting.

Populist leaders such as Mr. Bolsonaro have deployed fake news and pseudoscience in a bid to contain the bitter fallout from his policies. In India, the government has ordered Twitter to delete posts critical of Mr. Modi’s handling of the pandemic.

But even some of Mr. Modi’s supporters are disillusioned. “Things are so bad now that when I talk politics with someone, I cannot support his policies and leadership,” says Bijit Sarmah, a tea planter in northeastern India. “What would I even say?”

On a quiet evening in a New Delhi market, the normal crowd of customers thinned by lockdown rules, Anirban Mukherjee sat exhausted. He had spent frantic days scrambling to find a cylinder of oxygen for a friend’s mother with a critical case of COVID-19. He had finally located one, but it wasn’t enough.

No hospital had a bed for her. The woman succumbed without treatment.

This is but one story of the heartbreak now playing out daily in India, currently in the grip of a record-breaking wave of the pandemic. And Mr. Mukherjee knows whom he holds responsible. “It’s politics which has brought us to this stage,” he says. “We did not do any forward planning, and we did not build up our health care capacity. We took things too lightly, and the government is entirely to blame.”

Why We Wrote This

Populist leaders swept to power in recent years on a wave of promises. But confronted by a public health emergency like COVID-19, they have performed significantly worse than traditional politicians.

The United States is emerging now from the worst of the pandemic, thanks to an ambitious inoculation campaign. But its performance under the Trump administration left the country at the top of world rankings of COVID-19 fatalities. Strikingly, the top five slots in those mortality rankings all belong to countries run by populists when the pandemic began – the U.S., Brazil, Mexico, India, and Britain.

“When rulers surround themselves with ‘yes men,’ and shut out questioning and diverse viewpoints, a health disaster in the making won’t be flagged,” says Nikita Sud, who teaches development studies at Oxford University in Britain. “Authoritarians believe what they want to.”

To be sure, some countries with more traditional governments have suffered recent reverses, such as Canada and France. But they acted quickly when the pandemic threatened to get out of control, and death rates reflected that.

Gideon Lasco, a medical anthropologist who lectures at the University of the Philippines, calls leaders like Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and former U.S. President Donald Trump “medical populists” – politicians who have risen to power and ruled in populist styles that lead them to oversimplify the pandemic, dramatize their own responses, assert their own solutions, and forge divisions along the way.

“It is very clear that medical populists tend to downplay the pandemic, and this has led to catastrophic results in Brazil, the U.S., and India, as well as other places like Mexico and the Philippines,” he says. “A medical populism approach also distracts attention from complex, intergovernmental solutions that are required to address a global pandemic.”

The consequences of such an approach are clear. Mr. Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus is widely believed to have cost him the 2020 election. Anger like that of Mr. Mukherjee toward the Indian prime minister is mounting, while President Bolsonaro’s popularity is plunging.

Bikas Das/AP
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally ahead of West Bengal state elections. Such superspreader events provoked a surge in COVID-19 cases, sparking charges that Mr. Modi had put his political career ahead of the nation's health.

Still, all three maintain considerable support, while the pandemic deepens the inequalities and divisions that propelled such leaders into power in the first place.

Superspreading in India

Today, India sits at the epicenter of the pandemic – a catastrophe that many believe didn’t have to happen.

At the start of the year, with COVID-19 cases relatively low, Prime Minister Modi boasted that India had “saved the world from disaster by bringing the situation under control.” His ministers praised his visionary leadership.

Last month Mr. Modi encouraged religious gatherings of millions of Hindu devotees, and attended massive campaign rallies in states holding elections.

By the middle of April, when more than 300,000 new cases a day were being reported, the country’s health system had collapsed under the weight of the pandemic and the authorities were pleading for international help.

While India’s public health system has long been overburdened and underfunded, Mr. Modi’s leadership is a major factor in how poorly the pandemic has been handled, experts say. Officials at the Indian Medical Association have branded the prime minister a “super spreader.”

“Our disastrous response to COVID has not been helped at all by an authoritarian government, bent on shoring up its own power, and managing its image more than governing,” says Professor Sud. “Modi is a strongman authoritarian. He had to show himself vanquishing COVID, which is why his photograph graces the vaccine certificates. Now that COVID is out of control, the government is busy passing the buck to state governments.”

Blame game

Shifting the blame is a tactic familiar halfway across the globe, in the United States, where Mr. Trump commonly blamed China for originating the virus, and state governors for their containment policies. In Brazil, too, Mr. Bolsonaro blames state governors and mayors for imposing lockdowns.

Adriano Machado/Reuters
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro attends a promotion ceremony for generals of the armed forces in Brasília, Brazil, earlier this month. Mr. Bolsonaro, who has played down the threat of COVID-19, rarely wears a face mask at public events.

In Brasília, Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters gathered around the presidential palace late last month to celebrate their leader’s birthday and listen to him rail against lockdowns imposed by local officials. As the president approached the audience he took off his mask. “Some tyrants are thwarting the freedom of many of you,” the president shouted, as the crowd erupted in cheers. “I do anything for my people.”

“Bolsonaro is always the victim. Nothing is ever his fault,” says Guilherme Casarões, a political scientist and the coordinator of the Observatory of the Extreme Right in São Paulo. “Bolsonaro has successfully convinced his supporters that, if everything is going wrong in this country, it’s not because of him – it’s because of the system.

“He transformed the pandemic into an ideological endeavor,” Dr. Casarões adds.

Mr. Bolsonaro, like many populist leaders including Mr. Trump, has downplayed the pandemic threat from the beginning. He called the coronavirus a “little flu,” rejected lockdowns, and touted hydroxychloroquine as a treatment despite a lack of evidence of its efficacy. He has simplified the fight into a binary choice between the economy and public health.  

His government faces a parliamentary investigation into its handling of the pandemic, and his popularity has fallen to 33%, according to a recent poll. But he has countered a soaring death rate, rising unemployment, and spreading hunger with the narrative that has defined his presidency: dividing society into “the true people of Brazil” and the corrupt elite, including politicians in Congress, the Supreme Court, and the media.
“This construction of an alternative reality – where you don’t believe there’s that many people dying in Brazil, where you don’t believe there’s that many unemployed – is being proliferated through social networks and fake news,” says Eduardo Grin, a researcher at the think tank Fundação Getúlio Vargas in São Paulo. “All of this creates a parallel truth.”

Science and politics

That is a narrative that echoes in the U.S., where Mr. Trump eschewed science and politicized public health guidelines from the start. Kathryn Brownell, a historian at Purdue University who studies the relationships between media and the American presidency, says that while American presidents have increasingly sought to control media narratives, the Trump administration broke new ground by peddling “alternative facts.” 

“It was regular and consistent,” she says. “He made misinformation a regular feature of presidential politics.” The legacy is clear: Adherence to public health advice remains highly politicized.  

Adriano Machado/Reuters
Demonstrators hold a banner that reads "Bolsonaro genocidal" during a protest against Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasília earlier this month. Critics have blamed his inaction for the current surge of COVID-19 cases in Brazil.

Unlike Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro, Mr. Modi has never downplayed the science behind the virus. In that sense, he has been more responsible than other world leaders, says Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. 

But the prime minister did allow government officials to peddle pseudoscience on the side, and “Modi tends to govern in a bubble,” Mr. Vaishnav says. “I am not sure there are many people at senior levels who are willing to speak truth to power” and distract him from his fixation on winning state elections this year, he adds.

That priority has led the Indian government to order Twitter, which has become a forum for people seeking hospital beds, oxygen, and medicines, to remove posts critical of its handling of the pandemic.

But that cannot disguise the reality of what is happening. In the state of Assam, which also held elections this year, tea planter and longtime supporter of Mr. Modi, Bijit Sarmah, has lost his faith.

“Things are so bad now that when I talk politics with someone, I cannot support his policies and leadership,” Mr. Sarmah says. “What would I even say?”

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