Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador - Photo by Pedro Martin Gonzalez Castillo / Getty

The coronavirus cure for global populism?

How the pandemic exposed some leaders’ bluster and might yet undermine authoritarian regimes

On 30 March, as much of the world was hunkering down for its third or fourth week of splendid isolation, Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador was out and about in Badiraguato, a town in the northern state of Sinaloa. He was there, apparently, to pay a courtesy call on the family of the country’s most notorious drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, jailed for life last year in the United States. The president was filmed shaking the hand of El Chapo’s stooped, elderly mother and getting a cosy backslap from the family’s “representative”, José Luis González Meza.

The events left most Mexicans aghast. For a start, what was their president doing cosying up to a criminal organisation that has taken hundreds, if not thousands, of lives in the country’s bloody drug wars? More pertinently, he was clearly flouting all guidelines issued by his own health officials to combat the coronavirus pandemic. In a poor country with a poorer health system, staying at home remains the first and last line of defence — except, it seems, if you are the president. The tactile leader didn’t seem terribly bothered by social distancing either.

Disdain for advice: Mexico’s president, right, meets El Chapo’s mother

Amlo, as Mexico’s answer to Jeremy Corbyn is known, is often called a “populist”. In case there was any doubt, the 66-year-old veteran left-winger seemed intent on displaying all the most obvious features of the genre; the disdain for “experts”, even if they are your own; the personal arrogance with which he thought he could behave differently from everyone else; and his own highly developed sense of personal destiny. He later claimed that he had visited Sinaloa to lift the state out of poverty — as if a day trip was really going to make much of a difference at this time.

Unsurprisingly, such an extreme event as the coronavirus pandemic is throwing political systems around the world into sharp relief. Some, such as Mexico’s, are clearly struggling, while others are coping rather better — but maybe at a longer-term cost. Sadly, it’s probably still early days in the course of this pandemic, but already it is possible to do some sort of a reckoning on how the world’s political systems will survive, or not.

After all, plagues and pestilence have swept away, or at least devastated, plenty of states in the past. The Venetian Republic, a  port city, was fatally susceptible to the import of plagues from all over the world from the fourteenth century onwards. Finally, the republic was overwhelmed by a disease that probably arrived from China in the 1630s, leaving Venetians fatally weakened, ripe for a sad and steady decline. The word “quarantine” derives from quarantino, the 40-day isolation period for ships in the republic’s Mediterranean ports arriving from plague-infested countries.

Returning to our own days, take the populists first. Political scientists and other eggheads have struggled to define this very contemporary phenomenon, but the pandemic has done their job for them; the coronavirus is defining populist administrations like nothing else. The reaction of populist leaders to the virus has been characterised by a markedly similar process: denial, evolving into extreme scepticism, followed by a slow, reluctant and less than effective response punctuated by erratic messaging and some surreal personal behaviour (such as AMLO’s sally to Sinaloa). This, more or less, has been the pattern followed by AMLO in Mexico, Donald Trump in America, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar.

The old labels of left and right lose much of their relevance here. More importantly all these politicians have tried to reshape their countries’ politics around their own sense of individual destiny. They are convinced that they alone truly understand their compatriots, a quality which confers on them alone the power to make manifest their countries’ historically authentic character.

Thus they interpret politics, and the world, as a personal struggle between themselves and those who would deflect them from their mission. Of course, the economic lockdowns mandated by so-called “experts” are not in their plans for national renewal — so it is the virus itself, and the experts who seem to promote it, which have to be ridiculed and belittled.

Thus, all populists started off by denying that the coronavirus was a threat, or even existed. For Bolsonaro, it was a case of the “sniffles”. By mid-March, despite 80,000 cases of Covid-19 in China, with which Myanmar shares a very porous 1,400-mile border, Aung San Suu Kyi was claiming there were no cases at all in her country; a government spokesman announced that the Burmese diet was so nourishing that it made people immune to the virus. Simultaneously, Putin was claiming that in Russia everything was “under control” and President Trump was downplaying the threat at every opportunity. By this time countries such as China, Italy and Spain were already well into total lockdown.

A shrine to Dr Li Wenliang, who was disciplined for warning of a coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan and later died of it

All these populists have been at war with their own dreaded “experts”. Bolsonaro feuded bitterly from the start with his health minister, Henrique Mandetta, whose crime was to calmly preach the virtues of self-isolation and social distancing. Even worse for Bolsonaro, Mandetta was a trained physician. Eventually, the strain became too much and Mandetta was unceremoniously sacked on April 16th. Trump, of course, offers plenty of his own homegrown remedies to combat the coronavirus, sounding increasingly like South Africa’s cranky president Thabo Mbeki confronting his country’s Aids crisis during the 1990s with garlic and beetroot rather than anti-retroviral drugs. As I write, Trump’s latest target is the WHO, which issues all the unwanted social-distancing advice. “The WHO blew it,” moaned the president, without elaborating.

But perhaps the populists blew it. Undoubtedly, their slow and manifestly reluctant decisions to enforce lockdowns has cost lives, and probably prolonged the outbreaks in their own countries. Equally, even their own supporters have been angered by their own personal disregard of even the basic medical advice. AMLO was still kissing babies for the cameras way after most Mexicans had started social distancing, while Trump said that he would refuse to wear a mask even as his own health professionals recommend he do so.

And the paranoid style of politics has been exposed for being exactly that; Bolsonaro, AMLO, Trump and Putin’s henchmen have all suggested darkly that the coronavirus emanated directly, or indirectly, from their domestic or international opponents (the “China virus”, or in Putin’s case the “CIA virus”). Few believe this rubbish any more.

So will the populists suffer at the ballot box? National leaders, of whatever political hue, get a bounce in times of national crisis, and that has happened again, albeit in a limited way, to Trump this time round. In the longer term, however, as the pandemic drags on in countries that tried to wish it all away in the first place, their missteps should come back to haunt them. The pandemic has exposed the hollowness of the populist project.

Authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, have garnered praise from health professionals for their responses. Coronavirus started in the city of Wuhan in China and spread very rapidly, but the authorities were quick to lock down the city, and the surrounding area. Thus, at the time of writing, the crisis in China has eased to such a degree that the restrictions in Wuhan have already been lifted, just as Moscow’s begin to bite.

Vietnam, almost the last country in the world that still takes its communism really seriously, also took very prompt action, banning flights to and from China as early as 1 February. Remarkably, until now the country of 97 million people has recorded just 123 infections and no deaths, despite also sharing a long land border with China. Strict quarantining worked, as did an aggressive drive to hunt down people who had come into contact with those infected.

The success of Vietnam and China in limiting their pandemics is supposed to reflect the virtues of authoritarian, top-down societies, which can respond quickly and mobilise people on a massive scale, either to fight wars, capitalism or pandemics.

Yet, tempting as this narrative seems, it is also flawed. The Chinese authorities undoubtedly tried to cover the pandemic up at first, hence the case of the whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang. Only when the news spread so quickly on social media that the authorities could no longer cover it up did the government respond decisively. Consequently, however, the government is no longer trusted on Covid-19, neither abroad nor by its own people. Li Wenliang’s cry – “I think a healthy society should not only have one kind of voice” – could yet prove the most important Chinese narrative from the pandemic.

Vietnam’s success is partly attributable to the vast army of official snoopers and informers by which the ruling communist party maintains control. Their zealousness during the pandemic might have saved lives, but will have reminded people also of how heavy-handed their regime is.

The western European democracies have muddled through, more or less. But in Europe, citizens have willingly surrendered their freedoms to governments for a limited period of time, safe (presumably) in the knowledge that those freedoms will be returned largely untouched. The systems will survive, largely untarnished. Whether that’s true of the populists and authoritarians is much less certain.

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