(L-R) Boris Johnson (UK), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Alexander Lukashenko (Belarus), and Donald Trump (US).
Artillery Row

The world leaders who battled coronavirus and won

How is it that our most eccentric world leaders have been the ones disproportionately affected by Covid-19?

Donald Trump’s bout of Covid-19 a month before election day seemed to have upended all previous political calculations, at least for a time. The President contracting the virus along with the First Lady, dozens of senior Republicans and huge numbers of White House staff demonstrated a massive failure of security measures.

The events that followed Trump’s arrival and departure from Walter Reade hospital were masterly theatrical; the sort that had brought the entertainer to power in the first place. Yet Trump is not the first serving head of state to contract Covid-19, and other world leaders who have also become sick disproportionally consist of the most striking characters in global politics.

Every vision of a flourishing national past will be different

The Dominican Republic’s Luis Rodolfo Abinader, a businessman turned politician, was infected with the virus in the midst of his insurgent campaign. He recovered fully before his inauguration. Boris Johnson’s case was acute enough to land him in intensive care after he had previously boasted that he was still shaking hands. Covid-19 also caught up with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during the summer. He had likewise previously downplayed the virus as a “little cold”, yet he recovered from a moderate bout of infection with his usual displays of braggadocio, even as tens of thousands of his compatriots died. However, it is Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko’s experience with the virus in the final days of the Belarusian presidential campaign that draws the greatest parallels to Trump’s case.

Lukashenko – the brutal former manager of a Kolkhoz collective farm – came to power in 1994 as a corruption-battling reformer. He quickly transmogrified into an authoritarian strongman and never won a fair election after his first; instead ruling the country with an apparatus of repression. Lukashenko is a rural conservative populist who remains most comfortable wrapped in the rituals and aesthetics of his Soviet youth. As I have previously written for The Critic, alternating between late-Soviet courtliness and gestures of brutality, Lukashenko abjures the decommunisation process in order to keep the economy, the social structures and symbols of state frozen in Soviet style. Every conservative populist must be a nostalgist, but every vision of a flourishing national past will be different.

Even when commanding a mighty army, a leader might be brought down by the tiniest of hostile agents

As Belarus enters its third month of street protests against Lukashenko’s falsified re-election, it is important to remember that his mismanagement of the pandemic is partly responsible for the general frustration with him detonating after close to three decades in power. Much like Trump and Bolsonaro, Lukashenko had downplayed the effects of the virus, mercilessly teasing his citizens who took it too seriously and even accusing critics of falling for “psychosis”. Much like Trump, he became sick in the final stage of a deeply divisive presidential campaign that those of us in the community of Eastern European experts universally agreed he was not going to win if the ballots were to be fairly counted. The Belarusian strongman’s cavalier approach and botched response to the virus in the spring had ushered in universal mockery as he proposed treating the virus with the traditional remedies of drinking vodka and sitting in the sauna. His jocular advice certainly killed some of his older supporters.

A member of the Belarusian parliament informed me in Minsk last month that there was no one in Lukashenko’s orbit who had the standing to challenge him on the basis of pure medical expertise. Lukashenko oversees an omnipresent authoritarian police state and is known for his preference to micromanage every political and economic process in the country. He is widely seen by Belarusians as being a textbook example of an authoritarian personality, and his dismissal of the virus and the distribution of incorrect information contributed to the frustration that developed into the massive demonstrations which continue to paralyse the nation.

He also only admitted to having been infected with the virus after it became obvious that he was ailing. The wheezing speeches in front of his assembled security services heads and military brass only added to the popular assumption that being sixty-five years old and having spent a third of his life in power, it was very much time for President Lukashenko to retire.

An authoritarian whose legitimacy is based on the promise of social order is on unsteady ground with coronavirus

Abinader’s victory – he had been ahead in the polls before he became infected – demonstrated that voters would not necessarily judge a Covid-19 infection to be automatic disqualification in the late stages of an election. Even as Boris Johnson emerged from the hospital having accrued tremendous sympathy from the electorate, the response of his government was roundly criticised as erratic and subpar. Johnson had taken a different approach to Trump: at first attempting to implement “herd immunity” in the population, but later following the advice of experts with a new program of lockdown measures. These worked for a time, but Johnson then squandered that accrued goodwill after lobbying for an early reopening of the economy and encouraging people to dine at restaurants and return to the pub thus, according to experts, causing a second wave of coronavirus in the UK along with fresh lockdowns.

Though the tremendous backlash to his rule would very much have erupted in any case after so many falsified elections and so long in power, the act of sneering at the virus did nothing to help Lukashenko’s case. Belarusian protestors whom I spoke with were more displeased with Lukashenko’s obvious obfuscations than Trump’s voters tend to be, perhaps for reasons of national character. On the one hand, the prevalence of the virus among this cast of populist leaders does confirm their promise of solidarity with the working classes who are more exposed to the disease than white collar workers. On the other, a strongman authoritarian whose legitimacy is based on the promise of securing social order is on unsteady ground with the virus. Succumbing to it represents a concrete act of reneging on the promise to protect the nation.

There have not yet been enough cases of world leaders catching the virus in order to make comparative judgments, but the poor responses of the nations that they govern do appear to correlate with their theatrical and highly-individualistic leadership styles. The long-term ramifications of personal and political survival after Covid-19 remain unknown; we would likely need to see dozens more heads of state infected to see the difference.

The natural impulse to anthropomorphise the virus for the sake of a larger metaphysical, poetic or historical understanding has generated some deeply farcical and surreal commentary. Viruses are not – despite much commentary to the contrary – agents of fate, God or karma. However, for whatever reason the virus does have an impish tendency to disproportionally effect our most egomaniacal leaders. The populists who boast of their mighty strength and invincibility do have a way of setting themselves up for disaster when age, disease, pre-existing conditions and weakness strike. Even when commanding a mighty army, a leader might be brought down by the tiniest of hostile agents.

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