Posted: 2020-07-06

The crisis has exposed the unfitness to govern of Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson

THE US, the UK and Brazil are the three states with the worst record in coping with the coronavirus pandemic, suffering about half the world’s 500,000 deaths. There are many possible explanations for their shared fate, but one major factor is poor political leadership. This crisis has exposed the unfitness to govern of the three main conmen of corona: Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson.


This slippery trio are demagogic showmen who mistrust experts, scapegoat foreigners, and peddle simple answers to complex problems. Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin who lured children into danger, they can seduce a large number of voters with sweet-sounding promises to ‘get things done’ and ‘make the country great again’. But, unlike the piper who had earlier rid the town of rats, they cannot charm away a real threat posed by a plague.


They clearly failed to display wisdom and competence in dealing with the crisis. All three initially refused to take the Covid-19 threat seriously. Trump compared it to a seasonal flu which would evaporate in the April sunshine. As early as 22nd January he said that “we have it totally under control”, a message he constantly repeated over the next two months. On 10th March, as the death toll mounted, he said: “we’re doing a great job with it”. 


Despite the repeated demands of state governors to increase access to testing, the Trump administration failed to respond. About 11,000 people were tested during the first seven weeks of the outbreak — about as many as South Korea was testing every day. A million have become sick, at least 122,000 are dead and 39 million are unemployed partly because of Trump’s incompetent leadership, summed up in his suggestion on 23rd April that injecting disinfectant would ‘knock it out in a minute’. On 21st June he actually recommended that to avoid bad statistics testing for the virus should be slowed down.

Bolsonaro was even worse. He rejected media ‘hysteria’ about the dangers and said that Brazilians could swim in excrement and emerge unscathed. He even denigrated the advice of the World Health Organisation to ‘test, test, test’ on the wholly false grounds that it was encouraging same-sex relationships in four-year-olds and masturbation in children from birth.


This troika of narcissistic clowns is completed by Boris Johnson. In January the government’s line was that the risk to the UK was ‘low’. In a speech at Greenwich on 3rd February extolling free trade, Johnson attacked Wuhan-style lockdowns. Despite a rising pandemic, a shortage of intensive care beds and inadequate stocks of PPE as a result of 40% austerity cuts, he absented himself from five Cobra meetings and spent late February at the prime minister’s country retreat at Chevening. He even boasted on 3rd March that he was still shaking hands with Covid-19 sufferers.


On ITV’s This Morning on 5th March, he said: “perhaps you would take it on the chin, and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population” – a clear statement of the fatal policy of herd immunity. He also said that “Things like closing schools and stopping big events perhaps don't work as well as people think”. On 7th March he attended a crowded England v Wales rugby march at Twickenham. The go-ahead was also given to a Liverpool v Atletico Madrid Champions League football match on 11th March and the Cheltenham racing festival on 10th-13th March. Both these events were followed by Covid-19 spikes in the surrounding areas.


When the UK lockdown was imposed in March, Opinium found that 65 per cent approved of the government’s handling of the crisis, while 23 per cent disapproved — a net rating of plus 42. By mid-June, the figures were: approve 30 per cent, disapprove 48 per cent. A net rating of minus 18. The 60-point change in the net rating in less than three months is the biggest, fastest shift for any government on any issue. It is clear now that the laissez-faire attitude adopted by Boris was a colossal error of judgment and the UK has paid the price with the largest death toll in Europe.


These three men were elected on the basis of a kind of reality TV politics which appeals to emotion rather than reason, lies rather than the truth, and slogans rather than ideas. A virus is an invisible enemy that cannot be defeated by manipulation, intrigue and fake news. It requires reason, responsibility, hard work and attention to detail  –  qualities which are totally lacking in these three populist demagogues.


Contrast their inadequacies with the success of a leader like Jacinta Arden, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, who communicated her message clearly and effectively. On 15th March, when New Zealand had only 100 confirmed cases and no deaths, she closed the country’s borders to foreign travellers and made people coming home quarantine for 14 days. Then 10 days later, she introduced full lockdown measures, which were strict by international standards. Only grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals and gas stations could stay open, vehicle travel was restricted, and social interaction was limited to within households. Testing reached 8,000 a day and a tracer app was released.


By New Zealand’s standard of 22 deaths, Ireland – north about 800 deaths and the south 1700 – has not performed well. But they are infinitely better than Great Britain where the rate per 100,000 has been more than twice as high. So we should thank Arlene Foster, Michelle O’Neill and Leo Varadkar for a job fairly well done. They may not have the surface charm of Boris Johnson, but they have displayed a seriousness and competence which he totally lacks. He is simply not fit for political leadership. 

Brian McClinton 30th June 2020