The countries that top the rankings of COVID-19 deaths globally are not the poorest, the richest or even the most densely populated. But they do have one thing in common: They are led by populist, mold-breaking leaders.
Populism in politics means pushing policies that are popular with “the people,” not the elites and the experts. The United States’ Donald Trump, Britain’s Boris Johnson and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, as well as India’s Narendra Modi and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, have surged to power in democratic countries, challenging the old order by promising social benefits to the masses and rejecting the establishment.
But it turns out that when it comes to battling a new disease like COVID-19, the disruptive policies of populists are faring poorly compared to liberal democratic models in countries like Germany, France and Iceland in Europe, or South Korea and Japan in Asia.
Academics have been fretting about whether liberal democracy — the political system that helped defeat fascism in World War II, set up international institutions like the World Health Organization and seemed to have triumphed in the Cold War three decades ago — can muster the stuff to take on the new populism and address complex 21st-century challenges.
COVID-19 has crystallized that dilemma.
“This is a public health crisis that requires expertise and science to resolve. Populists by nature ... have a disdain for experts and science that are seen as part of the establishment,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. He was discussing Brazil, where at least 81,000 people have died.
“Populist politics makes it very difficult to implement rational policies that really resolve the issue — or at least manage the crisis more effectively.”
The United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom and Mexico all are led by leaders who have been skeptical of scientists and who initially minimized the disease. These four countries account for half of the 618,000 COVID-19 deaths worldwide so far, according to statistics tracked by Johns Hopkins University. The United States alone has suffered 142,000 of those.
“The pandemic and the economic crisis reveals the price of incompetence, and that this actually matters,” says political scientist Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution. In his view, the disease “hits every blind spot that the populists have.”
“They basically are calling for disruption to attack the state and for distrust of institutions. And in objective reality, the virus disproves all of that,” he says. “Because you need a functioning bureaucracy, you have to have confidence in the numbers, and you have to respond in a scientific way."
— In the United States and Brazil, Trump and Bolsonaro at times have minimized the disease, touted unproven remedies and sparred with and sidelined scientists and health officials. Instead of framing and implementing a consistent anti-COVID strategy for their nations, they often have seen state and local leaders leading the fight.
— In Britain, Johnson was slow to order closures when the disease was raging on the European continent. But he became much more serious about fighting it after his own serious illness left him fighting to breathe.
— In India, Modi addressed the disease aggressively in terms of closures and lock-downs but also argued over facts with his government’s own statisticians, controlled information and at times promoted homeopathic and folk cures.
The questioning of accepted facts is one characteristic of populist leaders. Another is to risk alienating their bases — such as by telling people to stay at home or to wear masks in public.
A third characteristic is the sowing of division that tends to make cooperation elusive. Finally, a fourth trait is a leadership style that favors bombast and crowd-pleasing antics.
After the pandemic hit Brazil, the world’s sixth most populous nation, Bolsonaro downplayed it, saying only high-risk individuals should quarantine, and touted unproven anti-malaria drugs.
Bolsonaro’s administration, meanwhile, paid out $22 billion, benefiting more than half of Brazil’s population, according to the citizenship ministry.
Similarly to Trump printing his signature on the $1,200 coronavirus rescue checks that went out from the U.S. Treasury, Bolsonaro’s government worked to make sure recipients in Brazil knew who to thank — part of what Shifter calls a populist leader’s playbook of adulation and the projection of their own power.
“If they begin to go along with science. they’re buying into the establishment way of thinking that many of their base sees as the main cause of the country’s problem to begin with,” he says.
In Mexico, where 41,000 people have now died, López Obrador pushed to reactivate the economy while infections were still rising. Several governors refused to go along with the federal government’s push to reopen. López Obrador continued traveling the country and wading into crowds for weeks after the country confirmed its first infection Feb. 28. Instead, he showed people the amulet that he said kept him safe.
As deaths spike in populist-led countries, it is different in most of Europe, where the disease is on the wane if not yet defeated. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking this month at the European Parliament, said Europe's record showed the benefit of consistent leadership. Germany, a fourth the size of the U.S., has had 9,000 deaths.
Merkel, who seeks to curb further advances by populists within Europe, declared: “Fact-denying populism is being shown its limits."
Veteran international correspondent and editor John Daniszewski is currently vice president for standards at The Associated Press. AP writers David Biller in Rio de Janeiro, Christopher Sherman in Mexico City, Jill Lawless in London and Emily Schmall and Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi contributed to this report.