Some of it is governance. Some of it is luck. Some of it is climate. Some of it is just a matter of time; countries that have largely escaped thus far may suffer more later on. And some of it is how victims are counted. Countries that don’t do much testing, or that are suspected (such as China, Iran, Russia and North Korea) of covering up results, are perversely rewarded by appearing to have the virus under control, whereas more transparent countries look worse. Belgium, for example, has the second-highest per capita death rate in the world because its numbers include not just confirmed fatalities but those that are suspected — even if the victim wasn’t tested.
But even amid the current pandemonium, a few patterns do emerge. Some of the most successful countries in fighting covid-19 are democracies with well-educated populaces, high levels of trust and transparency, and governments that are run by technocrats. They have tested early and often, and they have used contact tracing to isolate carriers. Examples include New Zealand, Australia, the Czech Republic, Germany, South Korea and Taiwan. Some autocracies with scientifically literate leaders, such as Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore, have also performed well.
By contrast, governments led by populists, whether elected or not, have generally been much less successful. Populists — who claim to embody the will of the people against the corrupt elites — are suspicious of expert opinion. So they tend to ignore the advice of scientists, preferring “alternative facts” tailored to their own liking. They specialize in dividing the population, so it’s hard for them to unite against a common threat. And even more so than other leaders, they rely on economic growth for legitimacy; hence they are reluctant to suffer short-term economic costs in the interest of public health.
President Trump is Exhibit A. The United States has more confirmed coronavirus cases and more deaths than any other country — twice as many, per capita, as Canada — because Trump has been such an awful leader. He ignored the threat early on, failed to test and failed to stockpile enough medical equipment, advocated quack remedies (first hydroxychloroquine, then disinfectant injections), and now is eager to reopen the economy while case counts are still surging.
There are exceptions to this rule — Hungary and Poland both have populist regimes but, like the rest of Eastern Europe, have largely escaped the worst. But Belarus has one of Eastern Europe’s highest infection rates because populist strongman Alexander Lukashenko refuses to order a lockdown. He has allowed soccer matches and church services to proceed, and this weekend he plans to hold a military parade to commemorate the Nazis’ defeat, because he doesn’t want anyone to say that “we were scared.”
Still, due no doubt to undercounting, Belarus has only 112 confirmed deaths. It seems like paradise compared to Britain, a much richer country that just passed Italy for the highest number of confirmed coronavirus deaths in Europe — more than 30,000.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a more erudite and genteel populist than Lukashenko or Trump, but he shares their contempt for facts and their proclivity for lying. Johnson hesitated to order a lockdown until March 23 while his government flirted with allowing the virus to rage uncontrolled in an effort to achieve herd immunity — a process that could have resulted in 250,000 deaths. Johnson even joked about shaking people’s hands before landing in the hospital with covid-19. Britain has also suffered from shortages of protective equipment and tests. Yet, against all the evidence, Johnson claimed last week that Britain has managed to “avoid the tragedy that engulfed other parts of the world.”
No populist — indeed, no national leader — has done a worse job than Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil has the most confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths not just in Latin America but in the whole developing world — and that may be a vast undercount. Some Brazilian researchers believe their country could actually have more coronavirus cases than even the United States.
Bolsonaro is like a cartoon version of the U.S. president, who is already a cartoon version of a demagogue. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has dismissed the threat (he called the virus a “measly cold”). Like Trump, Bolsonaro has feuded with governors and health officials who want to order a lockdown; he even fired his health minister for urging strict social isolation. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has failed to do enough testing and touts hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure. Like Trump, Bolsonaro fails to display empathy: Asked about Brazil’s death count overtaking China’s, Bolsonaro said last week, “So what? I’m sorry. What do you expect me to do?” And like Trump, Bolsonaro has urged people to go back to work, saying, “Sometimes, the cure is worse than the disease.”
Populists claim to love the people, but around the world, they are sacrificing their constituents because of their ineptitude and delusions. They are proving that you can’t defeat a pandemic while waging war on the truth.