THE NOVEL coronavirus, which has now infected at least 1.8 million people in 185 countries, has become a global test of governance quality. The severity of the outbreak in many nations has depended on how well — or poorly — rulers have responded to it. The best performers so far have included New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea and Germany, which have succeeded in greatly reducing infections and deaths through testing, contact tracing and lockdowns.

The bottom of the global barrel is pretty conspicuous, too: the rulers of Belarus, Turkmenistan, Nicaragua and Brazil have dismissed the seriousness of the virus and urged their citizens to carry on more or less as normal. Belarus and Nicaragua are still staging professional sports; Belarusan strongman Alexander Lukashenko has advised people to avoid contracting covid-19 by taking frequent saunas and drinking vodka. The case of Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega is still stranger: He has not been seen or heard in public in a month.

By far the most serious case of malfeasance is that of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. As infections began to spread in a country of more than 200 million people, the right-wing populist dismissed the coronavirus as “a little flu” and urged Brazilians to “face the virus like a man, dammit, not a boy.” Worse, the president has repeatedly attempted to undermine steps taken by the country’s 27 state governors to contain the outbreak.

President Trump calls criticism of his coronavirus response "fake," yet cherry-picks news clips to make his case. He can't have it both ways, says Erik Wemple. (The Washington Post)

Mr. Bolsonaro first issued a decree stripping states of the power to restrict movement. Then he sought to exempt churches and lottery parlors from restrictions on gatherings. Fortunately, in both cases he was overruled by courts. But the president has continued to campaign against social distancing; another judicial order was required to stop an ad campaign he launched under a Portuguese slogan that translates as “#BrazilCannotStop.”

State governors and Mr. Bolsonaro’s own health minister have urged the public to disregard him, and demonstrators in several cities have been banging pots and pans from their homes at night in protest. One poll showed 76 percent of people approve of the health minister’s conventional handling of the crisis, compared with 33 percent who support Mr. Bolsonaro’s. But the president is having a baleful effect. In Sao Paulo, the country’s biggest city and the epicenter of its epidemic, mobile phone tracking showed that only 50 percent of its nearly 13 million residents remained home on Easter Sunday.

The predictable result has been a soaring rate of illness and death. As of Monday, Brazil ranked 14th in the world in infections, with more than 22,000, and 11th in deaths, with 1,245, according to the tracking site of Johns Hopkins University. Epidemiologists are predicting the peak of infections and deaths is still to come, thanks to the laxity in social distancing encouraged by Mr. Bolsonaro. One told the British newspaper the Guardian that he expected health services to be overwhelmed in three to four weeks.

While the United States has hardly been a world leader in stopping the virus, it has performed better since President Trump set aside his own minimizing rhetoric last month and supported containment efforts recommended by health professionals. He could do Brazil a great favor by phoning Mr. Bolsonaro, who has been a political ally, and urging him to do the same.

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