The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump aligns with the world’s ‘ostrich’ leaders

Placeholder while article actions load

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday, along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.

Last week, Oliver Steunkel, a Brazil-based political scientist, offered a new grouping for world leaders who refuse to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously. He tweeted about an “ostrich alliance” of strongmen with their proverbial heads in the sand, disregarding international advisories and local public health fears. They were, as later enumerated by the Financial Times and The Washington Post’s editorial page, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan.

These men are not only linked by their denial of the severity of the threat, but also by a seeming contempt for the panic and concerns of others. Long-ruling autocrat Lukashenko, who recently played in a hockey game before a crowd of spectators, described the global alarm over the virus as a “psychosis” and boasted that no one in his nation would die of covid-19. Ortega reemerged last week after a mysterious 34-day absence. His regime in Nicaragua has resisted imposing social distancing measures and dismissed the virus as an “imported” menace. In Turkmenistan, reports indicate that police have arrested people discussing the pandemic in public, while despotic Berdymukhammedov has refused to cancel a slate of public events, including the Central Asian nation’s annual Horse Day later this month.

Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has raged against the lockdowns imposed by his country’s state governors. And, after a weeks-long public feud, the president fired Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who had repeatedly clashed with Bolsonaro over his hostility toward expert public health warnings.

“The move comes as hospitals and clinics teeter on the brink of collapse. Emergency rooms in Amazonas state are running at capacity, with 95 percent of intensive care beds and ventilators occupied,” reported my colleague Marina Lopes. “Rio de Janeiro’s famed Maracana soccer stadium has been converted to a makeshift hospital to accommodate coronavirus patients. Gravediggers in the country’s largest cemeteries are working overtime to bury the dead.”

There’s a case to expand the roster of “ostriches.” A damning exposé by the Sunday Times found that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson skipped five major crisis meetings regarding the virus, focusing, instead, on other affairs, including a protracted divorce. British health workers still face critical shortages in protective gear and the country’s testing apparatus lags behind those of other major European countries. (After first embracing the idea of “herd immunity,” Johnson is now taking the pandemic more seriously, not least after emerging from his own bout with the virus.)

And there’s President Trump, who is bent on “opening up” the United States by May even as deaths and infections continue to rise. Public health officials, including some of Trump’s top lieutenants, have cautioned against easing restrictions without implementing widespread testing. Despite Trump’s insistence that his administration has built up adequate testing capacity, the numbers tell a different story, with the country still lagging behind many industrialized countries in tests per capita.

The administration says the country is conducting about 150,000 tests a day, but public health experts warn that number needs to be around 500,000 for it to make sense to ease restrictions. That looks improbable, so Trump has taken instead to lashing out at (the often Democratic) state governors who have balked at his demands to lift lockdowns and expressed incredulity at White House claims that testing has reached a sufficient level.

“That’s just delusional to be making statements like that. We have been fighting every day for PPE,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said Sunday, referring to personal protective equipment. “We have been fighting for testing. … We don’t even have enough swabs, believe it or not. And we’re ramping that up. But for the national level to say that we have what we need and really to have no guidance to the state levels is just irresponsible, because we’re not there yet.”

Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings have turned into spectacles of political grievance, with the president fuming against his opponents, asserting his “total” authority, and then playing the victim, at the whim of the country’s decentralized power structures. The difficulty in dealing with the Trump administration has led various state governments to form compacts with their regional neighbors to more efficiently source critically needed supplies and aid.

“The past two months only confirm that state reliance on the federal government during the pandemic is foolish (unless, perhaps, you happen to be a partisan ally of the White House),” wrote University of Chicago law professor Aziz Huq. “Absent effective national action, compacts permit coalitions of willing states to protect public health gains and prevent the backsliding that a precipitous economic reopening would allow.”

Trump may be setting the stage for a political showdown rather than an economic opening. He has already laid the blame for America’s predicament on China and the World Health Organization. On Friday, he tweeted calls to “liberate” a few states run by Democratic governors who were unwilling to lift lockdowns according to Trump’s desired timeline. Bewildered critics interpreted the tweets as a call for open insurrection from a sitting president.

“Trump has a populist’s sixth sense for exploiting the frustrations of the masses,” noted CNN commentator Frida Ghitis. “The shutdown has already destroyed tens of millions of jobs, leaving countless Americans bereft of income and afraid for the future. Trump doesn’t want to be held responsible for any of it.”

Read more:

Trump’s pandemic response underscores the crisis in global politics

What caused the coronavirus? A skeptical take on the theories about the outbreak’s Chinese origin.

The pandemic is ravaging the world’s poor, even if they’re untouched by the virus