Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict, a former senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.
When heads of state substitute their own egotistical (and electoral) needs for honest leadership, chaos and mayhem follow. Blinded by their love for themselves, presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump have derided science and let COVID-19 cause thousands of unnecessary deaths across Brazil and the United States.
The two authoritarian-minded bosom buddies have behaved consistently with malice, little restraint and no humility. Moreover, they have both scoffed at medical prudence, pretended that the novel coronavirus was “a measly cold” or seasonal flu, scorned mask-wearing, absolved themselves from physical-distancing rules and repeatedly urged state and provincial governors, city mayors, small businesses and educational establishments to “open up” despite the protestations of experts that premature restriction easing would cause massive human casualties.
The predictable result of this mutual malfeasance has been the two largest national coronavirus caseloads and death tolls in the world, followed this month by a sharp upsurge in new cases. There were 68,000 new COVID-19 cases reported in the U.S. on July 10, and another 62,000 cases reported the following day. (In April, the peak day produced around 43,000 cases in the U.S., according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.) Brazil reported a record 42,000 new cases on July 10.
Mr. Trump did his part in May and June by demanding that states and cities resume business; now states such as Arizona, Florida and Texas have had to shutter themselves. Republican governors, blindsided by the casual and self-serving leadership of their President, are the losers, along with their citizens. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Brussels last week, “You cannot fight the pandemic with lies and disinformation.”
Signals count. Both Mr. Bolsonaro and Mr. Trump have consistently signalled that it was fine to avoid mask-wearing and to crowd indoor election rallies, church services, bars and restaurants. Mr. Trump says he believes that opening up the economy will help him get re-elected. Out of profound ignorance, he pretends to know more than specialists. Equally likely, as an insecure bully, he likes to throw his considerable weight around to demonstrate who is boss. He cares more about pardoning lying felons than he does about saving endangered citizens.
As a fellow bully, Mr. Bolsonaro admires Mr. Trump. He blusters and pontificates just like his idol. He mocks those who have credentials and expertise. When his first minister of health wanted Brazilians to wear masks and practise physical distancing, he fired him. His second minister of health quit within a month, finding Mr. Bolsonaro to be anti-scientific.
Brazil’s coronavirus cases keep growing – Mr. Bolsonaro is now one of them. Brazil has now reported 1.8 million cases and 72,000 deaths.
American cases keep cascading, too. As of this week, the U.S. reported more than three million cases and 135,000 deaths. More worrying than the raw numbers, positive cases are growing, not slowing, especially in those states that Mr. Trump wanted open.
Mr. Trump is attempting to force schools and universities to open in the fall, tossing physical distancing to the winds. Caring entirely for power, his own ego and electoral possibilities, he threatens illegally to withhold funds. If he gets his way, COVID-19 numbers will doubtless soar. More than 200,000 American coronavirus deaths are now likely, because of a White House that cares only for itself.
Contrast the actions, instincts and signalling of presidents Mr. Bolsonaro and Mr. Trump with those heads of government who have listened to their medical scientists and kept their countries shut until new case numbers plunged to zero. Germany, Denmark, Norway, Finland and much of Europe followed such a prudent course, stanched the pandemic, and have seen no upsurge after carefully loosening regulations. Boris Johnson, Britain’s Prime Minister, and another narcissist, pursued a more Trump-like posture; cases in England have remained high in contrast to Scotland, where separate leadership charted a much more careful course.
Note, too, that countries bossed by ego-driven male populists have done much worse in coping with COVID-19 than those run by empathetic women: Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand and Taiwan.
The American states that defied Mr. Trump and battled mightily against his loose pandemic regime are now enjoying close to zero new afflictions. Republican governors in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, and Democratic governors in New York, Connecticut and Maine, have exercised the kinds of responsible political leadership that saved lives. They wore masks and allowed their citizens back to work parsimoniously.
Regard for the interest of the public should always triumph over personal greed. But in this age of corrupt populist leadership, citizens are often neglected, even maimed. Presidents Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro are the dangerous poster boys of our narcissistic age.
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