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The leaders behind some of the world's most dubious COVID-19 plans. Top row: Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Middle row: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Tanzanian President John Magufuli. Bottom row: Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Devin Nunes, a California congressman.

Reuters, The Associated Press, AFP/Getty Images, Korean Central News Agency

Everyone remembers the powerful world leaders who derided the coronavirus threat or even denied its existence in its early stages. U.S. President Donald Trump said the virus would disappear “like a miracle.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson boasted cheerfully about shaking hands with “everybody” at a hospital, including COVID-19 patients. Chinese officials arrested or muzzled doctors who tried to warn of the danger.

But what about other leaders around the world? Some have performed admirably under pressure – educating their citizens, advocating good health measures, taking brave action to protect lives.

Others were, er … less helpful.

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Who were the deniers, the minimizers, the blithe mockers, the confident believers, the vodka promoters, the unconcerned and the uninterested? The Globe and Mail looks at some of the most dubious responses to the pandemic.


In Sao Paulo on April 16, an image projected on a wall shows President Jair Bolsonaro with Luiz Henrique Mandetta, just fired as Brazil's health minister after weeks of disputes over COVID-19 policy. Brazilians protested the firing by banging pots and pans.

Miguel Schincariol/Getty Images

Brazil

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro believes the coronavirus is just “a little flu.” He has scoffed at ideas such as lockdowns and physical distancing. “No one will hinder my right to come and go,” he proclaimed over Easter weekend as he defied his own government’s stay-at-home recommendation and interacted with members of the public on the streets of Brasilia.

In one startling video, he appeared to wipe his nose with his wrist before shaking the outstretched hand of an older woman who had taken the precaution of wearing a mask.

The right-wing populist – who swept to power in a 2018 election – has made it clear that he’s more worried about the economic effects of a lockdown than the mounting human toll of the pandemic. “People are going to die, I’m sorry,” he said late last month. “But we can't stop a car factory because there are traffic accidents.”

With more than 25,000 confirmed cases in Brazil and a rapidly accelerating death toll that just passed 1,500, Mr. Bolsonaro is taking a big political risk by remaining glib about COVID-19.

His “Keep Brazil Going” campaign has put him at odds with many of the country’s state governors, as well as his own Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a pediatric orthopedist who favoured stricter quarantine measures to combat the spread of the virus.

Some commentators have compared Mr. Bolsonaro’s relationship with Mr. Mandetta with the fraught dynamic between Mr. Trump and the White House’s infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci. On Thursday – the same day Mr. Trump was calling for a phased reopening of the U.S. economy – Mr. Bolsonaro fired Mr. Mandetta and called again for the country to “return to normal.”

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President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, right, takes part in an April 4 amateur hockey competition in Minsk. Sporting events in Belarus have kept going as leagues in the rest of Europe remain cancelled.

Andrei Pokumeiko/BelTA Pool Photo via AP

Belarus

The strongman of Belarus delivered some startling news to his country’s citizens last week. “No one will die of coronavirus in our country. I publicly declare this,” President Alexander Lukashenko said.

In fact, at least 36 people have already died in Belarus from COVID-19, according to the country’s Health Ministry – but the country’s 65-year-old dictator doesn’t accept that. All of the dead had pre-existing health conditions, he claimed. “Therefore, I say that not a single person died purely from the coronavirus."

Mr. Lukashenko, an admirer of the Soviet Union who has ruled Belarus since 1994, says COVID-19 can be fended off by old-fashioned hard work and by maintaining a positive attitude.

As a result, the country of nine million has remained largely open for business even as most of Europe has shut down around it.

Vodka helps too, according to Mr. Lukashenko, as does playing hockey. To demonstrate, he took part in a hockey tournament over the weekend that was played with spectators in attendance. Unsurprisingly, the dictator’s team won the tournament for an 11th time.

The World Health Organization is less enamoured with Mr. Lukashenko’s public health ideas, warning this week that the outbreak in Belarus was entering a “concerning” new phase.


This rally with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Ayutla de los Libres, in Guerrero state, took place on March 15, four days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Mexico's Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

Mexico

In late March, as Mexico recorded its first COVID-19 deaths, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador released a Facebook video encouraging his people to go out for dinner.

“If you’re able and have the means to do so, continue taking your family out to eat,” the President advised as he sat on a restaurant patio, a large meal spread before him. “That strengthens the economy.”

Mr. López Obrador, a left-wing populist who goes by “AMLO,” long resisted calls to impose physical-distancing measures, fearing his working-class base would be hurt most by shutting down the economy. And he continued to hold rallies at which he would wade into the crowd to greet supporters with handshakes and cheek kisses.

At his daily news conferences, he brandished a series of good-luck charms: prayer cards, a US$2 bill and a drawing of a six-leaf clover. These and his strong moral character, the President declared, would keep him from becoming infected. “The protective shield is honesty – not permitting corruption,” he said.

He did finally relent and authorized a shutdown of non-essential activities. Even then, he mostly dispatched subordinates to make the announcements. And he has made sure that work can continue on his priority infrastructure projects, including a new oil refinery and a rail line through the country’s south.

In Mexico City, meanwhile, the mayor has shut down most businesses and limited restaurants to takeout service. If the President were still tempted to follow his own advice on eating out, there would be nowhere to go in his capital.

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There is little sign of physical distancing at this Palm Sunday mass at a Dar es Salaam church on April 5. Tanzania's President had enouraged religious services in the buildup to Easter.

ERICKY BONIPHACE/AFP via Getty Images

Tanzania

While most countries were going into lockdown and banning large gatherings, Tanzanian President John Magufuli was instead telling his people to keep going to their churches and mosques. “Corona is the devil and it cannot survive in the body of Jesus,” he told a church service in late March. “It will burn.”

Less than three weeks later, his theological premise is in doubt. Today there are 254 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Tanzania, with 10 deaths, and the number is increasing dramatically.

Undeterred, the President doubled down. He announced a plan for three days of prayer in mid-April to ask God to save the country. Tanzania today remains the only country where the government has recommended church attendance as a way of combatting the virus.

While he did take some action based on medical science, including the suspension of classes and sports events, Mr. Magufuli has refused to introduce a broader lockdown or curfew – even though most of his East African neighbours have done so.

With the government playing down the threat, life has continued as normal. Bars and clubs are reportedly still crowded. Senior government officials have mocked anyone practising physical distancing or self-isolating at home. “Get out and work,” one official told Tanzanians.


A portrait of Turkmenistan's President hangs above shelves of goods at a pharmacy in the capital, Ashgabat, on April 8. Officially, Turkmenistan has no COVID-19 cases, but global health officials think that's extremely unlikely.

IGOR SASIN/AFP via Getty Images

Turkmenistan

The official number of coronavirus cases in the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan is zero. The country is so unaffected by the virus that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov recently led a mass cycling event through the capital, Ashgabat. None of the participants wore a mask.

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It is, of course, highly unlikely that a country that shares a border with Iran – one of the countries hardest-hit by COVID-19 – would not have single infected citizen. But in Turkmenistan, where information is tightly controlled by the government, that’s the official version.

Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a Vienna-based news website run by exiled Turkmen journalists, has reported that a special tent hospital – cordoned off and surrounded by watch towers – has been erected for patients with COVID-19 symptoms. But Turkmenistan’s official media have made no mention of the facility.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government-funded Radio Azatlyk, which has anonymous correspondents in Turkmenistan, has reported that people have been arrested by plain clothes officers after talking about the pandemic or wearing masks in public.

Reporters Without Borders has accused Turkmenistan – which ranked dead last, below even North Korea, on last year’s Press Freedom Index – of putting its 5.6 million citizens in danger by “limiting all information about the coronavirus.”


Masked North Koreans walk away after laying flowers at a Pyongyang monument to the Communist nation's founding leader, Kim Il-sung, and his successor, Kim Jong-il, on April 15, the elder Kim's 108th birthday. The date is considered North Korea's most important public holiday.

KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea

Kim Jong-un, who has made truculence and duplicity an art form, has stayed true to form during the coronavirus outbreak. North Korea, officially speaking, is the sole Asian outlier, a virus-free haven.

The country’s trade and travel connections extend almost exclusively through China, where the virus first spread. And yet Pyongyang has steadfastly denied that any virus has arrived on its own soil.

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There is reason for skepticism: North Korea also claims no one has ever tested positive for HIV inside its borders; scientists estimate the real number is almost 10,000. Meanwhile, Daily NK has reported the deaths of some 200 soldiers and four doctors suffering COVID-19-like symptoms.

The country’s actions, too, suggest fear: at least 10,000 people have been kept in quarantine and schools have been closed, state media have reported.

Yet Mr. Kim’s paranoid dictatorship may have responded to the virus with appropriate caution. North Korea shut its border with China in January – two days before Beijing locked down the epicentre of the outbreak, Wuhan.

“Authoritarian states are very good at shutting things down, controlling the population,” said Oliver Hotham, managing editor of NK News. “And it may be that North Korea has harnessed its tools of repression to prevent an outbreak.”


Masked Cambodians pour water on a Buddha statue in Phnom Penh as they pray during Khmer New Year celebrations. Cambodia's government has played down the risks of COVID-19 and encouraged tourists to visit.

TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images

Cambodia

A week after China began locking down Wuhan, Cambodia’s strongman leader threatened to boot out any journalist covering their face during a news briefing in his country. “The Prime Minister doesn’t wear a mask, so why do you?” Hun Sen asked.

A few days later, he landed in Beijing and shook hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first foreign leader to visit as the epidemic raged. Neither man wore a mask.

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“What is more terrible than the epidemic is the panic itself,” Mr. Hun Sen said. He refused to evacuate Cambodian citizens from China and kept planes flying between the two countries.

By mid-February, he was back home, taking a helicopter to Sihanoukville, where he personally greeted tourists disembarking from the cruise ship Westerdam after it was turned away by five other countries. Those leaving the ship were ordered not to wear masks, and Mr. Hun Sen invited them to tour the country. Some later tested positive for COVID-19.

But Cambodia’s Health Minister had already dismissed the risk: “Infections are unlikely here because our country is just too hot,” Mam Bun Heng said.

Now, Cambodia has banned interprovincial travel, closed its borders to people from a half-dozen Western countries and suspended visa-free arrivals – a privilege previously granted to travellers from China, in particular.


Republican Representative Devin Nunes listens to a House judiciary committee hearing on Dec. 4 last year, the first day of impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump. Mr. Nunes was a key defender of Mr. Trump, who was impeached in the Democrat-controlled House but acquitted in the Republican-controlled Senate.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

California’s 22nd congressional district

First, Devin Nunes advised Americans to keep patronizing restaurants even as public-health experts were calling for them to close.

“It’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant,” the California congressman told Fox News on March 15. “Likely you can get in, get in easily.”

A few days later, he falsely claimed that there was no evidence the coronavirus was particularly contagious.

“If this virus is really spreading like some people say that it is, we don’t have any data on that,” Mr. Nunes said on KMJ, a talk radio station in his district.

Then, in another Fox appearance on April 1, he said it was “way overkill” to close schools and that people should “stop looking at the death counters” marking the number of people killed by COVID-19.

“When you have people staying at home, not taking care of themselves, you will end up with a hell of a lot more people dying by other causes than you will by the coronavirus,” he declared.

A member of the House intelligence committee, Mr. Nunes is best known for defending President Donald Trump against investigations of his alleged dealings with Russia and Ukraine, pushing conspiracy theories that U.S. spies and the Ukrainian government have tried to take down the President.

His own state, meanwhile, has drawn plaudits for taking some of the swiftest action in the country to fight the pandemic. Governor Gavin Newsom was the first to impose a stay-at-home order, on March 19, and his state appears to have avoided the worst of the outbreak.

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Zimbabwean police enforce physical distancing at a supermarket queue in Harare, the capital, on March 30 during a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/The Associated Press

Zimbabwe

In mid-March, as the pandemic grew, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa took action: he announced a series of measures, including an immediate ban on gatherings of more than 100 people.

A day later, he held a political rally and gave a speech to several hundred people at a school in northeastern Zimbabwe, blatantly violating his own decree. When asked about it, he claimed his ban on large gatherings didn’t take effect for two days, even though his own government had made it clear that the decree was effective immediately.

Mr. Mnangagwa, a former vice-president who replaced the long-ruling Robert Mugabe after a military coup in 2017, has shown little interest in improving Zimbabwe’s decrepit health care system to deal with the pandemic.

Its first victim was a well-known broadcaster, Zororo Makamba, who died in a Harare hospital that had been designated as the main isolation facility for the coronavirus – but lacked any ventilators to treat patients. His brother said the government was unprepared for the virus.

As of April 15, just 716 coronavirus tests had been conducted in Zimbabwe, a country of 15 million people. In one case, a test was delayed for so long (reportedly because of transport problems) that the patient died three days before the positive results came back.

But police and soldiers in the authoritarian state have been enthusiastically enforcing the national lockdown. In one raid, police confiscated and destroyed several tons of fresh fruit and vegetables by setting fire to them – because the vendors had broken travel restrictions. In a country plagued by malnutrition and hunger, it was a shockingly irrational response.


Coronavirus: The global picture

Sources: GOVERNMENT WEBSITES, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO AND JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
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