- US President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and Russian President Vladimir Putin are overseeing the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world.
- Public-health experts say that “science denialism” and downplaying the threat early on undoubtedly contributed to the virus spiraling out of control in these three countries.
- There’s a “certain amount of luck involved” in terms of how countries fare during public-health crises, but “overall these leaders have cost tens of thousands of lives in their countries,” one expert told Insider.
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The US, Brazil, and Russia have the highest numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world. All three countries are also led by men with well-documented records of pushing against science and spreading disinformation.
Public-health experts say it’s not a coincidence that the coronavirus outbreaks in these countries spiraled out of control, while warning that the cavalier attitude these leaders continue to exhibit toward the pandemic could lead to even more cases and deaths.
“Science denialism and ignoring the epidemiology data early on is definitely part of the reason there is such a strikingly large epidemic in these three countries,” Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Insider.
“An ostrich, head-in-ground political approach to an oncoming epidemic is the most surefire on-ramp to more infections and deaths,” Feigl-Ding, who is also a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, added.
US President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and Russian President Vladimir Putin all “downplayed the seriousness” of COVID-19 and “delayed for long periods before acting,” Lawrence Gostin, the director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law School, told Insider.
“Undoubtedly, the response of leaders is crucial in curtailing an infectious-disease outbreak. The fact that these three leaders are highly nationalistic and have a history of rejecting science and discounting expert advice played a major role in COVID-19 running out of control in their countries,” Gostin added. “And now they are pushing reopening too soon.”
‘Acting early and acting aggressively worked best’
Trump minimized the threat of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, for weeks in the early part of the US outbreak, even as top public health experts warned that cases would rise and the country should prepare for “severe” disruptions to daily life.
Much like his past denial and skepticism of the science surrounding major issues such as climate change, Trump has repeatedly pushed against the experts and available evidence in his response to the coronavirus pandemic.
He’s promoted hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, that the Food and Drug Administration has warned can cause heart problems and has not shown to be “safe and effective for treating or preventing COVID-19.”
In late April, Trump controversially and dangerously suggested disinfectants might be injected as a cure for COVID-19, prompting uproar from public health experts and warnings from the manufacturers of cleaning supplies against injecting or ingesting their products.
“What we have learned in looking at country responses to COVID-19 is that acting early and acting aggressively worked best. And using the best public health evidence mattered a great deal, such as the need for widespread testing, contact tracing, and social distancing,” Gostin said.
But as top public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci have emphasized the need for a robust testing system to get a handle on the virus, Trump has from the beginning signaled that he’s more interested in keeping case numbers down for the sake of optics.
The president in March, for example, said he didn’t want infected patients from a cruise ship to disembark because it would increase the number of cases for the US. “I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault,” Trump said in a Fox News interview at the time. In early May, Trump said that too much testing makes the US “look bad.”
Trump on February 26 said the number of coronavirus cases in the US would be “close to zero” in a couple of days, despite all of the evidence to the contrary and the fact epidemiologists across the country like Feigl-Ding were ringing alarm bells.
The US is now the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with over 1.6 million confirmed cases and nearly 99,000 reported fatalities, per the latest numbers from Johns Hopkins. Comparatively, South Korea, which had its first reported case of the virus the same day as the US, has less than 12,000 confirmed cases and has seen less than 300 fatalities. Experts have contributed this stark difference in case numbers to the seriousness with which South Korea approached the outbreak from day 1.
‘These leaders have cost tens of thousands of lives in their countries’
With nearly 375,000 cases, Brazil has the second highest number of infections in the world. Nearly 24,000 Brazilians have also died from COVID-19 so far.
Bolsonaro, much like Trump, has consistently downplayed the threat of COVID-19 and has pushed against restrictions meant to quell the spread. Both leaders have misleadingly likened the virus to the flu, even as experts warn COVID-19 is far deadlier based on the available evidence.
“Our lives have to go on. Jobs must be kept … We must, yes, get back to normal,” Bolsonaro said during a speech in late March. “With my history as an athlete, if I were infected with the virus I would have no reason to worry. I would feel nothing, or it would be at most just a little flu.”
When reporters recently asked Bolsonaro about the rising death toll in his country, he replied: “So what?”
A similar series of events have taken place in Russia, where there are over 362,000 confirmed cases of the virus, the third highest number globally, and over 3,800 reported deaths.
Putin was virtually nonexistent as a leader, staying in the background, in the early days of Russia’s outbreak. The Kremlin simultaneously claimed to have everything under control. But the facade didn’t last long, and the government began to face pushback. Anastasia Vasilieva, the head of an independent doctors’ union, was detained in April after she accused the Kremlin of lying when it came to the official number of COVID-19 cases.
In time, the problem could no longer be denied away as government officials became infected, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, also tested positive for the virus in May and was hospitalized.
All three leaders have shown that strongmen are not particularly well-suited for dealing with a global health crisis, and they’re facing political consequences as a result. Putin’s approval rating has dropped to 59%, a historic low for the Russian leader.
“He doesn’t look like a strong leader anymore,” political scientist Alexander Kynev said of Putin in mid-May to the Moscow Times. “For so many years his charisma was his bravado. Even if he was a son of a b—h, he was powerful. And this gained him respect even from those who weren’t happy with him … Now he looks like an old, sick wolf.”
Even as infections rise in Russia and the Kremlin continues to face allegations of underreporting the number of cases and deaths from COVID-19, Putin on Tuesday said that the outbreak had passed its peak as he ordered the country’s annual World War II victory parade, postponed due to the pandemic, to be held next month.
Meanwhile, as the US stood on the brink of 100,000 coronavirus deaths, Trump faced widespread criticism for golfing over the weekend as he simultaneously tweeted conspiracy theories and attacked political rivals. Similarly, Bolsonaro’s critics recently labeled him a “killer” after he was seen eating a hot dog in public on Saturday — 965 Brazilians were reported to have died from the virus the same day, per The Guardian.
There’s a “certain amount of luck involved” in terms of how countries fare during public health crises, Gostin said, but he added that “overall these leaders have cost tens of thousands of lives in their countries.”