Authoritarian premiers have responded differently to the outbreak but share a common disregard for their peopleby Jonathan Lis / April 15, 2020 / Leave a comment
Just before Easter, two particularly grim things happened in Brazil. It became the first country in the southern hemisphere to confirm over 1,000 deaths from coronavirus; and its president, Jair Bolsonaro, happily mingled and shook hands with supporters on the streets of Brasilia. The two events may or may not be linked. The key point is that the question did not trouble him.
Coronavirus is not only a global human and economic catastrophe, but a series of political earthquakes. Part of that is geopolitical, in the sense that it appears to be reshaping global and regional power dynamics in real time. But more immediately, the virus’ speed and force is exposing individual political landscapes. People often remark that a crisis will reveal our true selves: our instincts, values and priorities. Most of us will experience those truths in private, but national leaders will do so on a rather bigger stage. The world’s most ego-driven premiers have been confounded by something they cannot control, imprison or eliminate. Although they are responding differently, they seem to have quite a lot in common.
On one end of the spectrum we see the leaders who have downplayed the crisis or ignored it outright. Bolsonaro has dimissed coronavirus as “hysteria,” a “media trick” and a “little flu,” and encouraged people to flout state governors’ regulations. In Belarus, normally dubbed Europe’s last dictatorship, President Alexander Lukashenko (now in his 26th year of power) has described the virus as a “psychosis,” encouraged people to drink vodka and attend saunas to resist it, and as recently as Monday declared that nobody in his country would die of it. Third, of course, we observe President Donald Trump, who initially, like Bolsonaro, compared the illness to a common flu, branded Democrats’ response a “hoax,” and said the virus would “disappear.”
At the other end, we find leaders who have accompanied lockdowns with strong impositions of state power. In Hungary, the ruling Fidesz party has passed legislation in parliament allowing the prime minister Viktor Orbán to rule indefinitely by decree. Further measures of jail time for people who “spread false information” appear to be directly targeting government critics and independent journalists. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered police to “shoot [trouble-makers] dead.” And in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has…