If United States President Donald Trump famously called the coronavirus pandemic a “hoax” until his country was rudely shaken by a spike of infections, his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro termed it a media-fuelled “fantasy” only to find his personal secretary test positive for Covid-19 the next day.
Not to be outdone, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison blithely announced he would go to a rugby league game when his government itself had banned large gatherings. Eventually, Morrison did not go for the game, but he has had to witness an upsurge in C-virus infections in Australia.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was seen to be missing from action during the outbreak of the coronavirus with the Western media speculating wildly over his absence. Vice-President Li Keqiang was placed in charge. Xi’s absence in the public was particularly noticed as otherwise he is omnipresent in media coverage. He did not visit Wuhan either until two months after the outbreak, when the infection was waning.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially said “herd immunity” would intervene to check the spread of the pandemic while his aides called Italy’s hard approach “populist” and unscientific”. Johnson had to quickly retrace his steps and follow other leaders in the face of a mounting number of infections, even as his initial response has made him appear inadequate and as a leader who bungled.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi largely remained silent in the initial stages of the infection until he made a trademark televised appearance on March 20, announcing a voluntary, or Janata, curfew a couple of days later. Sceptics claimed that the delay was because he had waited for the Madhya Pradesh BJP’s takeover of the Assembly before announcing his moves on the pandemic.
For those who expected a slew of measures to tackle the spread of the C-virus, Modi merely asked people to stand on balconies and clap, bang vessels and generally make a noise in appreciation for the medical fraternity’s fight against the pandemic. His advice on social distancing and to clap from balconies completely went off keel with his supporters gathering in huge numbers on streets to kick up a racket cheek by jowl.
Modi did what he was now known for in his second appearance on Tuesday. He announced a 21 day lockdown from Wednesday completely bereft of details. Through the day, across the country, chaos has since reigned with the police belting anyone on the streets – unmindful of who they are, in some cases even the medical fraternity. This despite the fact that the government issued guidelines, after Modi’s address, exempting essential services from the lockdown.
While Modi’s supporters are ga-ga over his strong move to counter the infection, his critics point out that he has once more announced major decisions without applying adequate thought and planning. In November 2016, after he demonetised 86 per cent of the currency notes in circulation, and later when a single-tax regime was announced, they were followed by weeks of confusion requiring a plethora of clarifications and fine-tuning by the government.
The current lockdown too seems to be heading that way, with no way of knowing what its impact will be.
Of all the global leaders, the one who has won admiration has been New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for her unique combination of empathy and firm resolve. Her government too was criticised for undermining the pandemic, but Ardern has eventually announced a shutdown of her country for four weeks, much like India.
What has won appreciation was Ardern’s attempt to be clear, compassionate and at the same time ensuring there was no panic and that her government’s orders were followed. Despite that, long queues were reported across New Zealand with people lining up for food and alcohol.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, was no different from his peers. After his government made it appear that the C-virus had not spread massively, he was pulled down to earth by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin who said there were far more infected individuals than Putin believed. For example, official figures place those infected in the Moscow region at less than 300, but the mayor said it could far exceed 500.
From complacency, Putin swung to the other extreme, wearing a yellow-coloured protective suit and respirator when he went visiting C-virus patients at a Moscow hospital. With speculation that the number of infected could swamp Russia’s healthcare Putin may well decide to act, like his counterparts elsewhere.
The coronavirus and the response of governments, whether they are democratically-elected or heading authoritarian regimes, show that eventually the person at the helm matters a lot. If, in China, the system needed Xi to kickstart a robust response so has been the case in the United States and Britain where Trump and Johnson’s personal proclivities have mattered in the quality of response. Modi and India too have been no different.
As social researcher Dr Rebecca Huntley was quoted in The Guardian as saying, “Fundamentally, you have to find a way to channel your inner human being rather than your inner politician. Politicians are very good at constructing words that they feel won’t come back to bite them and words that aren’t so definitive. This is not the moment for that.”
What the virus has, meanwhile, exposed is that no country has come out with an institutional response, meaning going by the advice of organisations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US and allowing them to take a call and lead the fight against the pandemic.
In the case of China, once Xi took the decision to go all out to tackle the C-virus, the robust health infrastructure and state apparatus swung into action bringing under control what had turned into a deadly serious situation. As for the other heavily-infected countries like the US and Italy, the jury is still out.