COVID-19 and the strongmen
Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Modi and Duterte
Images: AFP and PCOO

COVID-19 and the strongmen

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - May 3, 2021 - 12:00am

The invisible virus is making fools out of strongmen leaders of nations. Yet, the strongmen refuse to get the message that dealing with the virus requires sticking to the science and putting politics aside.

Consider how our Great Leader and his clueless health secretary placed politics ahead of science when the pandemic was just starting.

A mysterious flu-like respiratory disease was spreading in Wuhan. But it was Chinese New Year and many had already left for their holiday destinations (including Kalibo) before the Chinese government could lockdown the city.

Duterte and Duque were hesitant to ban Chinese arrivals, afraid of displeasing China. The Chinese lockdown of Wuhan forced our CAB to ban direct flights from Wuhan to Kalibo. But not other flights from other Chinese cities.

It is not surprising that the first two COVID cases were Chinese nationals on vacation in the Philippines travelling as a couple. The female survived and the male became the first COVID fatality here.

If Duque and Duterte stuck to science and didn’t consider politics, we would have banned all Chinese visitors early. Stopping potential infection from travelers was what Taiwan and New Zealand did. That’s how they got back to normal quickly.

One year and four months later, the world is finding out that most strongmen leaders of nations were battered by the virus. From Bolsonaro of Brazil, Duterte of the Philippines, Modi of India, Erdogan of Turkey and even Trump of the United States, the pandemic showed that bloated egos and closed minds don’t work in dealing with this virus.

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of Britain, also tried to ignore the virus. He adopted a policy of attaining herd immunity through actual infection. He got infected and he changed course, using mass vaccination as his tool instead and redeemed himself.

An article published by the Agence France Presse (AFP) reported conclusions of political analysts that the world’s strongmen responded to the virus with “posturing, repression, and a distaste for facts… the same way they deal with everything else…”

Uma Kambhampati, a development economist at Britain’s University of Reading, told AFP that the strongmen’s problem are basically, “they can’t blame anybody else. It’s not a comfortable position for them.”

A typical response is to stifle criticism coming from health workers and other essential personnel. Remember how Duterte accused doctors of subversion when they asked for a timeout during the first serious surge of the pandemic here last year.

In China, ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who warned colleagues about COVID, was promptly sanctioned for “spreading rumors.” He eventually died of COVID and is now considered a hero.

Benno Zogg, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies in Switzerland, told AFP that strongmen leaders “want to show that authoritarian regimes are better able to manage such a crisis than democratic ones.”

But in Latin America, some responses to the pandemic may have strengthened democracy by showcasing the competence of leaders in Uruguay and Chile in contrast to the irresponsible populists in Brazil and Mexico.

Some strongmen, in the face of rising cases, were ridiculed for backing discredited COVID remedies such as hydroxychloroquine (suggested by Trump) or outlandish ones like hand washing with petrol (suggested by Duterte).

Trump also suggested injecting Clorox to disinfect COVID patients, as well using as UV light as in “bringing the light inside of the body through the skin…”

An op/ed piece at the New York Times by Ivan Krastev observed that it is easy to fear that a public health emergency like COVID will make people accept restrictions on their liberties. But it seems “the pandemic has eroded the power of authoritarians and the authoritarian-inclined.”

The instinctive reaction of leaders like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Donald Trump in the United States was not to expand their authority, but to play down the seriousness of the pandemic. Duterte also said it was a “maliit na bagay.”

And that was how the pandemic’s impact in their countries became serious.

Krastev pointed out that autocrats need enemies to defeat, not problems to solve. That’s why Duterte keeps hitting VP Leni instead of adopting her very helpful COVID initiatives.

“In the age of coronavirus… The ubiquity of the disease poses challenges for authoritarians. Because the pandemic affects every country in the world, citizens can compare the actions of their governments with those of others.

“Success or failure at flattening the curve provides a common metric, making cross-national comparisons possible and putting pressure on governments that had previously succeeded in insulating themselves from public criticism.”

On Feb. 21, Indian Prime Minister Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party hailed his “visionary leadership” in turning India into a “victorious nation in the fight against COVID.” Two months later, India’s COVID crisis was on a scale not seen elsewhere.

Premature rejoicing sounds like us, too. Remember how a DOH consultant declared victory over the virus and tweeted: “We saved your butt. You’re welcome.”

India could have used its vast reservoir of scientific expertise. India has first-rate scientists, highly trained doctors, and powerful networks of community health workers. They even manufacture the vaccines there.

What has been lacking, experts say, is the political will to use data and science to its advantage.

“Without data – on who is testing positive, where the hot spots of cases and deaths are, who is really vulnerable – there’s no easy way for India to walk out of the pandemic,” one expert said.

Sounds like our story here too.

On the week scientific evidence revealed that the virus is mainly transmitted by airborne microdroplets, our health and pandemic officials allowed the opening of indoor dining, beauty salons and barbershops, even as the number of new cases are still at a worryingly high level of over 8,000 to 9,000 cases a day.

We need scientists we can trust to lead our COVID battles, not retired generals, politicized health officials, and a strongman leader who has seen better days.

The virus has determined what our problem is. Politics should give way to real science, good governance, and organizational competence.

Oh no… it seems we are a long way from home.



Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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