The coronavirus pandemic is a threat to populist strongmen

Santiago Zabala 21 April 2020
And they are desperately trying to use it to stay in power.

As the coronavirus contagion spreads around the world, it is increasingly exposing major socio-economic fractures which governments have long ignored. Underfunded health systems are collapsing under an overload of patients, meagre social safety nets cannot cover those in need, and the absence of proper labour protections has left hundreds of millions jobless and strapped for cash.
At the same time, the pandemic has highlighted issues of incompetence and lack of leadership in ruling elites across the world. It is increasingly clear that many political leaders underestimated the threat of the outbreak in China and chose to placate markets instead of preparing their nations for an emergency. Others – in South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, and elsewhere – took adequate action, communicated transparently with the public and managed to avoid a national disaster.
This revelatory aspect of the pandemic is what makes it particularly dangerous to populist strongmen across the world. They are now at a growing risk of being exposed for who they are – incompetent leaders who do little more than satisfy the interests of narrow business circles around them, while leaving their nations to economic precarity and social insecurity.
These populists have been promoting nationalist, protectionist, and hate-based agendas to manipulate the public, all while denying the pressing emergencies of our times. This is evident in their indifference toward climate change and refugee crises and in their responses to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This global health crisis requires global collaboration, responsibility and solidarity, which goes against everything they stand for, and it is moving too fast for their populist rhetorical strategies to work.
In response, strongmen have doubled down on racism in their rhetoric and sought to undermine traditional vectors of authority and legitimation that are necessary to understand facts. Government agencies, the media and credentialled academics are needed to convince the public of the significance and implications of the bare facts of the pandemic. They have all been relentlessly attacked and questioned by populist politicians who are desperately trying to distract public attention away from the catastrophic consequences of their inaction.
At the same time, populist leaders have launched desperate efforts to try to instrumentalise the pandemic to consolidate power and/or ensure their re-election.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Victor Orban declared a state of emergency on March 11. Less than three weeks later the Parliament voted in a law allowing him to rule indefinitely by decree in the name of combating the coronavirus. But these powers go far beyond what is necessary to fight the outbreak as they include provisions for jail sentences for anyone found to have obstructed anti-pandemic measures or spread false information.
Orban is clearly trying to preclude potential public anger over his mishandling of the crisis loosening his grip on power. Even before the pandemic, the Hungarian health system was in bad shape; controversial measures taken to free up beds for COVID-19 patients and inadequate supply of protective gear and equipment for hospitals have cast further doubt on the Hungarian government’s strategy to handle the crisis. There has also been criticism of government spending on non-essential sectors, including sports.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has actively opposed any measures against the pandemic. He has claimed that the virus is just “a fantasy,” a “measly cold,” and that he “wouldn’t feel anything” if infected. He has gone as far as attending rallies against lockdowns imposed by local authorities. He has not only attacked the media repeatedly and questioned advice by scientists and the WHO, but has actively been involved in misinformation.
When 25 of Brazil’s 27 governors signed a joint letter demanding Bolsonaro back strict anti-outbreak measures, he accused them being “job exterminators” who want to sabotage his re-election in two and a half years. Thus, instead of taking the lead on the pandemic response, the strategy of the Brazilian strongman is to incite the public against local authorities and blame the looming economic crisis on them, to cover up his own mishandling of the situation and the failure of his right-wing policies to bring prosperity to Brazil.
Similarly, US President Donald Trump has focused his efforts on manipulating public opinion instead of working with state authorities to resolve the crisis. But unlike Bolsonaro, he has had to backtrack on his claims that the coronavirus outbreak does not pose a threat to the US.
After his about-face, he focused his efforts on covering up the fact that he launched a delayed response to the pandemic and has mishandled various aspects of the crisis. When Democrats and reporters accused him of messing up, he blamed the outbreak on China, the lack of a workable test on the Obama administration and the shortage of ventilators on various governors. Instead of focusing on solving these issues, he announced the suspension of all immigration into the US to protect jobs as the virus spreads. 
With his eyes on re-election in November, Trump has taken over daily briefings on the pandemic from Vice President Mike Pence and transformed them into election campaigning opportunities, touting what he sees as “achievements” of his administration instead of informing the public of the state of the nation. He and the Republican Party have pushed through various measures and packages to bail out big businesses which have donated to his campaign and whose support would be essential for his re-election.
Orban, Bolsonaro and Trump are just three examples of a global trend of strongmen mishandling national responses to the pandemic. In the end, this is not just a health crisis but one of national and global governance. It is fast becoming yet another proof of the utter failure of populism to provide anything other than empty and hateful rhetoric.
Populist leaders cannot provide any kind of social or economic solutions to national and global problems and the pandemic is making this ever more apparent. Perhaps this tragedy will be that last straw that broke the camel’s back which will bring the demise of populism across the world.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.