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Populism has been punctured by the politics of the coronavirus pandemic

Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the Cabinet Room inside 10 Downing Street, London, to observe a minute's silence in a tribute to the NHS staff and key workers who have died during the coronavirus outbreak. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire - Credit: PA

BARNABY TOWNS discusses how the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the shortcomings of today’s world leaders.

The ‘founding father’ of modern France, General de Gaulle, was no stranger to crises, three of which—1940’s fall of France; 1958’s Algerian coup that returned him to power; and 1968’s unrest that preceded his downfall—defined him.

In ‘The Edge of the Sword,’ written shortly after the First World War, in which de Gaulle was an army captain, well before those defining moments, he observed: ‘Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back on himself. He imposes his own stamp of action, takes responsibility for it, makes it his own.’

The current coronavirus crisis is testing leaders the world over, some of whose stars are shining brightly as they face this tragedy, while the lights of others have dimmed.

Almost all of the world’s autocracies and populist nationalists have failed to rise to the occasion, yet many of its liberal internationalist leaders have handled the crisis to date with authority, efficiency and humanity. Compare Xi, Putin, Trump and Orban with Merkel, Macron, Trudeau and Ardern.

Ever keen to cast a favourable image in the West, the People’s Republic of China has sustained enormous reputational damage, encouraging comparisons with the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl disaster.

Those outside the dictatorship’s ruling elite may never discover if the virus originated from one of the now notorious live wildlife wet markets, from inadequate standards at a laboratory, or elsewhere.

The episode has highlighted the world’s foremost authoritarian regime’s many deficiencies. Attempts to suppress information; repress whistle-blowers and critics; and use conspiracy theories to deflect unwelcome attention won’t be soon forgotten well beyond its borders.

As the death toll mounts, few believe China’s figures, a fate shared by their fellow autocrats in Iran’s theocracy and Russia’s democracy-in-name-only.

The nationalist-populist leaders of actual democracies also are finding the crisis has diminished their standing in the world, as the truth emerges and puts the lie to their official and sponsored propaganda.

In Modi’s India, the virus forced the country’s fragility into full view, as all citizens were told to self-isolate for 21 days otherwise the nation will be set back 21 years.

The world has also witnessed the proud ignorance of wannabe Brazilian dictator Jair Bolsonaro, calling the coronavirus ‘the little flu’ that ‘isn’t everything they say it is.’

Meanwhile, in the European Union’s very own rogue state, Hungary, Victor Orban, opportunistically uses the crisis for a shameless power grab, leaving mayors and local officials to take lockdown decisions.

The nationalists in power in the West’s mature democracies also aren’t having a good war.

The skill-set that got celebrity-politicians Donald Trump and Boris Johnson elected—campaigning on big simple themes, travelling light on detail, and cultivating a strong, loyal base—are not much use in a crisis demanding national unity, analysis of scientific and medical data, and truth amid uncertainty.

From his ‘liberate’ Tweets undermining the federal government’s own advice, to his consistent underestimating of the virus itself, Trump’s rambling, narcissistic monologues and bad-tempered targeting of governors, federal government experts and journalists who dare to contradict him has brought his self-absorbed pettiness to the fore.

Boris Johnson’s administration has done little better. Instead of Macron’s frank admission that France wasn’t prepared for the pandemic, British government ministers have trouble admitting not only that the UK was unprepared but also is struggling with multiple life-and-death logistics.

In fairness, some criticism of Johnson’s government isn’t valid. That the new Nightingale hospitals lie largely empty obviously beats the opposite problem and provides surplus capacity for any second wave.

Whether ideology or incompetence explains the UK’s initial non-participation in the EU’s joint procurement programme to cut costs by bulk buying medical equipment and supplies, it isn’t a good look for the government—or an ideal result as the nation struggles with the pandemic. And surely the government should know that it could participate under its own withdrawal agreement?

Incompetence might best explain the prime minister’s absence from five Civil Contingencies Committee—COBRA—meetings. Here again, the government’s spin lasted only as long as it took older hands to contradict it.

Ideology certainly has the upper hand in the government’s insistence that the Brexit transition period should not be extended beyond the end of this year, despite this one-in-100-year global health crisis. An extension has the backing of Theresa May’s former deputy, David Lidington, nearly-two thirds of all voters and almost half of Tory and Leave supporters but not Johnson.

Far from de Gaulle’s ‘men of character,’ this crisis exposes the self-serving shortcomings of the world’s populist showmen and autocratic strongmen.


Barnaby Towns is a former UK government special adviser

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