Ingeborg van Teeseling

The Highest Cases of COVID Are Found in Countries With Populist Leaders

Brazil, Russia, the United States, and Britain now have the highest cases of COVID-19. This is no fluke.


Over the weekend, the global COVID-19 success chart changed. The first four spots are now held by the countries run by the biggest populist leaders. As of Monday, America is at the top with 1,521,177 cases and 90,973 dead. The silver goes to Russia with 281,752 cases and a very unlikely 2,631 dead. Bronze is for the UK with 243,695 cases and 34,636 dead.

However, a promising newcomer in the rankings is Brazil, which overtook Spain and Italy with 241,080 cases and 16,118 dead. Together, the US, Russia, the UK, and Brazil have 2,293,704 cases, which is almost half of the 4,798,759 cases worldwide. Their death toll is promising too: 144,358 out of a total of 316,514. The question is, obviously, how they have become so prominent, leaving the rest of the world far behind them. The answer, as I will show, is in what The Guardian recently succinctly called ‘fact-free leadership,’ a masterful way to run a country during a crisis.

For that, a few ingredients are necessary. Let me take you through them.

First of all, there is denial. On February 2nd, 2020, Donald Trump showed his colleagues what best practice in that regard looks like.

Although he had been warned a few weeks before that the shit was going to hit the fan, he told reporters that ‘we pretty much shut it down.’ A week later, he explained that ‘it goes away in April, with the heat,’ repeating again later in the month that ‘numbers will get better’ and that ‘the risk remains very low.’

In fact, on February 27th, 2020, he was convinced that ‘like a miracle, it will disappear,’ which was logical, because this was all a ‘Democrat hoax.’ On March 11th, 2020, he was unfortunately forced to suspend travel, but that obviously did the trick. April 20th, 2020, he was proud to announce that ‘we cut it off. Everybody was amazed that I did it.’

Denying that nasty things happen is a great strategy for a populist leader. Populism lives and dies with popularity, and that lives and dies with people liking you. What we like is somebody who protects us, who says that there are no boogie men under the bed and, if there are, that they will save us from them. So, even if people are dying left, right, and center, pretending that nothing is happening is a good thing. If you have to lie to do that, that is fine too.

That is how Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro kept the pandemic out of the limelight for a long time. ‘Brazilians don’t get sick,’ he said. ‘We already have antibodies and we never catch anything.’ That was, of course, BS, but it worked.

For months, Brazil did nothing: hardly any testing, and beauty parlors stayed open as ‘essential services.’ In the end, that led to these magical numbers and a proud fourth place on the world rankings.


Putin started with arresting doctors who took PPE to regional hospitals and others who criticized the Kremlin when it sent medical supplies to Italy.


The UK’s Boris Johnson, too, denied that anything was the matter, shaking hands with everybody, manfully staring danger in the face. He perfected the lying, by cooking the books on the stats.

After a while, it became clear that the numbers were telling only part of the facts and that deaths in care homes were not counted. He should have been delighted with those figures, though, because when they were included, Britain became the country with the highest death toll in Europe, surely a proud achievement. All went well, until Johnson himself contracted the virus.

At the same time, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, after weeks of maintaining that he had ‘contained the spread,’ was taking the fight not to the pandemic, but to the doctors and scientists.

Because that is rule number two in the populist handbook: people who deal with facts are boring party poopers. They are intellectuals, too, the natural enemy of your dumb-ass followers. So, they need to be put in their place.

Putin started with arresting doctors who took PPE to regional hospitals and others who criticized the Kremlin when it sent medical supplies to Italy. ‘From Russia with love,’ the shipment had printed on the boxes. Unfortunately, most of the material was useless; ventilators that would later explode in a St. Petersburg hospital, causing a fire that killed five.

Trump, too, was careful to attack his medical specialist informers. Most of them he rightfully sacked when they dared criticize him. Like the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, who warned the president in January that something big was coming. A few weeks later he was ‘reassigned.’

When Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was attacked during a protest rally (the sign read ‘Hang Fauci’) Trump saluted the brave citizens who had written this call to arms. Deborah Birx, the doctor in charge of the White House’s response to the pandemic, is treated similarly. Whenever she says something (‘we predict 250,000 dead in the end’) Trump contradicts her. Serves her right, too. Who is she to think she knows more about medical things than the president of the United States?


Trump, too, was careful to attack his medical specialist informers. Most of them he rightfully sacked when they dared criticize him. Like the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, who warned the president in January that something big was coming.


Another group who dares question the actions of the populist leaders is the media.

So, strategy three is to put the media in their place. Your followers hate the media, after all. Partly because you taught them to, partly because they see journalists as nosy busybodies. So, telling them to ‘shut up,’ that they are a ‘rude, terrible person,’ and should ‘keep voice down’ poll fantastically well, especially if they are directed to female reporters. A few days ago, Putin, following his American counterpart in this case, took it even further.

When the Financial Times and The New York Times calculated that Russia’s very low death numbers could not possibly be right, the Kremlin blamed the papers for ‘spreading disinformation.’ In fact, it demanded a retraction, threatened to throw journalists out of the country, and even went so far as to call on UNESCO and the UN to tell the newspapers to zip it.

But, the thing is: the world is a horrible place. Even if you manage to silence scientists and reporters, there are always others who take it upon themselves to threaten your position. So, strategy four, divert blame. ‘When somebody is president of the US, your authority is total,’ Trump said in February 2020. But that didn’t turn out to be right. Everywhere in the country, governors defied their commander-in-chief and locked down their states. Trump called for the ‘liberation’ of his people, but the miscreants refused to listen.

That was a problem in Brazil too. Bolsonaro managed to sack two health ministers, but the governors did what they wanted to do regardless. It forced the president to the streets of Sao Paolo, where he headlined a protest against its governor. ‘If they keep doing this, it will lead to food shortages,’ Jair said, preemptively blaming the regional leaders. If they wanted to do this, then it was up to them: ‘People are dying: so what? What do you want me to do?’ he said, echoing Donald Trump, who had also said that he wouldn’t ‘take responsibility at all.’

Maybe the best example of diverting blame was set by Putin, who locked himself away in a bunker and left everything to the mayors and governors. ‘With them in power, the sick will increase,’ he said, and turned away from the hospitals at capacity, the ambulances waiting for hours, the mounting death toll under health workers. Brilliant.

Also, a stroke of genius, and strategy number five in the populist leader handbook, is to turn a problem into an opportunity. For Trump, of course, it was a chance to allow his voters to be as racist as they wanted. This virus, he said, was ‘foreign’, ‘Chinese,’ probably deliberately let out of a Wuhan laboratory.

But that was fine, because it allowed the US to show how amazing it was, and how it would save the world. First, that was by showing the rest of the globe that it was fine to inject ourselves with disinfectant, now it is through ‘Operation Warp Speed.’ It is a US attempt to come up with a vaccine, and the president obviously compared it to the Manhattan Project (the race to develop the first nuclear bomb during WWII). ‘Nobody’s seen anything like we’re doing now, within our country. Incredible. Momentous,’ he said. It sounded a bit like Boris Johnson, who was fighting the virus on the beaches. ‘This is a national battle,’ he proclaimed. ‘The British people are standing like a human shield around this country’s greatest national asset, the NHS. Together, we cannot be beaten. This country will rise together.’ The UK, too, he assured his fans, was ‘leading the global effort to find a vaccine.’

So: denying that something is wrong, then fighting the bearers of bad news. Followed by Nationalism. Everything to make sure that the public feels good. Because that is the problem with populism: you win or lose by the ratings.

That means that your policies cannot be determined by facts, but have to be led by your followers’ emotions. And what they want, now more than anything, is to open their countries again. First of all, because they need their jobs back, of course. But also because they hate governments telling them what to do. Red tape, they call it, even if it is meant to protect them.

So, all populist leaders are now vowing to end the lockdowns. Even if cases of the virus are still climbing fast. Johnson has introduced a new ‘stay alert’ campaign, against the advice of his medical experts, who say it is far too soon. Bolsonaro, too, is threatening to sue his governors, introducing a decree that should force open the doors. Putin wants the country ‘back to work’ as soon as possible, despite 10,000 new cases every day. That is Trump’s priority too. Mike Pence’s spokeswoman Katie Miller has just tested positive. Putin’s press secretary and even PM Mishustin are in the hospital as well. Ministers in the Brazilian and British government are infected, and Trump has had three tests already.

They are heroes, leading their countries to the highest numbers of sick and dying in the world. I think a collective Nobel Prize would be in order.



Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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