April 13 2020
FEW WOULD envy their political leaders at times like this. The battle with covid-19 is one with an implacable enemy in which the politicians seem always to be losing, and struggling to catch up with the pace of events. The coronavirus will not submit to their armoury of promises, threats or flattery; funding pledges or sanctions. Unlike the economy, in which actions and consequences are separated by months or years, the coronavirus exposes the errors of leaders with merciless speed. And all too often it threatens them personally, as Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, now thankfully out of hospital, has discovered.
One consolation for incumbent governments is that in national crises—warfare, natural disaster, pestilence—they tend to see their popularity rise. They dominate press coverage, leading the national resistance; opposition voices are muted, lest they appear treasonous. These short-term gains, however, are small compensation for the risks the pandemic poses to politicians in the long term.
The most obvious is that, like everybody else, they are susceptible to infection. Mr Johnson is far from the only leading politician to have contracted covid-19. In Iran several politicians and officials have died, and the infected include Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. Senior politicians in France, Italy and Spain have tested positive. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, had to isolate himself after his wife tested positive. So did Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, after a doctor who had given her a vaccination was found to be carrying the virus. President Donald Trump has twice tested negative—once after meeting a Brazilian delegation, some members of which were infected. And Mr Trump, like Joe Biden, his presumed opponent in the presidential election in November, is in his 70s, which is worrying given that the risk of the virus increases with age.
Politicians may be more vulnerable to infection these days because they find it even harder than in normal times to take a break. For those aspiring to lead, a crisis really is an opportunity, a moment when they feel the weight of history. This is not a time when an ambitious politician will want to take a back seat, let alone be secluded in full quarantine and bed rest. Public service, after all, can have no nobler aim than to lead at a time of such menace. And, as the pandemic spreads, the number of capable stand-ins well enough to take over may dwindle. More cynically, who would want to give a deputy the chance to outshine the boss?
At times like these, moreover, theirs are dangerous jobs. Normally, politics is a contact sport, a matter of meeting people, of making speeches to (they hope) crowded rooms or cheering rallies; of combative debates in closed parliamentary chambers; of glad-handing crowds and kissing babies; of taking vital decisions while cloistered with cabinet colleagues, advisers and senior officials. All of this is much harder in a time of semi-quarantine. Mr Biden, for example, has almost faded from view, as he has struggled to get his message across from his basement.
Those out of government, however, can take comfort in the hope that a prolonged period of national distress may turn people against their rulers. Leaders, particularly those who have imposed lockdowns on their populations, will be expected to lead by example, and be especially susceptible to accusations of hypocrisy. In Britain, a government minister has had to try to justify why he left London for his other home, and why he drove 40 miles (64km) to visit his parents, in apparent breach of government guidelines. He was luckier than three MPs in Botswana who were forced into government-overseen quarantine after they were “caught shopping” and pilloried on social media.
But besides having to be seen to lead model lives, politicians in office face a far more fundamental difficulty: how to explain the gravity of the moment without inculcating disillusionment in their leadership and, ultimately, public despair? The remedies, in terms of the economic collapse caused by shutting away much of the population, can seem almost as dire as the virus itself. So ingrained is the desire to tell stories with a happy ending that many politicians for too long played down how bleak prospects were for containing the virus—none more so than Mr Trump who, having predicted that case would disappear miraculously, more recently warned Americans, “There will be a lot of death.”
Many have belatedly grasped the nettle; but their most positive messages are not forward-looking, so much as appeals to history, reminding their people, “We have survived worse before.” Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, was among the most direct of national leaders in declaring “we are at war”. But martial language is ubiquitous, along with the implied appeal to past heroism. The instinct to rally round the flag at a moment of peril may not last long. Lacking an “exit strategy”, a clear path out of the current misery of social distance and lockdown—and seeing how better-prepared countries have coped more effectively with the pandemic—many populations will find that such messages soon grate.
Worse is to come. In many countries the response to the virus will, when it is eventually defeated, be subject to investigation. Inquiries will point to the many mistakes that have been made—the failure to recognise the seriousness of the virus in time, the delay in protecting the population, the shortages of even basic medical equipment to cope with its arrival, the thousands of lives lost unnecessarily, and much more. Blame will be allocated. And the governments in power at the time will not be able to dodge it all.
The sense that people and their governments represent a unified polity may then prove to have been illusory. After all, the most powerful displays of solidarity have been demonstrations of appreciation in a number of countries for those putting themselves at risk—the rituals of mass applause for health workers and others. As the politicians join in the cheering for the public’s heroes, some must be wondering: how long before that turns to cursing against the rulers?■