Populist leaders come top in virus deaths

Thumbs down: Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin, and Johnson have all made light of protective measures.

Is populism the real virus? As many governments begin to ease lockdown, the statistics point to common failures and a dangerous outlook in countries with right-wing, populist leadership.

This weekend, for the first time since rules were relaxed, people will be allowed to meet friends and family – in parks, gardens, and other open spaces.

Governments, businesses, and many individuals worldwide are itching to get things back to normal. Frustration with lockdown and concern about its economic impact are encouraging the narrative that the worst is over. We are on the path to recovery, they say.

But the grim truth is that, globally, known cases of the virus are growing faster than ever. Yesterday, there were over 100,000 new cases in just one day. The total number of confirmed infections last night was 6,366,788 and rising. Iran, which started easing its lockdown in April, has seen numbers jump back to high levels in a second spike.

And the four countries with the most cases – the US, Brazil, Russia, and the UK – all have something strikingly in common. They are run by right-wing populists.

American political scientist Steven Levitsky argues that “illiberal populists” reject the opinions of “intellectuals and experts”, preferring “common-sense wisdom”. They present experts as part of a corrupt elite, out to exploit ordinary people, and blame scapegoats for problems.

In the US, Donald Trump has scorned scientific advice, blamed China, and claimed the virus will just disappear. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has downplayed its severity. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has called it no worse than “a little flu”. And in the UK, Boris Johnson contemplated letting it run riot in the hope of creating “herd immunity”.

All of them – contrary to expert advice – have, at some point, resisted lockdown measures for fear of damaging the economy. None of them like to wear masks. Now, research from the University of Oxford has shown that slow government responses directly correlate with worse outbreaks.

And cases continue to rise. While macho posing can be effective for whipping up anger, it has not worked well against a threat requiring evidence and careful planning. Countries which appear to have dealt best with the pandemic, such as South Korea, New Zealand, and Germany, have followed this path.

In response to a graph showing the US, Brazil, Russia, and the UK with the highest number of daily cases, British journalist Tim Walker tweeted that “populism and respect for human life are incompatible”.

So, is it fair to say that populism is the real virus now?


No. There are numerous other reasons why there may be so many cases in these countries. All four have large, urban populations and are major transport hubs, meaning the virus was able to reach them quickly and travel fast once it did so. Regardless of the success of different approaches to tackling the virus, it is vital not to forget that the virus itself is the biggest danger.

Yes. There is a compelling case that populism has made a terrible situation worse. Its focus on division, strongman leadership, mistrust of experts, and hatred of difference – as well as a desire to prioritise the economy over human life – has had disastrous consequences. These leaders have been shown up for the amoral, narcissistic, arrogant figures they really are.

You Decide

  1. If you were in charge of a country, would you follow expert advice or your own best instincts?
  2. What is more important in a leader: appearing strong or being honest?


  1. Imagine you are the expert adviser to the leader of a country. What one piece of advice would you give them on how to respond to the coronavirus – and why?
  2. Research the idea of populism using the Expert Links below. Create an information sheet explaining three key features of populism, three different examples of populist governments around the world, and three reasons why you think it appeals to voters.

Some People Say...

“An absolute chaotic disaster.”

Barack Obama, former US president, talking about Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that the US, Brazil, Russia, and the UK have the highest number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 globally, as of 4 June 2020. The US, Brazil, the UK, and Italy have the highest number of recorded deaths. In the last seven days, the US, Brazil, Russia, and India have seen the fastest rate of increase in cases. A research project run by Oxford University to track government responses to the virus has found that governments which delayed their response allowed the virus to spread much faster.
What do we not know?
It is difficult to get accurate statistics. Many countries claim that their number of cases and deaths seem high because they are testing high numbers of people – and are, therefore, being more transparent. A rigorous testing programme is why Belgium has the highest death rate, measured per million of the population. On the other hand, many believe that countries such as China, Brazil, Russia, and Iran have reported lower than actual figures due to under-testing and/or deliberate cover-ups.

Word Watch

Opposed to freedom of thought or behaviour.
People or things blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others.
Matches up: slower responses link clearly with worse outbreaks of the virus.
Masculine in an aggressive way.
A style of leadership that emphasises authority, aggression, control, and intolerance.
Lacking a moral sense; unconcerned with the rightness or wrongness of something.

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