The limits of populist promises

By Reyshimar Arguelles

Thousands have died since SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in Wuhan, China last December. And as the city eases its quarantine measures after two months of fighting the virus, the rest of the world now has to confront this menace with varying success.

Italy suffered tremendous losses with over 10,000 deaths (mostly comprising seniors), replacing China as the epicenter of the outbreak. On the other hand, South Korea has handled the pandemic fairly well. With the help of draconian measures that limited public interactions and mass testing coupled with effective contact tracing, the country was able to gradually flatten the curve and gave little ground for the virus to spread.

Other countries such as Singapore and Taiwan were also lauded for their effective response to the contagion which has now infected over 300,000 people worldwide and barred millions from leaving their homes.

In times like these, leadership determines how thick a line gets in between societal salvation and collapse. With their citizens facing a real threat, how do populist leaders — whose platforms highlight the building of utopias fueled by national pride — deal with an inhuman enemy?

For sure, these leaders see the CoViD-19 pandemic as nothing more than an annoyance that gets in the way of their projects. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, for one, will not let the virus put a halt to the economy under his term. He would rather see Brazilians move along as the number of cases continues to increase.

In his tactless and tasteless rhetorical style, Bolsonaro dismissed CoViD-19 as nothing but a common flu and callously downplayed the potential loss of life it can cause to a country that has seen a large part of the Amazon burn. And in a manner that reflected his government’s response to the Amazon fire, an article from the UK’s The Guardian quoted him saying, “Some will die. I’m sorry. That’s life.”

Whereas Bolsonaro demonstrates a clear indifference to the plight of his people, the President of the greatest country in the world is desperately confronting a national health crisis he cannot lie his way out of. Donald Trump, who first underestimated CoViD-19 as another ruse concocted by the opposing Democratic Party, is now mulling stricter quarantine measures which should have been put up weeks prior to the first incidence of community transmission.

The reasons for the delay, of course, were the effect a disruptive quarantine would have on big business and the deleterious decisions he has made. The Trump administration’s response was anything but organized and clear, owing to the fact that he had dissolved a team in the National Security Council in charge of global health security and that he simply does not want the pandemic to affect his reelection in November.

He wouldn’t mind putting millions of Americans at risk, but he would time and again rail against reporters who ask legitimate questions about his administration’s response to the pandemic, which is kind of like what’s inside Trump’s head — a whole heap of nothing. Now, the expert negotiator is looking to China for aid as cases mount and the healthcare system is about to face an unprecedented crisis second only to the presidency of Trump.

The CoViD-19 pandemic could very well serve as a stress test to populist leaders who promise heaven and earth for their rabid supporters. And it is clear at this point that their love for their citizens (which they had peddled unashamedly to get to where they are now) conceals their disregard for the things citizens actually need: better health security.

It is difficult for these dullards to wriggle their way out of a messy situation no matter the amount of bullying they do and the volume of bogus information they produce. The virus has stripped them naked and revealed who they really are as leaders. Sure enough, the Philippines isn’t far behind.