‘Out of his depth’: World leaders battle coronavirus with mixed results
Italy’s PM Giuseppe Conte rises to occasion but others struggle to reassure fearful public
Prime minister Boris Johnson speaking at a media briefing on coronavirus in Downing Street: Photograph: Eddie Mulholland/Daily Telegraph/PA Wire
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been widely praised for his handling of the coronvirus crisis, in particular for the tone and content of his address to the nation on St Patrick’s Day. But how well or otherwise are other world leaders perceived by their electorates to have dealt with the pandemic to date? Some are doing better than others...
In the early days of the crisis, Boris Johnson inspired confidence by publicly deferring to his government’s experts and promising that policy would be shaped solely by science. That message was reinforced by the choreography of his public statements on the epidemic, when he was flanked by chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance.
But when it appeared that Britain was taking a different approach from other European countries to dealing with the virus, public confidence in the government’s strategy took a hit. Last week saw conflicting briefings coming out of Downing Street, fuelling public anxiety and leaving the prime minister looking as if he was out of his depth.
In recent days, as Britain’s approach has moved further into line with most other countries, Johnson has sought to reassert control by hosting daily press conferences in Downing Street. He has started working with opposition parties and talking to trade unions about how to blunt the economic impact of the pandemic.
But this is a crisis for which Johnson’s personal style and his government’s combative approach to politics are poorly suited and he has yet to prove that he is able to rise to the occasion.
The speech everyone in Italy will remember hearing for the rest of their lives is the address of prime minister Giuseppe Conte on March 11th. In it, the greying law professor announced the most severe restrictions on a Western nation since the second World War. The entire nation was put under lockdown.
“The country needs the responsibility of each of us, the responsibility of 60 million Italians, who make small sacrifices every day for the duration of this emergency,” a grave but reassuring Conte told the nation. “We are part of the same community.”
Conte is an unlikely prime minister. He is a rookie politician, plucked from his academic career in 2018 as a compromise candidate to weld together first one, and then a second, unwieldy coalition government.
The initial response to the burgeoning epidemic in Italy was slow and politicised, and it took time for the public to realise the urgency. But from February 22nd on, the Italian government took drastic decisions that were unprecedented in Europe but have since formed the blueprint for action elsewhere: shutting down public events and commercial activities, and urging citizens to stay at home.
There is a sense that Conte rose to the occasion. “Surprise,” wrote news site Linkiesta after his speech. “Conte, the non-leader called by history to lead: he nailed it.”
“Conte managed to communicate, to share, a precious asset that seemed lost: trust,” wrote newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano.
One line in particular moved some to tears, and has become a slogan of the emergency, written on banners and social media posts: “We remain apart now, to embrace more strongly tomorrow.”
US president Donald Trump declared himself a “wartime president” at a press conference in the White House this week. “That is what we’re fighting ... Every generation of Americans have been called to make shared sacrifices for the good of the nation.”
This was a remarkable shift in position. Trump spent the past weeks minimising the coronavirus outbreak, accusing Democrats and the media of engaging in a politically motivated “hoax” and predicting that the virus was “going to disappear”.
That changed a week ago when he announced a sweeping travel ban that he subsequently extended to Britain and Ireland. New modelling – including the Imperial College London research that prompted a shift in the British position – also sparked a more robust federal response, even as individual states and cities were ahead of the Trump administration in unilaterally announcing closures and restrictions.
On Wednesday Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, allowing him to instruct industry to produce materials for the national health emergency, and to deploy two navy hospital ships.
The White House and Congress are negotiating a stimulus package worth more than a trillion dollars – which would dwarf the $700 billion bank bailout of 2008 – in an effort stop the stock market chaos and mitigate the economic slowdown.
Chancellor Angela Merkel knows that pathos isn’t her strong suit so, normally, she doesn’t try. On Wednesday evening, though, the scientist-turned-politician made an exception for coronavirus. After breaking one taboo – closing the borders she kept open even at the height of the 2015 refugee crisis – she broke another taboo in a rare address to the nation: comparing the challenge Germany faces now to the second World War.
Unlike French president Emmanuel Macron, she didn’t make a metaphorical declaration of war. Instead she said Germany needs to pull together in a way not seen since 1945. After growing criticism of her softly-softly approach, a straw poll among friends suggests her address struck the right note of sober concern they expect from their politicians.
But many media outlets criticised the driving-by-sight nature of her speech, with no concrete measures for the immediate future to aid businesses or citizens already facing financial ruin.
This crisis has yet to peak in Germany, but already it has exposed the limits of the chancellor’s power. Germany’s federal model of decentralised competences meant Merkel had to beg 16 state leaders to agree restrictive measures. Even now, many have gone their own way. For Merkel, leadership in the coronavirus crisis is akin to herding cats.
After China’s leadership was criticised both at home and abroad for its initial response to the outbreak, it reacted with drastic lockdown measures and an intense public relations campaign that centred on the heroic efforts of the Communist Party and its general secretary Xi Jinping leading the “people’s war” against the pathogen.
With regard to public perception domestically, the Chinese president was widely seen to have been on shaky ground at an early stage of the crisis – particularly after a whistleblowing doctor died of the disease he tried to warn the public about – but the party leader got back on to more stable footing once the country was mobilised and the containment efforts started showing results.
As the infection levels dwindled, the rhetoric levels ramped up. State media has delivered a daily deluge of glowing reports that cast the party in the saviour’s role and celebrate the mobilisation efforts “under the leadership of comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the centralised and unified leadership”.
The president has been venerated as a leader who has a “pure heart like a newborn’s that always puts the people as his number one priority”.
Perceived missteps in the handling of the virus by the US, the UK, and other countries are seized on by state-run press – examples, they suggest, that underscore Xi’s superior political leadership.
French president Emmanuel Macron’s handling of the epidemic has been judged by two televised addresses, on March 12th and 16th. In the first, watched by 25 million French people, Macron announced the closure of schools and called for a “sacred union” in the face of danger.
The speech was widely viewed as a turning point in Macron’s presidency, a renunciation of economic “ultra-liberalism” and a return to a more protective welfare state. Budgetary rigour has vanished. The government is “carpet-bombing” public funds, says a conservative observer.
Macron said that “Free healthcare ... and our welfare state are not costs or burdens but precious possessions, indispensable advantages when fate strikes.”
A poll published by Le Figaro shows that 61.59 per cent of the French believe the government has taken sufficient measures against coronavirus, while 38.41 per cent says it has not.
There has been carping over details. Critics found Macron’s second “We are at war” speech, watched by 35 million people, imprecise and technocratic. Macron left it to interior minister Christophe Castaner to provide details of the lockdown, hours later.
The government is widely criticised for the shortage of surgical masks and respirators, and for its long reluctance to control or close borders.
Last Monday, seven million people out of a Dutch population of 17 million watched Mark Rutte deliver the first televised prime ministerial address since the oil crisis in 1974 – and the reviews were almost universally positive, ranging from “statesmanlike” to “iconic”.
The sole critics, in fact, were the country’s two far-right leaders, Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party and Thierry Baudet of the Forum for Democracy, both of whom wanted a tougher form of “lockdown” – a demand they repeated on Wednesday as parliament endorsed Rutte’s strategy.
Otherwise, the financial daily FD welcomed the fact that Rutte avoided “Churchillian rhetoric”, saying his tone as he spelt out the consequences of coronavirus was “statesmanlike and convincing”.
Political commentator Syp Wynia described the speech as “an iconic moment” in Rutte’s political career, while AD’s Ozcan Akyol noted that while politicians usually played down crises, “Rutte was realistic: this virus will be with us for a long time.”
GreenLeft leader Jesse Klavers set the tone for other party leaders saying the prime minister “did not mince his words”, sending the country “an honest and impressive message”.
Citizens in several countries have reacted to the coronavirus lockdown by taking to their windows to serenade each other.
Brazilians in contrast have been reduced to banging pots and pans in protest at President Jair Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the crisis.
Public anger is rising quickly at a leader who has consistently downplayed the threat of a virus now spreading across the world’s sixth most populous nation.
Nothing better exemplifies the Bolsonaro administration’s cack-handed approach than the failure of the president and his team to follow medical advice and self-isolate after the virus was detected among his staff. As a result on Wednesday one of his closest advisers, 72-year old former general Augusto Heleno, was tested positive for Covid-19. He had been with the president at least twice the previous day.
Widespread exasperation at such floundering means support for Bolsonaro is draining away. His army of online defenders is greatly diminished in the face of his manifest inability to rise to the pandemic’s challenge. There have been calls among former supporters for his removal from office.
Ironically all this is only likely to reinforce Bolsonaro’s belief that the pandemic is before anything else a threat to his grip on power.
Russia registered its first death from Covid-19 on Thursday and says only 199 people have tested positive for the virus across the vast country of 140 million people, but scepticism about that data is rife on social networks and non-state media.
President Vladimir Putin insists everything is “under control” and that people’s health is his priority, yet he still plans to go ahead with a public vote next month on constitutional changes to allow him to rule until 2036 – even though a ban on mass gatherings and school closures in Moscow may soon go nationwide.
The Kremlin says staff working with Putin (67) have been tested for coronavirus, and that “everything needed to protect the president from viruses and other illnesses is being done around the clock.”
After 20 years in power Putin faces a potentially huge challenge: a pandemic that finds Russia’s health system poorly prepared for testing and treating large numbers of people, combined with a sharp fall in the value of the rouble and of crude oil, which is central to his country’s economy.
Coronavirus is not helping to heal Putin’s rift with the EU, either. “A significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding Covid-19 is ongoing,” the EU’s foreign policy arm said in an internal report seen by Reuters. “The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in western countries ... in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies.”
The Kremlin blamed an “anti-Russian obsession” for the “unfounded allegations.”
Spain’s coalition government is barely two months old and the country’s politics are deeply polarised. The right-wing opposition had been pressuring Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez to declare a state of emergency for some days before he finally did so last weekend.
Also, the government’s decision to allow a series of massive International Women’s Day marches to go ahead on March 8th has widely been seen as a mistake, given how the virus’s spread accelerated after that date.
Sánchez, a telegenic and assured public speaker, has sought to convey a sense of calm throughout the crisis, even while introducing severe measures over the last week, most notably a national lockdown. For some, this style of communication reflects how his administration has been behind the curve.
“He has either been chasing developments or, with his bit-by-bit style and reassuring messages, he has helped make them worse,” noted El Independiente newspaper.
Sánchez himself has admitted that there “may have been mistakes” by his government and has said there will be an investigation to evaluate the response to the crisis. But although the opposition has criticised what it describes as a “lack of humility” on the prime minister’s part, it has pledged to unite behind him, in a rare case of statesmanship in Spanish politics.
Hungary’s usually strident prime minister, Viktor Orban, was silenced on Wednesday when his announcement via Facebook video of emergency steps to tackle the coronavirus crisis was broadcast to an expectant nation without any sound.
When details of the plan were revealed later, they included measures to help borrowers and sectors of the economy most badly hit by fallout from coronavirus, which has claimed one life and is confirmed to have infected 73 people in Hungary.
The first cases found in Hungary were among students from Iran, and Orban – whose fierce opposition to immigration has made him a hero for many nationalists and a pariah to liberals – blamed “foreigners” for spreading the virus and claimed there is a “logical connection” between the pandemic and migration.
Hungarian authorities have also closed its “transit zone” for asylum seekers on the country’s border with Serbia, and sought to summarily deport 13 Iranians who had been quarantined in recent days - a move now halted by a legal challenge.
Orban has pledged to unveil more measures to safeguard jobs, as major carmakers including Audi and Mercedes suspend operations in Hungary, and he rejects opposition concerns that underinvestment in the health system could see it collapse during the crisis.