Strongmen keep virus-struck nations on edge

Image Courtesy: Scott Dalton/Bloomberg

We are living in the age of strongmen who are using every opportunity to exhibit their machismo. Self-proclaimed 56-inch chests, men who crack sexist jokes—or step inside boxing rings—have captured imaginations. Many such men are now in power. 

Strongmen project machismo and the cult of personality. Yet they display intense cowardice, when they confront pressing social issues. They hide behind the rhetoric of hate then, which helps them conceal how much control they actually have. They divert attention from socio-economic issues to preserve the status quo in favour of the elites of our neo-liberal era.

Strongmen have typically been associated with authoritarian regimes, particularly the Fascist leaders of the past. However, over the years, the concept has evolved—and so have these leaders. The Fascism of 21st-century strongmen, the Marxist scholar Vijay Prashad has said, “is couched in modern rhetoric—in the terms of development or trade, in the terms of job or social welfare for their nationals, in the language of threats from migrants and drug gangs.” 

The 21st century’s strongmen are, therefore, often democratically-elected. Their rhetoric resonates with the masses who are made to believe that they are voting to protect their livelihoods, culture or nation, against a diffuse ‘Other’. However, voting for theatrics comes at a cost—as we are now seeing.

The inefficacy of strongmen is on open display ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. The responses of four of them, Donald Trump of the United States, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom and Narendra Modi of India, to the ongoing pandemic were as follows.

Macho dismissal of COVID-19 threat

All four strongmen did not prepare their countries to address the pandemic. Late in January, Trump claimed that there was nothing to worry about; that there are very few patients. On 29 February he called the pandemic a Democratic Party hoax. On 4 March he said, “…it is very mild”. On 7 March he said that he is “not concerned at all”. On 10 March he guessed that it will “…go away, just stay calm”. The result is that the US presently has the highest number of active COVID-19 cases. 

Here is a president floundering due to unpreparedness who then attempted to cover up with lies. So, he claimed that he was always prepared, that the infection will be cured with drugs that don’t exist, that automobile companies are making ventilators and medical ships are being prepped to meet the crisis and so on.

Johnson was similarly unconvinced about the need to procure essential medical equipment and strengthening the severely-underfunded National Health Service (NHS). On 3 March he dismissed the threat of the virus by boasting that he shook hands with COVID-19 patients. By 27 March, he and Britain’s health minister Matt Hancock had tested positive and their chief medical officer Chris Whitty also displayed symptoms. 

Since then, Johnson has sent letters to all citizens in which he “levels” with them: “We know things will get worse before they get better”, he admits, asking people to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives during this “national emergency”. 

Bolsonaro also said that the virus causes “a little flu” and accused local governments of manipulating the number of fatalities. In a televised speech he said, “I’m sorry, some people will die, they will die, that’s life.” His health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta announced that by the end of April, Brazil’s healthcare system, the underfunded SUS, “will collapse”.

Unlike the other strongmen, Modi has several media houses on a tight leash. He did not even address the virus concern initially. In February, he campaigned for the Delhi elections and later welcomed Donald Trump to India, while members of his party indulged in untrammelled communal rhetoric in the city and toppled the Opposition-ruled Madhya Pradesh government. The lack of preparedness was evident in the sudden lockdown of the entire country, which he announced ten days ago. It not only forced millions of working people to walk back to their villages, a torturous journey during which many poor migrants died.

Narcissism in crisis-time 

The second common trait of strongmen is their outrageous narcissism even in the middle of the crisis, even if it may compromise the safety of millions.

Trump shrugged off critics by equating himself with the federal government and the Army. To protect the economic elite, of whom he is a member, Trump wanted to re-open the US economy last week, no matter the risk. Apparently, he wants “packed churches all over our country by Easter” but the sudden surge in infections forced a rethink.

Even his support to state governments depends on the submissiveness of governors. For instance, he delayed declaring the outbreak a national disaster in Michigan because the governor is critical of his administration. 

Bolsanaro has also been trying to appear invincible through this crisis. The 65-year-old said last Tuesday that “…because of my background as an athlete, I wouldn’t need to worry if I was infected by the virus. I wouldn’t feel anything…” Then he accused other politicians of “demagogy before a frightened population”. During his several public appearances after the outbreak, he encouraged people to keep working. Reports have suggested that he threatened to sack his health minister if he dared criticise his methods.

In the UK, when Johnson finally ordered a lockdown, he tried to make everything seem under control. He did not follow the WHO’s physical distancing advice, attended press conferences and parliamentary sessions, compounding the risk for other MPs.

In India, the COVID-19 crisis has proved yet another PR opportunity for Modi. The first publicity stunt was the Janata curfew, which was projected as a festival turning on the Modi axis. Party workers and supporters gathered in large crowds after this curfew, possibly escalating the spread of the virus. 

Even after the sudden lockdown, he did not immediately announce a stimulus package, nor did his government move to provide enough food to India’s millions of daily-wage and informal workers. Instead, he reacted belatedly to the economic crisis—and invited contributions to a new public trust fund instead of the already existing PM national relief fund. The new trust has been named PM-CARES, reflecting an unheard-of degree of self-promotion during a crisis.

Non-scientific approach

All our strongmen are united in making unscientific claims about COVID-19 but it is Trump whose remarks are frankly alarming. On 28 January he retweeted a headline from ‘One America News’, a non-credible news outlet: “Johnson & Johnson to create a coronavirus vaccine”, which proved false. He continuously compared COVID-19 with the common flu, for example, at a Fox News town-hall session he said, “I brought some numbers here—we lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu. We don’t turn the country off.” He claimed that a decade-old Malaria drug can treat coronavirus, which experts do not endorse. “I feel good about it,” Trump explained why he said this, later. “That’s all it is, just a feeling. I’m, you know, a smart guy.”

In the UK, herd immunity was presented as the solution to the pandemic—perhaps the most unscientific response yet. It came from the UK government’s chief scientific advisor. “…the vast majority of people get a mild illness [so they can be exposed to the virus], to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission.” The government then limited testing for infection only to the severely ill rather than undertaking the aggressive testing that checked the pandemic in countries such as South Korea.

Bolsonaro is not far behind in this parade of unscientific claims. As a result, Brazil is virtually unable to adopt any scientific measures to tackle the sudden spike in COVID-19 cases. According to Bolsonaro, it is “the Brazilian” who needs to be studied, because he “doesn’t catch anything.” “You see some bloke jumping into the sewage’ he gets out, has a dive, right? And nothing happens to him,” he has said. No surprises, he is campaigning against travel restrictions and the quarantines imposed by local governments.

And in India Modi’s followers have flooded the right wing echo-chambers with thoroughly pseudo-scientific claims. BJP MLA Suman Haripriya’s cow dung and cow urine cure is well known now. On 14 March the Hindu Mahasabha conducted cow urine parties in New Delhi. Anil Vij, the health minister of Haryana proposed vegetarianism as a cure. In Hindu mythology, conches are sounded as a declaration of war. This was advised by BJP leaders as a legitimate way to ward off the virus. 

Displacing blame

To deflect attention from their blundering, all our strongmen have been doing the obvious—blame-shifting. Trump said he had tackled COVID-19 as the Obama administration which preceded his had tackled the H1N1 pandemic in 2009. This is a lie. Later, Trump used the crisis for race-baiting China despite WHO warnings to not stigmatise nations. Now he has accused hospital staff at the forefront of fighting the virus of stealing masks and other equipment. He never addressed health worker’s appeals for masks and equipment, which they are falling short of.

Bolsonaro’s politician son Eduardo gave the pandemic “a name and surname, the Chinese Communist party”. Meanwhile, his father blamed the Italian media for creating hysteria by reporting on infections and fatalities. Experts have been warning that Bolsonaro is preparing the groundwork to blame the ministers and local government officials who advocated the lockdown for the economic recession that is sure to follow the pandemic.

Business Insider and other news media have reported that the UK government is miffed with China too.

Meanwhile, Modi’s unplanned lockdown has inflicted unimaginable pain on poor migrants. Plus, Hindutva footsoldiers are spreading a carnage of fake news on social media. From China-bashing to blame-shifting on to state governments, everyone is responsible for the lockdown in India—except the man who announced it and the administration which is supposed to implement it. The detection of positive cases in a Tablighi Jamaat congregation held in Delhi before the lockdown has become a perfect excuse to communalise the pandemic, a feature unique to India.

Many countries have faltered in the fight against COVID-19, but it is the strongmen who have instrumentalised it for political ends. The marginalised, particularly in poorer nations like India and Brazil, will be the worst affected by this. However, Trump’s approval ratings have gone up since the pandemic, while Bolsonaro’s are declining.

How long theatrics will prolong the life of an immorally unequal society is the question. Gramsci comes to mind: The crisis, he has said, consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

First published in Newsclick.
Balu Sunilraj is a senior researcher at the Centre for Equity Studies, New Delhi.
Aashti Salman is a PhD scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.
Views are personal.