Defend Truth


Covid-19 exposes the populists


Prof. Lyal White is the Senior Director of the Johannesburg Business School (JBS) at the University of Johannesburg.

A silver lining to the dark cloud of the crisis is emerging. Covid-19 has exposed the ineptitude of populists and revealed the virtues of pragmatic leadership, especially during times of crisis

Covid-19 struck the world at a precarious time in our political evolution. In recent years, increasing inequality and political intolerance have put liberal democracy on the back foot. Economic stagnation from Europe to Latin America and poor service delivery triggered a wave of populist autocrats claiming that their version of innovative politics and greater representation would bring economic progress to their people.  

Growing concern over autocrats using the Covid-19 lockdown to tighten their grip on power does threaten democracy. Creeping totalitarianism aside, 47 countries or territories have cancelled or postponed elections in response to the pandemic. 

But a silver lining to the dark cloud of the crisis is emerging. Covid-19 has exposed the ineptitude of populists and revealed the virtues of pragmatic leadership, especially during times of crisis.

Populism typically ends badly. Countless examples of failed personalistic leadership replacing conventional democratic processes and undermining checks and balances in the name of “political renewal… for the people, by the people”, have resulted in economic devastation and social turmoil.

The Manichaean campaign of populists, exploiting economic divisions and societal fault lines, is relentless. Discourse is filled with divisive promises and hope that gains the affection of the vulnerable and excluded, and builds their power base of the masses.

Populist regimes invariably end ignominiously in economic collapse riddled with lasting debt, endemic corruption and capital flight, followed by social protest and, hopefully, removal at the polls by the disgruntled populace they appealed to serve. The process of ridding the system is painfully slow. Ailments of misrule and economic mismanagement linger well beyond the time of the populists and their cronies.

But the cyclical demise seems to be accelerated when populists are confronted with a human health crisis of this magnitude, requiring decisive action. The result of emotive decisions are now clear for all to see, with a detrimental and fatal outcome.

The obvious blunders and mismanagement by Donald Trump and Boris Johnson aside, populists across the ideological spectrum, from Brazil to Mexico, Hungary to India, are proving incapable and ill-equipped to lead their countries through this crisis.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is one of a dwindling handful of leaders who continue to deny the threat posed by Covid-19. Initially suggesting the virus was a “media scam”, the right-wing former military officer insists it is nothing more than a “flu” that his administration will “handle like men”.

But Brazil’s Covid-19 numbers have spun out of control. Over the past six weeks, since global warnings came with severe precautions and sent most into lockdown, the number of infections in Brazil increased from 300 to almost 80,000. Covid-related deaths rose from fewer than 20 to 5,500 by the end of April.

Ordinary Brazilians are banging pots from their apartment windows in protest. State governors have defied federal laws, implementing their own version of localised lockdowns and social distancing in direct contradiction of Bolsonaro’s message. Former political allies have rendered their support and resignations, including Sérgio Moro, Brazil’s popular justice minister who led the country’s biggest corruption scandal, operation Car Wash. Moro, a key pin of credibility in the Bolsanoro administration, is the most recent and significant figure to leave the team.

Bolsonaro’s firing of Henrique Mandetta, Brazil’s trusted health minister, and Mauricio Valeixo, the chief of police, for publicly opposing the president’s response to the pandemic plummeted his popularity and may be the start of the unravelling of his presidency. Figures suggest that up to 50% of Brazilians surveyed favour Bolsonaro’s impeachment. While he has claimed immunity from the virus, his political popularity certainly is not. 

Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as Amlo, reacted in a similarly curious way to the Covid-19 onslaught. The left-wing political veteran ignored warnings, insisting on populist overtures of large rallies, embracing supporters and making fun of safety measures in defiant showmanship.

But as the numbers rose and the economy creaked, Amlo seemed to realise the recklessness of his actions. In late March, physical distancing measures were implemented and a state of emergency announced. But still, Amlo failed to take responsibility or show true leadership, having the ministry of health and his foreign minister make these announcements on his behalf. The result: a plummeting of his popularity to the lowest level since taking office in December 2018.

The leaders of India and Hungary acted in a similarly reckless fashion, but quickly spotted the opportunity in the disaster, reverting to drastic and unmeasured actions. While the number of infections and the death toll seem substantially lower in both countries, the draconian measures adopted are straight out of the populist playbook. 

The Indian government’s lethargic response to the virus seemed bizarre in a county so densely populated and prone to pandemics of this kind. After all, the Spanish ‘flu of 1918 may have started in Kansas, but most of its victims were in India, where 18.5 million lost their lives. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi then announced a sweeping “total ban” lockdown for India’s 1.35 billion people. With just four hours notice, this sent the country and the economy into panic. Migrant workers, a mainstay of the Indian economy, were stranded and physical distancing was impossible as citizens scrambled for supplies.

Modi’s mismanagement of the crises amid sluggish economic growth has taken the lustre off the populist appeal he once commanded. This has exposed massive gaps in India’s public health system, infrastructure and promised employment which populist policies have failed to address.

Meanwhile Victor Orbán of Hungary’s “coronavirus coup” invoked emergency powers, giving him the authority to rule by decree indefinitely. Initially, he too dismissed the threat, blaming it on foreigners as he has done in response to the mishaps resulting from his populist Orbanomics over the past decade.

Demonising the international community and controlling information is meant to distract Hungarians from faltering healthcare and mismanagement. Instead, it has drawn attention to the blunt disregard for democracy and power motive behind Orbán’s divisive populist rhetoric.

And, as the populists are stumbling, pragmatists around the world are demonstrating the type of leadership needed at a time like this. Martín Vizcarra in Peru and Sebastián Piñera in Chile have emerged from obscurity or protest, taking bold decisions that have boosted their popularity. Even Argentina’s newly elected Alberto Fernández, no stranger to populist politicking, has joined the ranks of pragmatic leaders in uniting Argentines behind his handling of the crisis. Such leadership has silenced the critics of a region that is seemingly doomed to populist failures. 

Further abroad, the leaders of Iceland, Taiwan, Denmark and New Zealand have demonstrated an approach and response that has yielded remarkable results so far. As opposed to the egotistical populism we have seen among some of the leading nations around the world, the pragmatic approach of these leaders has hinged on transparency, decisive action, the use of technology, and compassion. All these leaders happen to be women.

The reckless handling of Covid-19 will carry long-term consequences. Sadly, ordinary citizens and the most vulnerable will bear the brunt of the poor decisions and irresponsible actions of their leaders. But perhaps Covid-19 will gift us a leadership reset, to rediscover and redefine a liberal democracy that is fit for a new and inclusive post-Covid context. And, in so doing, finally rid us of divisive and destructive populism. DM

Professor Lyal White is the Senior Director of the Johannesburg Business School (JBS) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).


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