Mar 23, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus tests world leaders like never before

Illustration of a man in a suit carrying the earth on his back

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In the coming months, the decisions world leaders make — and their ability to communicate them effectively — could determine whether millions live or die, and whether the global economy stays afloat.

What to watch: Nations are judging their leaders on a daily basis. They may ultimately be revered or reviled based on the decisions they make now. Some may emerge with new powers that last well beyond the outbreak.

The big picture: The battle against the coronavirus has effectively been every nation for itself.

  • That’s just how President Trump likes it — few expect him to play the global leadership role that past U.S. presidents have assumed in international crises.

Even in Europe, now the focal point of the pandemic, individual countries are charting their own paths.

  • For Germany's Angela Merkel, this is the gravest test in a career full of them — prompting her first emergency national address in 14 years as chancellor.
  • For other leaders, the test comes far earlier, and it could define their tenures.

Italy's Giuseppe Conte was until recently viewed by many as an accidental prime minister who could fall within months. Now tasked with combating the world’s deadliest outbreak, he was the first EU leader to quarantine his citizens — and he's seen the public largely rally around the government and tune out the far-right.

  • U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson quickly abandoned his less draconian approach after cases rose dramatically and models suggested hundreds of thousands could die. He announced strict new rules tonight after being criticized in the media as indecisive.
  • President Emmanuel Macron declared that France was now “at war,” and he's seen an unprecedented spike in approval ratings this month (from 38% to 51%) as he ordered a nationwide lockdown.

The first lockdowns came in China, but those drastic steps followed a slow initial response in which President Xi Jinping was shielded from public scrutiny.

  • Believing it’s now past the worst, though, China is positioning itself (and Xi) as a global leader.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hopes to avoid a crisis on the scale of China's or Europe's.

  • Modi ordered a trial run of a national lockdown on Sunday. He's urging Indians to stay home when possible, knowing the country’s health care capacity lags far behind its population of 1.3 billion.
  • Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan initially attempted to tamp down concern about the virus. He’s now asking citizens to self-quarantine, but he says he needs to balance the threat of contagion with those of poverty and hunger, which lockdowns will only exacerbate.

In Africa, several leaders have closed their borders and banned mass gatherings despite having few documented cases.

  • South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has declared a “national disaster” in the face of the continent’s largest outbreak. 
  • Some of Africa’s more autocratic leaders may sense a chance “to entrench themselves, delay elections, and outlaw street protests on public safety grounds,” says Judd Devermont of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Russia's Vladimir Putin recently insisted the situation there was “generally under control,” while attempting to boost turnout in a constitutional referendum through which he could retain power until 2036.

Those who moved quickly, such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, now look prescient. Even those who initially downplayed the threat, like the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte, have stepped up their rhetoric and policy responses.

  • One exception is Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. He’s shaking hands, taking selfies and warning against “hysteria” — even after members of his inner circle fell ill.
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is also still holding public rallies and encouraging supporters to hug. His job, he says, is to keep people’s spirits up.

No one could accuse Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of downplaying this crisis. Instead, he's been accused of using it to cling to power and delay his corruption trial.

  • Netanyahu has taken emergency measures — including allowing the government to monitor cellphones to track the spread of the virus — without parliamentary oversight.
  • Israel is not alone. China has used apps to bar people exposed to the virus from leaving their homes. Russia says it will soon roll out a system to track infected people and notify those exposed to them.
  • South Korea and Taiwan, two democracies that have been praised for their responses to the outbreak, have also used location tracking. Singapore has a particularly high-tech approach.

The big picture: Muscular government actions, from travel bans to quarantines, have thus far proved popular among populations looking for protection, Anne Applebaum writes in The Atlantic.

  • Even as Hungary’s government moved to give Prime Minister Viktor Orbán “dictatorial powers … for an indefinite period of time,” she notes, the opposition feared appearing unpatriotic by objecting.

What to watch: Historian Yuval Harari warns in the FT that governments won't willingly give back the powers they've gained once this crisis is over.

"Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies."
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