Much to their frustration, the macho leaders in these countries find the virus immune to their playbooks. Fear, fear and propaganda just don’t work. Being led by science, communicating open and long-term planning proves the sharper tools.
Trump, Bolsonaro and Putin initially reduced the risk of the corona virus, experts say, even when they saw the overwhelming countries like Italy. Now they rush to appear in control, as the virus continues to transmit and kill, revealing their weaknesses.
Keep calm and continue
In Brazil, Bolsonaro not only suggested that the virus could never harm him, he made similar claims about Brazilians in general.
“Brazilians should be studied, we catch nothing. You see people jumping into wastewater, diving into it and nothing happening to them,” Bolsonaro said on March 26, as the number of cases in his country approached 3,000.
While Brazil took some early action, banned travelers from several affected countries and closed land borders, Bolsonaro has never supported the closure of businesses and schools and his government never issued any clear guidelines for states on how to implement social distance.
“As for the answer, he continues to deny the importance of the virus, he insists on still dismissing it – there has been no change in tone over time,” said Francisca Costa Reis, a research scientist focused on Brazil at the Leuven Center for the Study of global governance in Brussels.
“At least the US president now acknowledges that this is some kind of problem or problem. I don’t think Bolsonaro has really answered at all.”
The president has since appointed a military general with no background in medicine or public health, Eduardo Pazuello, as a temporary health minister to lead the response.
‘Everything is under control’
The story is a little different in Russia. The government there was not very slow to act. It closed its border with China on January 30, the day before it even reported its first two infections, and announced its closure measures when it had reported less than 700 infections.
But it was a mistake. Russia missed a number of infections that came to the country from Italy and other parts of Western Europe, and it has failed to prevent its hospitals from becoming hotbeds for the virus. Bad messages have also undone some of the gains from early efforts.
Putin’s language has been more saturated than Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s. He regularly requires caution, he describes the virus as a real threat and he does not deny the scientific facts about the virus. But he’s stuck with his old tactics, which are starting to catch fire.
In late March, he visited a newly built hospital to respond to the virus, dressed in a yellow hazmat suit, in a typical Putinesque PR stunt that was intended to show a vacant leader who toured part of a well-functioning health system.
But the visit gave the Russians some confidence. He was also photographed without being affected by his skin food and shaking hands with the hospital’s chief physician, who later tested positive for the virus. It only sparked speculation that the president had been infected and that he was isolated himself, as he gave addresses each week via video conference from his home.
A patchwork problem
Many of Putin’s problems are of his own making. Russia was expected to vote in a referendum that could have cemented Putin’s power by 2036, and some of his decisions seem aimed at securing victory in that poll, observers say.
Voting has been postponed by the virus, a change that has taken some of the wind out of Putin’s sail.
But the vote is still on the horizon, and the president seems to be trying to distance himself from the crisis in the meantime, delegating enforcement and facilitating lockdowns to local leaders.
There are good arguments for sharing power to the regions, but in the midst of success there have been failures. Putin announced, for example, extra money for frontline medical staff, but it simply did not reach everyone who would receive it.
The Russians in Moscow were soon seen grilling in parks, it was urgent to book vacations and many went out of the cities to their summer homes – all activities that only helped the virus spread farther across the country.
This paid vacation – which in practice was a “lockdown” – was extended several times. Putin demanded it end on May 12 and Moscow plans to ease the restrictions further on Monday. But the timing seems a bit behind. When restrictions were introduced, the case increased by about 1,000 infections per day. They now rise by about 10,000 daily and the Russians are told to come back to work.
“By delegating the crisis response to lower levels and not being clear in their own messages, Putin left people to design their own solutions in ways that they felt respond to what Putin probably wanted. That kind of experiment may be good, but is also meant to many mistakes were made, says Sam Greene, head of the Russian Institute at King’s College London.
“In some areas, there is endemic corruption and dysfunction. You could have known they dropped the ball. The investment will not get where it needed to go.”
The same kind of patchwork response plays out in the US and Brazil, and although it makes sense for different states to handle their outbreaks in different ways, governors have sometimes called for help with resources, such as testing and protective equipment, in a situation that calls for some centralized leadership .
The invincible “strongman”
While Germany’s response to the virus has been heavily based on science, Trump and Bolsonaro continue to deny it.
Just as Bolsonaro continues to show up at the rally, or when Putin shook hands with the head doctor at a hospital that treated coronavirus patients, Trump has repeatedly refused to wear a mask in public. For many weeks at the beginning of the outbreak, he also said he would continue to shake hands, against expert advice.
In Brazil, this attitude can have major consequences. Bolsonaro has had its Ministry of Health included hydroxychloroquine in its guidelines for hospitals to be used as treatment in mild coronavirus cases.
This ripple of scientific advice speaks to a false sense of invincibility often seen by autocratic leaders, according to the University of Amsterdam Alessandro Nai, who has authored a study on the personality traits of strong.
“Strong people tend to associate high confidence in themselves with impulsiveness, ignoring the consequences of their actions. This seems to create a persona of the ‘invincible and fearless leader’ who can solve problems of sheer willpower,” he said.
All information on cases and deaths is from Johns Hopkins University.
CNN’s Mary Ilyushina and Nathan Hodge reported from Moscow, Taylor Barnes reported from Atlanta and Maegan Vazquez reported from Washington, D.C. Visuals by CNN’s Gabrielle Smith.