This op-ed originally appeared in Barron’s on 6/30/20
A truth, rarely discussed, about the geopolitical risks posed by authoritarian leaders is that they are especially bad at managing crises. The U.S., Brazil, Russia, and India have the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the world. It is no coincidence that they are led each by populists who practice or at least admire authoritarianism. These leaders’ nativist political instincts have led to disastrous results as the Covid-19 pandemic intensifies and the global economy spirals deeper into recession. Without a scientific breakthrough, this populist wave may intensify as leaders exploit virus-driven outrage and inequity, people struggle to recover, and experts are pushed further to the periphery of policy.
The disparity between authoritarian hubris and expert advice shows up in the data. Taken together, these four countries are home to one-quarter of the world’s population, but nearly 50% of the global coronavirus cases. That shouldn’t be a surprise since coronavirus denial has been front and center of their policies. They have downplayed or outright ignored the dangers of its spread and extolled their own knowledge over the advice of experts—a classic authoritarian move according to researchers who study this phenomenon.
Early on U.S. President Donald Trump said the virus would simply disappear. He refuses to wear a mask despite his own staff and Secret Service becoming ill and has held rallies in Oklahoma and Arizona, where cases are spiking. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has also politicized wearing a mask and held rallies with little regard for the chaos it would cause. Asked about rising infections and deaths, he said, “So what?” And he fired two health ministers who had warned of the crisis. [continued]
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