The so-called “Strong Men” of the world, Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, and Jair Bolsonaro, who seem to admire each other quite a lot, have something else in common as well. They are the head of states of the countries that have topped in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths related to it, i.e India, USA, and Brazil.
The mishandling of the COVID crisis by the three leaders is not a coincidence but is a product of the brute capitalism espoused by these leaders. The capitalist economic model followed by these countries has left the public health system in shambles, totally unprepared to deal with a pandemic, and has left people to die on the streets if they cannot afford treatment.
A public crisis situation requires a humane and empathetic approach that has people’s interests at the forefront. Instead, these three leaders are known for being unscientific megalomaniacs who blame the opposition or marginalized communities for any crisis that befalls the country. So it is no surprise that these three countries have been most affected by COVID-19.
COVID-19 has only exposed the mask of majoritarian concern that these leaders had put on and shown them as what they actually are- chest-thumping, incompetent leaders.
The Rise of Modi, Trump, and Bolsonaro
The trajectory of Modi, Trump, and Bolsonaro also follows the last stage of global capitalism where the capitalist forces of the world need to make their biggest loot before the already rotten system collapses. The system needs these self aggrandising figures who are masters of gimmickry and can trick people into believing that they are being taken care of, even as the ground beneath them is pulled away.
These puppet figures see a drastic rise in their status within a short period of time through the pumping of large sums of money and media manipulation, and hijack the inherent contradictions in capitalist society to create majoritarian victimhood.
Narendra Modi, who has been a part of the RSS since he was 8 years old, had his term as CM of Gujarat marked by a pogrom in which thousands of Muslims were killed by Hindu mobs, with police participation and Modi’s tacit approval. His two terms as Prime Minister have been marked by widespread violence against Muslims and Dalits, brutal repression on dissent, massive inequality, privatisation, corporate control, and so on.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was received in a much different way from that of Modi. He was a television personality and businessman, known for his ridiculous comments, and was a popular target for comedic mimicry. It came as a surprise to progressive Americans when he won the 2016 presidential race. Since then, he has sustained his racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, especially targeting Mexicans and Muslims, passing stringent anti-immigration laws, implementing tax cuts, and drastically reducing social security measures such as insurance.
Jair Bolsonaro made himself known for being a strong opponent to social welfare, secularism, homosexuality, abortion rights, and so on as a member of the lower Congress. Advocating strengthening of relations with the US and Israel, and protection of traditional family values, Bolsonaro ran for the presidency in 2019 as part of the Social Liberal Party, and won with over 55% of the vote. Since coming to power, Bolsonaro has left the party. A major focus of his term has been rolling back on the provisions that protected the Amazon rainforests and the indigenous people living there, extreme homophobia, praise of Pinochet’s dictatorial regime, and the elimination of communists.
Disregard for Scientific Measures to Prevent COVID-19
Modi, Trump, and Bolsonaro have all shown a disregard for scientific preventive measures, instead focusing on gimmicks or ignoring the crisis completely.
Although Modi implemented one of the most extensive and strictest lockdowns in the world, it has been criticised as being unscientific, since the time bought by the lockdown was not used to implement other measures such as conducting comprehensive contact tracing, scaling up testing, preparing medical infrastructure, and effectively communicating with the people. Lockdown in India became part of the Modi’s ever-growing vanity project. With his penchant for dictatorial leadership, he implemented the first phase of the lockdown with a notice of just four hours, giving rise to widespread panic, and causing a migrant crisis where hundreds died while travelling by foot across states, of hunger, from police violence, or committing suicide from distress. Modi paid more attention to gimmicks to serve his own cult of personality, commanding the people of the country to perform tricks, testing their loyalty to him irrespective of whether what they were doing made any sense.
Meanwhile, Trump led a personal crusade against the wearing of masks, vowing to not force Americans to wear masks even as many states passed laws mandating mask-wearing in public. He has also appointed right-wing conservatives into the FDA, pushing the body to authorize scientifically dubious treatments and authorize vaccines before the elections without completing trials, much like Modi who has made the promise of vaccines a major part of all his speeches.
Bolsonaro’s administration meanwhile was accused of downplaying the number of cases, and Bolsonaro himself claimed that COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the common flu. He has also said that protective masks were “coisa de viado” (a homophobic slur that roughly translates to “for fairies”).
Failing Public Healthcare System
One of the earliest decisions the Modi government took after coming to power was to elevate the Department of Indian medicine and homeopathy to the status of a Ministry, known as AYUSH. The AYUSH Ministry, which received a budgetary allocation of Rs 1,739 crore for 2019-20 issued guidelines advising people to consume homeopathic drugs and herbs without any scientific link to COVID-19.
Private hospitals in the country have been charging people thousands and even lakhs of rupees for COVID-19 treatment, actively flouting price caps enforced by various state governments. Meanwhile, the state of the public healthcare system is dismal. Spending just over 1% of the GDP on healthcare, India’s healthcare system is one of the most underfunded ones in the world. According to a report on the New Frame, India has just 0.11 hospital beds per 1000 people in 12 major states, there is a nationwide shortage of 600,000 doctors and two million nurses, and about 90% of India’s poorest do not have any form of health insurance.
Bernie Sanders, whose presidential campaign focused on universal free healthcare among other welfare measures has pointed out the dismal state of healthcare in the US. Although the US government spends twice as much as other developed countries, healthcare remains ridiculously expensive and inaccessible as the government refuses to regulate private healthcare companies. Tying insurance to employment has further endangered the lives of nearly 87 million uninsured people, and will endanger many more, as COVID-19 creates a new wave of unemployment.
Although the Constitution of Brazil guarantees universal free health coverage, the state of public healthcare systems has been declining under Bolsonaro’s mismanagement. Since the COVID-19 crisis, Bolsonaro has had to appoint a Minister of Health twice, as he officeholders resigned in response to Brazil’s exponential growth in cases. In the department, Bolsonaro has placed at least 25 members of the military, with no prior experience in public health. A cadre of healthcare professionals have filed a complaint in the International Court of Justice against President Bolsonaro stating that his handling of the crisis (or lack thereof) is akin to “genocide”.
Finding Scapegoats to Distract from Covid Failures
The mismanagement of Modi, Trump, and Bolsonaro relies on the manufacturing of distractions and scapegoats to escape accountability for the crisis at hand.
Modi has made sure to distract the people of the country from the pandemic by scapegoating and blaming Muslims. A media campaign to vilify Muslims was launched after the Tablighi Jamaat congregation, with Muslims being tracked and criminalised, harassed, and abused by the police and local communities irrespective of whether they attended the congregation. Fake news was spread about Muslims waging a ‘Corona Jihad’. All of this provided a welcome distraction from the lack of government response to COVID-19 in terms of treatment and social security.
Meanwhile, Trump decided to zero in on China as the scapegoat on whom to blame its own mismanagement of the pandemic. Giving COVID-19 names such as ‘kung flu’, ‘chinese flu’, and ‘chinese virus’, Trump’s response to the pandemic was focused on blaming China for intentionally spreading the disease. This easily morphed into his election promise to decouple the US economy from China. For Trump, China became a catch-all term for all problems, with even political opponent Biden representing Chinese interests. Trump has since then banned Chinese apps in the country, and attempted multiple times to interfere in India-China relations. This distraction strategy is an effective way to capture the attention of the average ‘red scare’ driven White American who is inherently suspicious and antagonistic towards China.
Bolsonaro who called COVID-19 a mere “cold”, blaming the media for spreading fake news, suddenly began to mass produce two drugs with no proven ability to cure COVID-19, hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, as the one-stop solution to the pandemic. In a letter to Modi, Bolsonaro likened India’s supply of HCQ to Brazil to Hanuman finding medicine in the Ramayana. Meanwhile, video footage of a cabinet meeting showed Bolsonaro’s Environment Minister suggesting that they use the pandemic as a distraction so that the government can relax regulations and environmental standards on the exploitation of the Amazon.
Modi, Trump, and Bolsonaro, the three leaders who have come to power on grandiose promises of singlehandedly making their countries great again have now been exposed for the failures that their regimes are. Perhaps the COVID-19 crisis will push the people of India, USA, and Brazil to see these leaders for who they really are, and demand public representatives who actually work for the wellbeing of the people.