Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro find their populist playbooks are no match for coronavirus

Updated 11:09 AM ET, Sun May 31, 2020

(CNN)The coronavirus pandemic could have been a moment of glory for the world's populist leaders. This is a period of heightened fear and anxiety — emotions that typically allow them to thrive.

Instead, some populists are finding themselves powerless against the outbreaks ravaging their countries. The US, Brazil and Russia now have the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, and as their death tolls continue to rise, their economies are taking devastating blows.
Much to their frustration, the macho leaders of these countries are finding the virus immune to their playbooks. Intimidation, fear-mongering and propaganda just aren't working. Being guided by science, communicating transparently and long-term planning are proving the sharper tools.
US President Donald Trump has turned to a favorite weapon, Twitter, to try to place blame for his country's situation on China, tout unproven drugs and pressure governors to reopen states. But his blustering tweets and attempts to intimidate haven't stopped the virus.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has pulled his usual PR stunts to project the image of a leader in control, but the country's spiraling infection numbers show the virus has eluded his grasp. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's false message that the virus is "a little flu" that poses no real threat is falling flat, as cases now rise by as many as 20,000 a day. Brazil hasn't even reached its projected peak.
Trump, Bolsonaro and Putin all initially downplayed the risk of the coronavirus, experts say, even as they watched it overwhelm nations like Italy. Now, they are scrambling to appear in control, as the virus keeps transmitting and killing, exposing their weaknesses.

Keep calm and carry on

The denial of the coronavirus as a threat by the presidents in the US and Brazil inevitably led to foot-dragging in their governments. The consequences are serious — models are now emerging that show how swift action can save lives. A Columbia University model, for example, shows that if the US had imposed social distancing one week before authorities called for it, 36,000 lives could have been saved. The US' death toll is now more than 100,000.
Like Bolsonaro, Trump continually dismissed the virus as similar to the flu, and repeatedly assured Americans that things were "under control" in the early months of the year. When it became clear they weren't, Trump still signaled that everything would be OK.
"This was unexpected. ... And it hit the world. And we're prepared, and we're doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away," he said on March 10, as the number of US cases approached 1,000.
US President Donald Trump, left, listens as infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks at a coronavirus briefing at the White House on March 21.
While the US imposed some travel restrictions early, beginning with banning flights to and from China from February 2, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only issued its first social distancing guidance on March 15. Just six weeks later, the country surpassed 1 million infections."Downplaying the virus was in defiance of all the evidence that we had from China, and then European nations, about what the effects could be. It unquestionably contributed to a weaker public health response. It has been left to local leaders to pick up the slack," William Hanage, an epidemiologist from Harvard University, told CNN.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro not only implied that the virus would never be able to hurt him, he made similar claims about Brazilians in general.
"Brazilians should be studied, we don't catch anything. You see people jumping in sewage, diving in it and nothing happens to them," Bolsonaro said on March 26, as the number of cases in his country approached 3,000.
While Brazil took some early action, banning travelers from several affected countries and closing land borders, Bolsonaro has never supported closing businesses and schools and his government never issued any clear guidelines for states on how to implement social distancing.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro waving at supporters at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on May 24.
In fact, the President has repeatedly undermined local leaders' restrictions, even joining regular anti-lockdown rallies, often without a mask, shaking hands with people and hugging children.
"In terms of the response, 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 doctoral researcher focusing on Brazil at the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies in Brussels.
"At least the President of the US now recognizes this is some sort of an issue or a problem. I don't think Bolsonaro has really responded at all."
And like Trump, Bolsonaro's lax attitude toward the virus has caused rifts and chaos within his government. In April, he fired his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, one of Brazil's biggest proponents of social distancing. A second health minister, Nelson Teich, recently quit, after criticizing Bolsonaro's decree ordering beauty salons and gyms to reopen.
The President has since appointed a military general with no background in medicine or public health, Eduardo Pazuello, as an interim health minister to lead the response.

'Everything is under control'

The story is a little different in Russia. The government there wasn't particularly slow to act. It closed its border with China on January 30, the day before even reporting its first two infections, and announced its lockdown measures when it had was reporting less than 700 infections.
putin quote
But there were mistakes. Russia missed a number of infections coming into the country from Italy and other parts of western Europe, and it has failed to stop its hospitals from becoming hotbeds for the virus. Poor messaging has also undone some of the gains from early interventions.
In the early stages of Russia's outbreak, Putin told his people the situation was "under control," and back then, it seemed it was. Russia enjoyed the whole month of February without reporting a single new infection, although questions have been raised over whether the country was dismissing some coronavirus cases as pneumonia. It wasn't until March 2 that its two cases officially became three.
Putin's language has been more measured than Trump's and Bolsonaro's. He regularly calls for caution, he describes the virus as a real threat, and he doesn't deny the scientific facts of the virus. But he has stuck to his old tactics, which are beginning to backfire.
In late March, he visited a newly built hospital to respond to the virus, wearing a yellow hazmat suit, in a typically Putinesque PR stunt that was supposed to show an unruffled leader touring part of a well-operating health system.
But the visit gave Russians little confidence. He was also photographed without his hazmat suit off, shaking hands with the hospital's head doctor, who later tested positive for the virus. It only raised speculation that the President had been infected, and that he was self-isolating, as he gave weekly addresses via videoconference from his home.