Harsh lessons for fair-weather leaders

Demagogues everywhere are paying a price for hoodwinking their people.

In these harsh, fraught, testing times we are being asked to look into our lives and our hearts as never before.

The thousands of Indigenous Australians who crowded into city streets and parks at the weekend, joined by Australians of all colours and creeds, broke social distancing rules not because they’re irresponsible, as finance minister Mathias Cormann alleges, but because they are angry.

Rightly so. Like all black Americans they have endured racism for centuries. Hundreds of them have died in police custody in the 29 years since an official inquiry found gaping flaws in the way the law treats them. Who has the right to condemn their response, pandemic or no pandemic?

Those of us of European stock are in no position to decry a crowd’s removal of a slave-trader’s statue in England, or a US state’s plan to remove a statue of a slave owners’ champion. Such statues should have disappeared long ago. They should never have gone up in the first place.

COVID-19 is teaching us things, too. In hibernation we see things in a different light. Political posturing, partisanship, the endless daily chatter about growth and surpluses and corporate profits, all now seem more than a little frivolous and pointless, if not ridiculous.

We are seeing governments tested in fundamental ways, and found wanting. In China, where the virus first emerged, the delayed response of president Xi Jinping led to a lot of pain for those at the epicentre, Wuhan, and ultimately a lot of damage to this powerhouse economy.

While each of Europe’s four biggest countries – Germany, France, Italy and Spain – has been severely hit, efficient testing by the Germans under Angela Merkel has held deaths to a fraction of those in each of the other three, all led by men.

But for ineptitude, none of those countries mentioned above holds a candle to the island nation that in 2016 voted to leave Europe. A would-be Great Britain started with much lower pandemic numbers than the others; now its toll in both infections and deaths exceeds them all.

Except when ill with the virus Boris Johnson has led the UK’s incoherent pandemic response. At first he embraced the idea of herd immunity, then switched to lockdowns and social distancing and eventually closed borders before – against medical advice – allowing people to return to work.

A pandemic demands honesty and openness in government. Johnson won power by other means entirely, by sowing division, bigotry, fear and distrust. But as a demagogue, he’s small fry compared to two leaders across the Atlantic.

When he hasn’t ignored it altogether, Brazil’s strongman Jair Bolsonaro has treated the virus as a joke. Spreading like an Amazon wildfire across his vast country it has left hospitals in disarray and health workers in despair, and forced mass burials on a vast scale.

In the United States, for the most part, severe cases have not completely engulfed the system. But in every other respect the US, fast closing on two million cases and 120,000 deaths, leads the world.

Put that down to demagogue-in-chief Donald Trump, who until recently has been able to enjoy his golf with minimal distraction. For three years the stock market has kept rising and the economy, while not in the China league, has managed to stay in the black.

The pandemic caught him utterly unprepared. That was true everywhere, but Trump has proven especially inept in managing its special demands, along with Johnson, Bolsonaro and fair-weather leaders everywhere (including Russia’s Vladimir Putin).

The angry street protests over George Floyd’s death in the hands of Minneapolis police set up a perfect storm for Trump, whose prejudices blind him to the dangers of racism just as his know-it-all attitude to scientific advice leaves him floundering in the face of the pandemic.

Needing a small miracle to win in November the president is opting for a narrative about law-and-order (or as he put it on Twitter, LAW & ORDER), in which the villains will be those against troops on US streets. When people need to come together he’s busy dividing them – an ominous prospect as the campaign ramps up.

Who can explain why, faced with the same pandemic, our own prime minister didn’t follow a similar path? Perhaps it was memory of a nagging mum telling young Scott to wash his hands and listen to the doctor. Or maybe he learned something from the hostility of fire victims last summer.

Whatever it was, Scott Morrison heeded the experts, and responded. That has been his finest hour.

•POSTSCRIPT: After writing this I came across a little ray of sunshine, a wonderful story about life under lockdown in Detroit, posted in weekly episodes. Find it by googling “humantouch”.

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