Elected autocrats, their pandemic responses

In the U.S., India and Brazil, messianic populism, polarisation and insularity have made the pandemic that much worse

Updated - June 01, 2021 12:03 am IST

Published - June 01, 2021 12:02 am IST

A year and counting into the greatest health crisis the world has faced in over a century we can identify one overwhelming factor that separates the countries that have done relatively well from those that have been complete disasters: elected autocrats. By any measure the most dismal performers in the democratic world have been the United States, Brazil and India . Despite its vast wealth and resources and its low population density, the U.S. has one of the highest per capita death tolls in the world. Brazil has taken denialism to new levels and the novel coronavirus pandemic has been allowed to range so fiercely that the country has become a petri dish for new mutations. India’s first wave numbers were relatively mild (even accounting for underreporting) but the current wave is probably the worst and deadliest the world has seen.

The reactions

In all three cases it did not have to be this bad. Former U.S. President Donald Trump took the pandemic as a personal affront, initially refused to come to terms with the threat and wilfully downplayed the gravity of the pandemic. When Washington finally decided to take action, the response was crippled by policy incoherence, partisan attacks on Democratic Governors and open hostility to the scientific community.

Mr. Trump even provided a definition of his autocratic writ declaring in April 2020 that “when somebody’s the President of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it has got to be.”

Brazil’s right-wing populist President, Jair Bolsonaro, who came to office on a platform of being tough on crime and the politically correct, has been called the tropical Trump. He dismissed the pandemic as a “little cold”, boasted that real men had nothing to worry about, attacked public health officials as promoting a hoax and fired health ministers who defied him. Measures to combat the pandemic that have been taken in Brazil have come from governors and mayors and have been met with fierce opposition and public mockery from Mr. Bolsonaro.

Narendra Modi was never an outright COVID denier, and his government did take decisive measures, imposing a nation-wide lockdown in March 2020. But having failed to consult with experts or any of the Chief Ministers that govern India’s federal States, the welfare consequences of the lockdown were severe as tens of millions of urban migrants were forced into a mass exodus back to their villages. The pandemic subsided for some time, but even as experts warned of a second wave driven by new variants, the government celebrated its national triumph over the virus, dragged its feet on vaccinations and forged ahead with large-scale election campaign events and religious festivals even as the second wave surged. But of all the policy failures that have led to calls for the government to resign, none is more egregious or more revealing of Mr. Modi’s indifference than the Government’s decision to stay within its Budget allocations and charge States for vaccines. At the current rate, it will take the world’s largest producer of vaccines more than a year to vaccinate its population.

As elected autocrats, Mr. Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro and Mr. Modi have three things in common.

First, they came to power as classic right-wing populists who branded themselves as incarnations of the people and peddled their personal virtues of strength and fortitude as substitutes for deliberation and policy making. Rulers powered by messianic faith have little patience for experts and science. All three have surrounded themselves with yes-men and ruled from the gut, peddling triumphalism (all three prematurely declared the pandemic vanquished), quack remedies (injecting disinfectants, the waters of the Ganga) and sheer macho bombast, as when Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro took a lap for surviving infection even as they received the best care in the world.

The line of nationalism

Second, autocrats feed on polarisation. All three have championed a virtuous nationalism — rooted alternatively in evangelism in Brazil and the U.S., or Hindutva in India — animated and weaponised by the demonisation of the other. Ethnicised nationalism works by demoting the “other” — Muslims, Blacks, immigrants, gays, secularists and all those who subscribe to ideals of civic nationalism — to the status of the undeserving and the morally deficient. Membership in the community of the nation is essentialised. Mr. Trump demonised immigrants, channelled white supremacy and stoked fears of Blacks invading suburbs. Mr. Bolsonaro routinely smears his opponents as banditos or communists and has a long track record of making homophobic and misogynistic remarks. Mr. Modi has a long record of debasing India’s 200 million Muslims, and when re-elected in 2019, doubled down on his party’s platform of making India a Hindutva project, first by turning Kashmir (India’s only Muslim majority State) into a militarised colony of the central government and then pursuing laws that are perceived by Muslims as according them second class citizenship status. In diverse societies, ethno-nationalism can only fuel social polarisation, and a polarised society is a society that cannot mobilise the trust and solidarity that responding to a pandemic calls for.

The pandemic itself was shamelessly used to inflame identities, with Mr. Trump denouncing the ‘Kung Flu’, Mr. Modi’s minions raising the spectre of ‘corona jihad’, and Mr. Bolsonaro hurling homophobic slurs at mask wearers. More than anything else, this explains why the most common sensical public health measures — wearing masks, restricting social interaction, testing and getting vaccinated — all became so politicised in the U.S., India and Brazil.

Third, once in power, the autocrats quickly personalised, centralised and insulated their power. All three have attacked the Constitution (literally in Mr. Trump’s case), demanded fealty from independent institutions, over-ridden the authority of expert institutions, tampered with data, assaulted the independence of the media, and elevated loyalty to the leader as the highest principle of service. This autocratisation explains the dismal failures of governance. The core tasks of a government in times of a pandemic — coordination across levels of government, clear and consistent communication of basic policies and health measures, support for frontline workers and maybe, most importantly, rallying all citizens to stand together — have all been subverted by the autocrats’ will to power.

A pushback

In the U.S., India and Brazil, this toxic combination of messianic populism, social polarisation, insularity and centralisation has made the pandemic that much worse and poisoned the waters of democracy. But democracies are not just about their leaders. Throughout the crisis, health-care workers and civil society organisations have stepped up where their leaders have failed, and democratic institutions have pushed back. Mr. Trump has been exposed by the media and shown the exit by the voters. The Brazilian Senate has launched a very public investigation into Mr. Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic and his poll numbers have plummeted. Mr. Modi has just been repudiated in State-level elections and the Indian Supreme Court has called out the incoherence of the government’s vaccine policy. But to take comfort in the hope that democracies will demand accountability, we must first remember, as the pandemic continues to ravage India and Brazil, that it is not only the virus, but also the hubris of autocrats, that kills.

Patrick Heller is Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, Brown University, U.S.

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