COVID lays bare the price of populism

Meyer also concluded that several populist leaders—including Bolsonaro in Brazil, Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, and Donald Trump in the United States—downplayed the crisis. Those same leaders have presided over some of the world’s worst outbreaks. “There is an overrepresentation of governments led by populist leaders among the worst performers” against COVID-19, Frenk told me, also citing the examples of Bolsonaro, López Obrador, and Trump. “I’m not saying it’s a cause-and-effect relationship,” he added, “but it’s hard to [find] any example of a country with a populist leader that has done well.” Frenk listed four common attributes of various populist leaders who have mishandled the pandemic: First, “the tendency to underestimate or dismiss expertise,” because “experts are considered part of the corrupt elites that the populist leader is going to defend people from”; second, “the distrust of science” and of the sort of “independent, critical thinking” that populist leaders with authoritarian inclinations dislike; third, the impulse to divide citizens between the “good people embodied by the populist leader” and “the corrupt elites,” even going so far as to politicize public-health measures such as mask wearing, rather than instilling in the public “a sense of shared destiny”; and fourth, the instinct to “trap themselves in a narrative” and then “refuse to acknowledge that they were wrong” and correct course, blaming others instead. The governments that have performed best against COVID-19, by contrast, have implemented policies “informed by science and by expertise and by political leaders who unify the country.”