Boris Johnson, the prime minister of Britain, on Friday announced that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. In a brief video released on Twitter, he shared the basics: Having developed “mild symptoms — that’s to say, a temperature and a persistent cough” — he underwent testing and received the bad news. He will now be “self-isolating” until the illness has run its course.
Looking mostly healthy, if typically disheveled, Mr. Johnson stressed that he would continue to “lead the national fightback” from his home via teleconferencing. He urged the British public to abide by the three-week lockdown put into place on Monday. The more effectively people stick with social distancing, the faster the nation and its National Health Service will “bounce back,” he said, before closing with the plea, “Stay at home, protect the N.H.S. and save lives.”
It was a responsible, no-drama message. If only the prime minister had displayed such leadership sooner, he — and who knows how many others — might have been spared this illness.
Instead, Mr. Johnson’s handling of the crisis has borne an unsettling resemblance to that of President Trump. He was slow to recognize the risks, taking a mid-February holiday with his pregnant fiancée at his country home. Even after the virus became impossible to ignore, he remained glib and dismissive, as his government dithered and failed to put together a coherent response.
In early March, Mr. Johnson suggested that the best course of action would be for Britain to “take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures.” This, he explained, would create a sort of “herd immunity” that would protect the population as a whole.
Um, maybe. But not without killing untold numbers of people first. The plan was quickly recognized as bonkers and scrapped, and Mr. Johnson moved to embrace a more conventional path of containment and social distancing.
Policy planning aside, Mr. Johnson’s use of the bully pulpit has been an abject disaster. “The best thing you can do is to wash your hands with soap and hot water while singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice,” he said at a March 3 news conference. “We should all basically just go about our normal daily lives,” he urged, before chuckling about how he had been running around shaking hands willy-nilly. This prompted a cheeky scribe for The Guardian to call the prime minister “the U.K.’s own super-spreader.”
Such macho swagger would be hilarious if the repercussions weren’t so lethal. Who knows how many people Mr. Johnson infected with his blithe ignorance, including potentially his fiancée.
Mr. Johnson is far from the only bad role model of the moment. Mr. Trump, of course, has been trumpeting, and indulging in, even more reckless behavior. Until the past couple of days, his news briefings were a case study in poor social distancing, with officials crammed together for the cameras. Not so long ago, he was boasting of how he wasn’t bothering to protect himself from germs and was, like Mr. Johnson, still out there slapping palms with the people.
As the death toll has skyrocketed and the economy has crashed, Mr. Trump, a well-known germaphobe, appears to have started taking his own safety more seriously. He even agreed to get tested after aggressively dismissing the idea. But he has grown, if anything, more cavalier about the lives of the American public. His suggestion that the country can get back to business by mid-April is delusional, and his call for people to pack the churches on Easter Sunday, April 12, is demented.
So far, Mr. Trump has avoided paying a personal price for his recklessness. Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, has not been as lucky. Last weekend, Mr. Paul became the first senator to test positive for the coronavirus. He is unlikely to be the last — in part because in the six days between when he was tested, on March 16, and when his results came back positive, Mr. Paul strutted around Capitol Hill, shedding pathogens left and right. He lunched with his colleagues. He held forth on the Senate floor. He breathed all over unsuspecting aides, worked out in the Senate gym and swam in the Senate pool. The United States’ own super-spreader.
And this is before you factor in the fact that Mr. Paul was the lone “no” vote on the first coronavirus relief bill, and he was the guy who delayed passage of the second relief bill to push his pet concerns.
It also bears mentioning that Mr. Paul’s father, the former congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul, has been among those pushing the notion that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax.
As has often been noted, the Senate is a high-risk population for Covid-19, with nearly half of its members age 65 or over. Mr. Paul’s selfish negligence has already compelled two of his Republican colleagues to self-quarantine, Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney of Utah. The potential exposure of Mr. Romney — who tested negative — was particularly disturbing, since his wife suffers from multiple sclerosis.
But Mr. Paul put the entire chamber at risk, and by extension the entire nation, which is relying on lawmakers to help guide it through this nightmare. Rather than express regret, however, Mr. Paul has belligerently defended himself against all the “finger wagging.” In an op-ed for USA Today he whined that he never met the criteria for testing or quarantine, so he doesn’t see why everybody is so angry. But he did get tested. He just couldn’t be bothered with the quarantine part until after he got smacked in the face with the results.
Then there’s Jair Bolsanaro, the president of Brazil, who continues to out-Trump even Mr. Trump with his poor example. Nearly two dozen people who traveled with Mr. Bolsanaro to meet with Mr. Trump in Florida this month have tested positive for the virus. There were initially reports that Mr. Bolsanaro has tested positive as well, which he and his family later disputed. Mr. Bolsanaro seems to have taken his near miss as license to dismiss the pandemic as “a little flu.”
Even as Brazil leads Latin America in both confirmed cases of and deaths from the virus, Mr. Bolsanaro has railed against social distancing as “mass confinement” and called on people to go back to their regular routines. He has blamed the media for fueling “hysteria.” He has continued to shake hands with people and says he has no concerns for his own heath, despite being, at age 65, at increased risk of complications. “In my particular case, with my history as an athlete, if I were infected by the virus, I wouldn’t need to worry,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel anything or, if very affected, it would be like a little flu or little cold.”
Brazil’s minister of health has warned that the nation’s health system could collapse by the end of next month, and the nation’s governors are struggling mightily to manage the situation on the ground, even as their president makes that job significantly harder.
It’s a depressing echo of what many American state and local leaders are facing. As governors of hard-hit states — such as Gavin Newsom of California, Jay Inslee of Washington and Andrew Cuomo of New York — labor to provide guidance and keep their residents safe, they are battling not only the virus but also the muddled messaging and stutter-step relief efforts coming from the White House.
Weak leadership, it turns out, is its own form of devastating pandemic.
Michelle Cottle is a member of the editorial board.