“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx


COVID-19 Crisis Exposes Fatal Weaknesses of 'Strong' Leaders

Many believe that the solution to all problems is a single, strong leader. A leader who is sure of his intentions, who does not get tired of saying that he is not going to bow before anyone. One who will defeat every opponent and, most importantly, who is a patriot above all others who can identify every traitor.

These days, there is no shortage of such leaders the world over. A few years ago those leaders were extolled who talked about world peace and strengthening democracy; now these values are being abjured. It is now believed that such leaders are unnecessarily lenient and the drum roll is for "strong leaders".

The Corona crisis is the right time to evaluate the contribution of some such "strong" leaders. Have they been able to deal with this crisis? If so, we should really appreciate their strength. But if not, then we should examine what use-or whose use-their strength is being put to.   

Think about the three strong leaders who come immediately to mind in today's context. All three have very good relations with those who run the levers of power in this country, so people would also certainly be curious about how they have performed.  

The first is Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, whom our countrymen know little about, though he was the special guest of our government-and all of us-at the Republic Day parade on 26 January. Let us forget for a moment what is said about him and review instead his attitude during the time when a Covid-19 epidemic was looming on the horizon. Then there's British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He got a by-election conducted on the Brexit question and also secured a very firm victory in it. The Opposition Labour Party opposed India's CAA-NRC-NPR triad before that election. Naturally, India's government could not bear this opposition and persons of Indian origin in Britain, who support this government, poured their hearts and their resources into making Johnson win. The third is Donald Trump-the President of the United States. Trump has an affinity for our Prime Minister, and Narendra Modi and his government spent all of February preparing to receive him in India.  

These three strong leaders share many characteristics.  

All three refused to take the Covid-19 threat seriously. On 24 March, when more than a thousand positive cases had been reported in Brazil, and more than 100 people had died, Bolsonaro, addressed his nation. He told his people that all the talk about quarantines and travel restrictions was nonsense. He asked his citizens to return to work and school. All the while, his own Ministry of Health advised him to the contrary. Still Bolsonaro said that it is not necessary to maintain physical distancing and added that the virus is not fatal, but only a "small flu". A few weeks later, on 17 April, Bolsonaro sacked his Health Minister and installed in the post a new minister who has business interests in private healthcare institutions. Bolsonaro then insisted that it was more important to keep industry running than to impose restrictions due to the spread of the Coronavirus.  

Certainly it is a result of this strong leader's attitude that, to date, there have been 54,043 cases of Covid-19 reported in Brazil and 3,704 have died.  

Following his landslide victory, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson went on a vacation. When he returned, the first case of Covid-19 had surfaced in China. But this news did not have any significant impact on him. He started preparing for the expansion of his Cabinet and celebrations for leaving Brexit. The first positive case turned up in England on 29 January. The number of cases kept escalating but they did not add to Johnson's worries; and on 3 February he delivered a speech in which he exhorted people to not succumb to the growing threat of Covid-19, and insisted that it is the economic situation that needed to be worked out. Through February, particularly among the elderly, the scourge of this virus escalated. But on 7 March Johnson went to watch the England vs Wales rugby match and shook hands with everybody there. Not only this. He said that he will shake hands to demonstrate exactly how this disease will be tackled. After this, two and a half lakh racing enthusiasts were also allowed to participate in a festival.  

News of the deaths from Coronavirus also started coming in on the same day. A few days later, the Health Minister of England himself fell ill with Covid-19. Now the attitude of the government changed a bit, but a lot of time had already been wasted. England’s magnificent National Health Services (NHS) has been weakened by successive governments, who had strongly preferred the privatisation of health services. The result is that there are not enough materials or resources at hand to deal with this epidemic. As the cases piled up day by day, it became impossible to treat them. Johnson’s pregnant girlfriend fell ill too, and on 27 March, Johnson himself tested positive for Covid-19-and had to resort to the same NHS that his party had started hollowing out decades ago. So far, Johnson has not been able to return to his job but he has had to admit that the NHS saved his life. At the time of writing this article, a total of 1,43,464 people have contracted Covid-19 in England, out of which 19,506 have died.  

America is the wealthiest and powerful country in the world. Its forces are deployed on military bases all around the world. It has enough weapons and military equipment to destroy the entire planet. Even President Trump never tires of proclaiming himself the most powerful and influential leader in the world. But the dawn of the Coronavirus crisis has unceremoniously torn the veil that covered all the fatal weaknesses of the system-of uncontrolled capitalism-that Trump serves with full force and which props up his bravado.  

Just like Bolsonaro, Trump also adopted a non-scientific attitude towards the Corona crisis. In the first week of March, when 149 Corona cases had been reported and 11 people had died, he continued to minimise the severity of the crisis before the public. His experts repeatedly said that there was a need to increase testing, but Trump kept repeating to his countrymen a dream of a magical vaccine that is going to be ready soon. On 6 March, Anthony Fauci of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) told Trump at a meeting that it could take 18 months for a vaccine for Coronavirus to be ready. Trump retorted that he would have liked if Fauci had said it would take just about a few months. In a speech the same day, Trump told the American public that the vaccine would be available very soon.  

Covid-19 positive cases, and deaths, continued to climb throughout the US in March. Trump's response continued to be very strange. First he made wild accusations against China and started calling Corona a "Chinese virus". He hinted that China may have hatched a conspiracy to spread the virus. At the same time, he intensified his attacks on immigrants coming into America to such an extent that by the time American states were demanding federal funds to deal with the pandemic 27,000 Americans had already died of the virus. Now Trump handed over a contract worth $500,000,000 [one-and-a-half times what had been spent by his own regime thus far] to build 25 kilometres of the wall that is being constructed between the US and Mexico, to a politically-connected company.  

Not only this, because of his bizarre way of thinking, when the United States had the highest number of cases and its death toll from Corona was the highest in the world, Trump continued to direct people, overtly or covertly, to move around freely and decried any restrictions on industries and business. Last week there were strong demonstrations against the existing restrictions in three American states led by Democratic Party governors. Protesters were even seen bearing weapons and they raised loud provocative slogans. Long queues of vehicles piled up on the roads, honking their horns, demanding restrictions be lifted. The protesters were Trump's supporters, who had organised themselves for these agitations openly on social media platforms.  

Christian fundamentalist supporters of Trump also attended these protests. One held the banner that said, "Jesus is the vaccine". Trump made two kinds of interventions in the aftermath of these demonstrations. On the one hand, he called for people to fight for freedom. On the other hand, he talked about how to deal with the Corona pandemic. But he and his ideology and those who support it are being held responsible for these demonstrations. Due to such activities, and the kind of thinking that encourages them, the situation in America today is that there are at least 8,26,024 positive cases of Covid-19 and some 75,405 people have died.  

Some people say that Trump is insane-many senior American politicians, journalists, scientists, etc. have said so many times. This is also said about Bolsonaro and Johnson. But the point is that these strong leaders constantly engage in nonsensical and unscientific talk before the public. They fake a million laughs for all the world to see. But when it comes to protecting the interests of private industries, they work with complete dedication, focus, and retain full control over their wits.  

Bolsonaro has intensified the attacks on the Amazon forests several times over during the Corona crisis. Thousands of square-kilometres have been set ablaze in the forest which is considered critical for human survival in the future. Bolsonaro has declared his intention to destroy this forest, as well as the thousands of tribals living in it, but he has cleverly said that the destruction is to prevent the inhabitants of the forest from living on like antiquarian creatures...   

Cuban doctors used to serve the people who lived in the remote villages of these forests, providing them healthcare. As soon as Bolsonaro assumed office in 2019, he sent these doctors back to Cuba. Teachers have stopped coming to teach in tribal schools because the government has stopped paying them. Bolsonaro's disastrous policies came to light on 2 April when a tribal woman living in the Amazon forest was declared Covid-19 positive.

It is no coincidence that just a few days before, on 30 March, when the French leadership proposed not to reach a trade agreement with Brazil due to Bolsonaro's disastrous policy towards the Amazon forest, Boris Johnson refused to support it, and for this Bolsonaro thanked him again and again.

Trump is also very loyal to his real agenda. He is fiercely opposed to providing any kind of public convenience and is engaged day and night in protecting the interests of the private sector. His allegiance is proving to be the biggest enemy of the health of the American public today and this is a truth Trump wants to conceal at any cost.  

In the first two years of his rule, he fiercely slashed staff in government-run scientific institutions. 1,600 government scientists quit their jobs. After Corona, Trump cut the funding, in the 2021 budget, for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by 16%.  

Trump, a staunch advocate of privatisation, has always looked at the question of public health from this rigid position. During his election campaign, he attacked Obama's limited health insurance scheme and when he came to power, he has tried his best to make this scheme meaningless. In 2018 there were 30 million (3 crore) people in the US who were denied health insurance. Now that the numbers of the unemployed has increased, in just the last few weeks, by more than 15 million (1.5 crore), the unemployment figures will only worsen over time. As a result, every Covid-19 patient is asking the big question-who will pay for their treatment?  

Not only this, millions have not been able to afford health services over the last years due to the fear of expensive treatments. These people can now be more easily hunted down by the Novel Coronavirus. This is why the proportion of African Americans is very high among Covid-19 patients. Now doctors are warning that if people do not go to a doctor from fear of expenses, they will not get themselves tested for Covid-10 either and this will make it very difficult to deal with the pandemic.

Not only this, profiteering related to private health institutions is also making the crisis more serious. It may seem beyond imagination that private health institutions are letting go of employees during this crisis in order to save costs. One reason for this is that these institutions were earning well by treating the diseases of the ,rich'- plastic surgery, beautification, straightening of teeth, and so on. At the moment there is no  possibility of people seeking such treatments, so the staff is being discharged.

The problems of health workers don't end with assuming the risks of treating Covid-19 patients. They are also fearful of falling ill themselves, or infecting a member of their family. Recently, a nurse of Indian origin died in the Covid-19 ward and with this the facility to get her husband and daughter treated in that hospital was terminated.  

On the other hand, private health insurance companies are laughing all the way to the bank. People are paying their insurance premiums due to the fear of contracting Covid-19 but because they are also afraid that it will be very difficult to recover money from insurance companies, they are shying away from seeking treatment. Insurance companies are taking full advantage of this.

Dr Gaffney, a ICU physician in the US, has said that the way the healthcare system is run in America is further exacerbating the epidemic.  

And this is the system of healthcare that Trump wants to keep alive, with all his might. Johnson wanted to adopt this system of private health services by privatising the NHS, which had once been the norm in England-he may change his opinion after being treated. Bolsonaro is such a blind devotee of privatisation that he wants to burn his country's most precious asset- the Amazon forest-and hand it over entirely to multinationals.

These 'strong leaders' pose many threats not only to their countrymen, but to people everywhere in the world. That is why the strong leaders of other countries and our own country should make it a habit to avoid their destructive policies, by not considering them as their ideals. Instead, countries should start protecting their people from the dangers of privatisation.

The good thing is that a different example of such a strong leader exists in our own country. The Chief Minister of Kerala is also considered a very strong leader. But his strength comes from a strong relationship with the public, especially the poor hard-working people. The Left tradition, which he is a part of, has also laid down a strong basic structure of healthcare (and other services) in this state. That is why when the first Covid patient was found in Kerala on 30 January, the strong leader, the strong people of his state and the strong healthcare services of the state were ready to face this new challenge.

The author is a former Member of Parliament and vice president of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA).      


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