This was excerpted from the April 26 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.Back in January, Narendra Modi poured scorn on experts and scientists who warned his country faced a “tsunami” of infection. Now the Indian Prime Minister is being harshly criticized for premature triumphalism amid a terrible surge that has people dying in the streets.Modi is only the latest populist crusader to come unstuck. Former US President Donald Trump’s denialism appears to have cost tens of thousands of lives. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro fueled a disaster by rejecting Covid-19 countermeasures in favor of crank cures. UK PM Boris Johnson paid a heavy personal and political price for ignoring the threat of the pandemic early on, though he has since become more cautious.
Covid-19 doesn’t have political preferences. Even some leaders praised for their scientific approach have seen their standing consumed by the virus. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s final months in power for instance are being tarnished by a wave of infections worsened by Europe’s slow vaccine rollout.
But the pandemic is guaranteed to expose leaders who undermine truth, create alternative realities, ostracize experts and scientists and refuse to take precautions to keep the public safe. Earlier this month for instance, Modi boasted of huge rally crowds ahead of elections in West Bengal. His hubris in the face of the virus recalls Trump’s refusal to give up rallies last year at which he boasted the virus was being driven out — even as his crowds contributed to a building wave of lethal infections that winter.
Having their negligence exposed may not deter the truth-twisting populist leaders inspired by Trump (who is already spoiling for a comeback). Populism will find fertile soil in the economic and social detritus left in the pandemic’s wake. But when leaders prioritize their political image over public health, millions of people suffer.