Covid-19: How leaders’ defiance brewed a pandemic

What you need to know:

  • Many politicians have downplayed the coronavirus crisis and discounted science, leading to dire outcomes for them and their supporters.
  • This week President Uhuru Kenya, Deputy President William Ruto and ODM leader Raila flouted Covid-19 measures by addressing large crowds without having a mask on.

How much do the words and actions of political leaders influence other people’s behaviour in a pandemic?  A lot, according to two recent surveys that suggest citizens may ignore science-based information and best practices if their leaders downplay the coronavirus crisis. 

Accidental poisoning with household disinfectants more than doubled in the US.

They are also likely to be unaware of the extent of the spread of the disease in their areas, reveals the studies done in Brazil and US, the countries with the two worst caseloads and number of deaths in the world.

Accidental poisoning with household disinfectants more than doubled in the US in the week after President Donald Trump suggested that health experts consider injecting patients with bleach to fight Covid-19.

In highly polarised Brazil, a survey by three economists at University of Cambridge and Sao Paulo School of Economics, finds that tens of thousands of Brazilians altered their behaviour after President Jair Bolsonaro downplayed the coronavirus crisis in his country in just one speech. About 711,659 − 1,037,000 more individuals in Brazil left their home in each of the 10 days following  a televised address by Mr Bolsonaro in which he suggested that the coronavirus was  “a little flu”, called for schools to reopen nationwide and criticised the media for too much reporting on the pandemic in Italy, then the world’s Covid-19 epicentre. Without his message there would have been about a million people less on the streets from March 25 to April 5, concludes the survey that examined social distancing behaviours, using electoral data and geo-localised mobile phone data from 60 million devices. 

The president’s words and actions had stronger impact on relaxing social distancing in the municipalities where he had stronger support in the 2018 election compared to those where his support was weaker.  

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President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses a crowd in Nairobi recently.
Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

But the disproportionate impact of political leaders on citizen is not unique to Brazil as the same situation has happened in the US, the country with the highest number of cases and deaths. Accidental poisoning with household disinfectants more than doubled in the US in the week after President Donald Trump suggested that health experts consider injecting patients with bleach to fight Covid-19.

A bulletin from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, revealed that misuse of the disinfectants and bleach, including gargling diluted solutions and applying them to food, jumped 121 per cent in the last week of April compared to the same period last year after the president made the claim at a White House Press Conference on April 23.

About a month earlier, first-time prescriptions malaria and arthritis drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine flooded retail pharmacies across the US in the days after Trump promoted them as effective treatment for Covid-19. Health experts discredited his claims and in June the US Food and Drug Administration revoked the emergency use authorisation that allowed use of the drugs to treat hospitalised Covid-19 patients since there was no evidence showing it helps patients. Instead there was increase in adverse effects, including patient deaths, due to these medications.
When people think that the risks of infection and associated consequences are low, then they may not feel the need to adhere to recommended safe behaviours, according to a US study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The survey of 6,684 individuals reveals that the responders who perceived that they were at high risk of catching the virus took action more frequently to protect themselves compared to those who felt that their risk of getting infected was low. 
For example, reports of handwashing increased by more than 10 percentage points from 83 per cent among the quarter of respondents who perceived the lowest risk of Covid-19 infection to 94 per cent among the quarter who perceived the highest risk. Similarly, avoiding public spaces and crowds increased from 45 per cent for those reporting low perceived risk to 67 per cent for those reporting highest risk.

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Deputy President William Ruto addresses a crowd in Kisii on September 10, 2020.
Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Across the world, leaders have downplayed the pandemic and discounted science leading to dire outcomes for them and their citizens. Below are countries where politicians including heads of state have dismissed or downplayed the effects of the virus, disregarded guidelines from their own government experts and mishandled their response to the crisis. 


In May Burundi expelled World Health Organization officials just days before the presidential election and after the WHO raised concerns about crowded political rallies. Barely, a month later Burundi’s then outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza died of Covid-19. Unlike many African countries his government refused to impose restrictions to control the spread of coronavirus. Earlier, his wife was successfully treated for Covid-19 in Kenya.  The country had  confirmed 39 cases per million people but it had tested less than 28,000 people by September 11 and had been inconsistent in releasing Covid-19 numbers. His successor President Evariste Ndayishimiye has changed tack and last month pledged to implement science-based interventions to beat back the virus.


Many political leaders in Kenya have defied the government directives on Covid-19 prohibiting large gatherings.  This week President Uhuru Kenya, Deputy President William Ruto and ODM leader Raila flouted Covid-19 measures by addressing large crowds without having a mask on. On Wednesday the president addressed a large crowd while touring Ruaka in Kiambu County. The following day the script was much the same when Dr Ruto addressed a rally in Kisii town while Mr Odinga did the same in Taita Taveta County.   Just four days earlier, the Deputy President spoke to another large crowd outside Athi River Anglican Church. Many people in the crowd were not wearing their masks properly. On Friday, Mr Odinga meet more supporters in Kwale County.
In June President Uhuru Kenyatta chaired a Jubilee Parliamentary Group meeting at Kenyatta International Convention Centre. As per the legal notice setting out Covid-19 restrictions by the government he heads, the meeting should not have been allowed to take place.

ODM leader Raila Odinga  addresses residents of Kwale County on September 11.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

Later in July, Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja was arrested at a Kilimani bar for flouting the government's curfew orders. The senator pleaded guilty to breaching curfew orders and was fined Sh15, 000 or a three-month imprisonment. He apologised for his actions and resigned as chairman of the Senate Ad hoc committee on Covid-19. By September 11 the country ranked eighth in Africa in number of cases (35,793) and number of deaths (616).


The last day official Covid-19 data was released, on May 8, there were 509 cases and 21 deaths in Tanzania. Since then President John Magufuli has declared the country coronavirus-free due to what he attributed to prayers by citizens. The World Health Organization criticised the country’s strategy and the US embassy issued a warning that the Tanzania’s health system was overwhelmed. But the President said repeatedly that the crisis had been exaggerated. He also stopped disinfection of public places and cast doubt on the credibility of the national laboratory where samples are tested, saying that he had secretly had some animal and fruit samples tested and all tested positive. When patients visit hospital and test positive there is no contact tracing the people they interacted with including family to control spread of the virus. Videos of night burials under tight security and few funeral attendants in Tanzania have been circulating on social media. It is now more than three months and a half since the government released any numbers, the longest gap in reporting from any country in Africa. 

United States 

The US will likely go down as the country that was theoretically best prepared to fight a pandemic but ended up  overmatched by the coronavirus, performing worse that all developed countries and suffering  more deaths and cases than any other country (by September 11). Much of the blame for the failure is being put at the foot of President Trump for downplaying the crisis and mishandling his administration’s response. 
The US is also doing worse than European countries such as France and Germany in death rate. Until recently when he was seen wearing a mask in public briefly, the Republican President refused to support the wearing of a mask and held several indoor rallies where his supporters neither wore masks or observed social distance, going against the recommendations the White House taskforce on coronavirus. Influenced by Mr Trump, not wearing mask has become a political statement among his supporters. Republican-led states such as Texas, Florida and Mississipi reopened too early without meeting the guidelines of the taskforce and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention amid praise from the president. Many of the governors  had to  backtrack on their actions amid hospitalisations and skyrocketing infection rates. 


President Jair Bolsonaro recently said he tested negative for the novel coronavirus, after taking a fourth test since he announced on July 7 that he had tested positive. While making the announcement on Facebook, he posted a photo of himself with a box of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which has been proven to be ineffective against the virus. He then left the presidential residence on a motorcycle to go to a shop where he mingled and took pictures with people after removing his mask and helmet. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the president has spent many weekends in large gatherings addressing supporters. With about 4.2 million cases and 130,000 deaths, the second-highest in the world, the president has repeatedly shrugged off the bad news. “So what?” he once told reporters when asked about the record number of deaths that day. “I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”

United Kingdom

At the start of the pandemic Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not take coronavirus seriously and his government responded to the global coronavirus pandemic in a different way to most European countries. The UK did not rush to stop public events, close schools or scale up mass testing and contact tracing and seemed to have opted for the herd immunity strategy, which would involve leaving people to catch the virus and build up some form of immunity. Once exposed to the virus again, it is assumed they develop protection. Once most people in a population are protected then the virus stops spreading.  As the virus spread faster in the UK than among other top European counties like Germany, 200 scientists signed an open letter to the government urging it to introduce tougher measures to tackle the spread of Covid-19. The Prime Minister tested positive for the virus and ended up in intensive care in April. After a huge public backlash, the government abandoned the strategy and developed clearer control structure and actions. But many experts believe an earlier lockdown would have saved lives. The country has recorded 612 deaths per million people on September 12 the third-highest in Europe after Belgium and Spain.


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