When politicians catch coronavirus - July 2020

Three presidents and one president-elect have caught Covid-19. Rising cases across the region mean politicians and political systems are vulnerable.

In recent weeks, various leaders around Latin America including three presidents have announced that they’ve been diagnosed with Covid-19. 

Honduras - Juan Orlando Hernandez spent time in the hospital on oxygen before recovering.

Brazil - After months of downplaying the risks and doing many public events without masks, Jair Bolsonaro announced he had a fever and tested positive for Covid-19.

Bolivia - Jeanine Añez announced over Twitter that she was diagnosed with Covid-19.

I’ve gotten several messages in recent weeks asking about these cases. I’ve summarized my responses below. Given the continued spread of the virus around the hemisphere, it’s quite likely other cases among top politicians will be identified in the coming months. 

Congresses, cabinets and opposition party leaders are vulnerable as well

No national leader, except apparently Daniel Ortega, can afford to disappear completely from public life and stop interacting with other people. This means that every president is at risk, even those who take the threat of the virus seriously. 

Those who fail to take the risks seriously such as Bolsonaro and Lopez Obrador place everyone around the president at risk, meaning it is more likely that cabinet secretaries and top aides become ill.

While Latin American politics is often hyper-focused on the individual office of the presidency, cabinet members in many countries have come down with the virus. So have members of Congress and opposition politicians. Illnesses among financial officials, military officials and top congressional leaders may also lead to political tension in countries where the political situation is not normal and there are questions about legitimacy.

There will be significant news coverage if any other presidents announce they test positive for Covid, but this is a virus that has a potential to reshape political power in lower offices as well.

Leaders aren’t faking illness

In all three cases I mentioned up top as well as the Venezuela case I discuss below, there was social media and WhatsApp speculation on the potential that leaders were lying about contracting coronavirus. Some very smart analysts have come up with hypothetical reasons that Bolsonaro or Añez or Hernandez may be faking a disease to reshape the media narrative. I find that very unlikely.

Most presidents, particularly those attempting to portray a stronger image, don’t lie about being ill. If anything, the illness is often worse than publicly admitted and leaders downplay illnesses to avoid looking weak. Moving forward, if any other leaders announce they have Covid-19, the odds are that they have it. Ignore the speculation that they don’t. For leaders who regularly lie or exaggerate, the illness may be worse than they report.

(Sidenote: While they want to appear healthy while in power, once out of power, former dictators and caudillos often fake being ill in order to avoid justice for their abuses in office.)

Survivor bias is a threat in Brazil

In a presentation last week, I said my big concern was “Bolsonaro is going to survive coronavirus and then double down on being an idiot because his own survival will give confirmation bias to his belief that the disease is not that bad.” I stand by that comment.

Above: President Bolsonaro was bitten by an emu yesterday after complaining he was tired of quarantine. 

Brazil has nearly two million reported cases, adding over 35,000 cases per day on average in recent weeks, and over 70,000 deaths. Still, Bolsonaro has continued to downplay the severity of the virus, even after announcing that he had contracted it himself. If he recovers, he is going to push forward on reopening the economy and encouraging medical cures that lack scientific backing. This will mean cases will rise and the response will remain disjointed across states and municipalities.

Coronavirus creates potential succession and transition challenges

Anywhere that the political situation is tenuous, a diagnosis of a president or top official may lead to a power struggle. Bolivia is a case in point for this. Añez has no vice president. If she is seriously ill, it could create tension in an already difficult political environment. This comes on top of concerns that Añez may use the pandemic to once again delay or cancel the election scheduled for September.

In the Dominican Republic, candidate Luis Abinader (now president-elect) was diagnosed with coronavirus in the final weeks of the already delayed campaign. Fortunately for him, the campaign was already on a glidepath to victory. It’s fortunate that the DR managed to dodge a political crisis. However, if the virus remains around as other elections occur, it will reshape campaigning and could lead to disruptions in the election process.

It’s worse in Venezuela

Beyond the three Latin American presidents who announced they have Covid, both Diosdado Cabello and Tareck el-Aissami announced last week that they are positive for the virus. 

The elite within the ruling regime in Venezuela are in a careful power balance. One of them getting ill or dying, something that is more likely in a country with a failing healthcare system, would create a gap in the leadership circle that could throw the balance off. There are also levels of distrust among the various elites, with domestic and foreign intelligence agencies helping to do surveillance on each other. Diosdado’s disclosure was likely meant to preempt it being leaked by one of his rivals.

The Venezuelan military, with Vladimir Padrino Lopez recently reaffirmed as the Secretary of Defense, also admitted that they have hundreds of cases of coronavirus within the ranks. However, the number of cases within the military being reported by the Maduro regime today is fewer than the number of cases reported by private sources back in May. It is another sign they are significantly understating the actual numbers.

All of this tension occurs amid rising cases across the country, food shortages, fuel shortages, a broken healthcare system and continuing brownouts. 


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