While most of the world has taken drastic action to fight the spread of coronavirus, four leaders stand apart for their continued denials of the threat the pandemic poses.
Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko, Turkmenistan’s autocratic ruler Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega have all refused to take coronavirus seriously.
Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro, has dubbed them “the Ostrich Alliance” — a reference to the myth that the large bird buries its head in the sand when faced with danger.
Aside from the health risks to their populations, their denialism could carry political costs. Dissent in Nicaragua is bubbling up, while in Brazil, multitudes have taken part in protest by banging pots and shouting “Bolsonaro murderer!” from their windows.
Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus
The president of Belarus not only claims to be able to defeat Covid-19 though positive thinking, but also the ability to travel back in time.
“No one will die of coronavirus in our country. I publicly declare this,” Mr Lukashenko said on Monday. His health ministry had already confirmed 29 deaths from the virus.
The 65 year old, who has ruled the former Soviet state for 26 years, has described the global pandemic as a “psychosis” and has refused to impose social distancing measures on his 9.5m people.
Belarusians should instead play ice hockey, drive tractors, use the sauna, drink vodka and pet baby goats to protect themselves from the virus, Mr Lukashenko has claimed. “If a person stays positive, they will be healthy,” he said.
Last weekend the ice hockey team he plays for won a national tournament, in front of a crowd of spectators, for the 11th time in 13 years. Belarus is the only country in Europe where football matches are still being played while churches have remained open to celebrate Orthodox Easter this weekend.
With around 3,000 cases confirmed by the government, the World Health Organization has said Belarus needs to bring in restrictive measures to combat the outbreak.
But the strongman leader has said lockdown measures would crush the economy. “There are recommendations: do not walk in crowds, do not rub against each other, do not kiss, do not hug and so on,” he said on Monday. “But this will end, [and] then we will see who was right and who was not!”
Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil
As Brazil became the first country in the southern hemisphere to reach 1,000 deaths from coronavirus last weekend, the far-right president went out for a stroll in defiance of social isolation recommended by his own health officials.
“No one will hinder my right to come and go,” Mr Bolsonaro vowed, moments after shaking the hand of an elderly woman immediately after wiping his nose with his wrist. “The virus is out there and we will have to face it, but like men, damn it, not kids,” the president said.
Mr Bolsonaro has repeatedly downplayed coronavirus as “hysteria” and — echoing US president Donald Trump — praised the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a possible cure, ordering military laboratories to ramp up production.
The Brazilian president has also been busy taking to the streets, drawing crowds on several occasions. The former army captain has boasted that his athletic prowess will keep him healthy.
“Due to my track record as an athlete, if I were infected by the virus I would not need to worry, I would feel nothing, or at worse, I’d be affected by a little flu or sniffles,” he said.
Mr Bolsonaro has called for the reopening of shuttered shops in the country of 211m people, undermining his health ministry, and has excoriated state governors as “job killers” for imposing quarantines. He has exempted churches from the lockdowns.
Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua
In the middle of a global crisis, Nicaragua’s autocratic president had not been seen for a month and made no public statements about coronavirus — until a televised address on Wednesday, in which he said the pandemic was “a sign from God” to switch massive spending on atomic bombs to healthcare.
Although he made no mention in his speech of specific measures to combat the crisis, he has reportedly ordered more than 100 gallons of hand sanitiser and 5,000 pairs of gloves for the presidential residence. At the start of April, while countries around the world were locking down, Mr Ortega’s wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, urged Nicaragua’s 6.5m people to take to the streets for a “Love in the time of Covid-19” rally.
Schools, shops and markets have remained open. Teachers have reportedly been forced by the government to visit parents in their homes to pressure them to continue sending their children to school.
Easter school holidays have now been extended, but football and baseball matches are going ahead as normal. Voluntary quarantine is in force only for those arriving from abroad, and Nicaragua’s borders remain open.
The 74-year-old former revolutionary, who has ruled the Central American country for 24 of the past 41 years, was last seen in public February 21, although he took part in a video conference with regional leaders on March 12. That had stoked reports that the president, who is long believed to have been suffering from lupus, was ill, in quarantine, in Cuba for medical treatment or had even died.
Nicaragua says it only has three current Covid-19 cases and has registered just one death, and Mr Ortega insisted the government had sufficient ventilators and capacity to deal with the crisis. During the unexplained nearly four-hour wait for his address, television channels broadcast jingly songs urging Nicaraguans to wash their hands. The government has also sent health brigades from house to house to explain hygiene measures. An internal government report leaked in the press said Nicaragua was, however, bracing for more than 32,000 cases.
Doctors say the health service is ill-prepared. Following 2018 protests against his rule, Mr Ortega fired at least 400 doctors and health workers for expressing dissent but the president said the government had “rebuilt hospitals” he claimed had been burnt during those protests.
“The best atomic weapon humanity can have is health, medicine,” he said. “We have adopted a series of measures [to deal with the pandemic] . . . in accordance with our reality and our economic and scientific position.”
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Turkmenistan
The president of Turkmenistan claims to have devised a homespun method to keep the country’s Covid-19 case count to zero: burning the herb yuzarlik, which Mr Berdymukhamedov claims can ward off infectious diseases “invisible to the naked eye”.
Officials have fumigated government buildings, offices, markets, schools and cemeteries with the herb’s smoke twice daily to ward off the virus. Though there is no scientific evidence to support this measure, business as usual carries on in the reclusive central Asian dictatorship of 6m people.
Information about Turkmenistan, scarce at the best of times, has become harder to come by since the country closed its borders and restricted domestic travel in March. Turkmenistan continues to insist nobody in the country has contracted Covid-19, thought reports from the Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan claim there are at least seven cases.
For several week, Turkmenistan’s government and state media avoided mentioning the coronavirus by name. US-funded Radio Azatylk reported that police had arrested citizens for discussing the pandemic on the street.
After belatedly acknowledging the threat from the virus this month, Mr Berdymukhamedov has extolled another favourite preventive method: “strengthening the principles of healthy living” through public feats of athletic prowess.
Turkmenistan’s football season is to return this weekend after a month-long hiatus, while Mr Berdymukhamedov had organised a public bike ride around the capital, Ashgabat, to mark World Health Day earlier this month. Preparations for other major celebrations, such as Horse Day in late April, remain underway.
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