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How A COVID-19 Diagnosis Has Affected Other World Leaders


President Trump is not the only world leader to contract the coronavirus. The U.K.'s Prime Minister Boris Johnson got very sick earlier this year. Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro had what he said was a mild case, and several other Latin American officials have survived COVID. And that got us thinking about how contracting the virus affected these leaders not just in terms of their standing among the public in their countries but also in their handling of the pandemic. And we also wondered what dangers might the U.S. face abroad with so much uncertainty at home. To consider these questions, we're joined now by three NPR correspondents - Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, welcome.


MARTIN: Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Carrie, welcome.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And Jackie Northam, who covers foreign affairs here in Washington, D.C. Jackie, welcome to you as well.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Thanks so much, Michel.

MARTIN: So let me begin with Frank. Prime Minister Johnson was famously cavalier about the virus at the beginning, Frank. I think that's fair to say, right?

LANGFITT: Yeah, he was. I mean, he was shaking hands, Michel, in early March and bragging about it. And by late March, he was sick.

MARTIN: And so how did the public react when he got sick?

LANGFITT: I think, initially, there was a sense of comeuppance not dissimilar to what we've seen from some people in the United States in the last 24 or 48 hours. But, of course, Boris Johnson - not as cavalier and as polarizing as President Trump. And he isolated - Boris Johnson isolated in Number 10. Ten days later - Number 10 Downing Street. Ten days later, when he was rushed to the hospital, people really were alarmed here. And there was genuine fear that he would die. I remember writing an advanced obit on him as many people would have done here. And people rallied around him as a leader. His health care became the story in the country. And although his approval rating had been rising before he got sick, it really kept going up and hit 66% during his recovery.

MARTIN: Carrie, I think it's fair to say that Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro was even more cavalier about the threat of COVID, which has hit his nation so hard. I mean, 145,000 deaths. That's the world's second highest toll after the United States. But from the start, Bolsonaro called the virus a little flu, waded into crowds to press the flesh. So how did his illness affect his standing with the public or did it?

KAHN: Well, one thing you have to start off is that Bolsonaro is a very polarizing figure in Brazil, much like Trump. Given that, though, his popularity is actually higher than it was at the onset of the pandemic. He was heavily criticized and saw a drop in his popularity at the beginning over his cavalier approach. You hardly ever saw him wearing a mask in public. As you say, he loves to wade into crowds of supporters, kiss babies, be very close to people. He's a big proponent of hydrochloroquine (ph), the anti-malarial drug, as an effective treatment for COVID. He attributes it to the success and recovery of his own bout with COVID. And there's that infamous tweet of him chasing an emu-like bird with a box of the drug, sort of touting it.

But his poll - his better poll ratings I think are more attributable to - - not to his recovery but probably the biggest factor is that he's been handing out emergency cash to Brazil's poor and a lot of it, the equivalent of about a hundred dollars in the beginning. And that went to nearly half of all Brazilians. So that has really enhanced his fortunes more than his approach and his recovery from COVID.

MARTIN: Carrie, do you have any sense that his personal experience with COVID changed anything about his response to it?

KAHN: Well, there was no big epiphany or humble gratitude to Brazil's medical workers or the health system after his recovery like Boris Johnson did with the NHS in the U.K. There was none of that. He famously rode a motorbike around the palace grounds, showing off after he recovered. He still wades into crowds, still flaunts social distancing. There's this picture of him just this week, where he's maskless holding a baby, and it's become a meme in Brazil. The baby's not looking very happy at all, and people are joking that's like what most Brazilians caught in Bolsonaro's arms look like, you know?

In wishing President Trump well, Bolsonaro said that Trump will come out of COVID stronger than ever for the good of the U.S. and the good of the world. He's still downplaying the virus despite, like you said, 145,000 Brazilians killed by it. He told reporters after he recovered that he knew he was going to get it. And, unfortunately, nearly everyone will. What are you afraid of? And he even said that he regrets the deaths but, quote, "people die every day from lots of things, and that's life."

MARTIN: Frank, what about Prime Minister Johnson? Did his illness change anything about the way he handled the pandemic or the way he's talking about it?

LANGFITT: No, not at all. He initially was pretty humble because he came so close to death, he said. And what people were hoping for was more like some kind of death bed conversion in terms of his approach to this. Johnson is, like Trump, a showman and not that focused on details. And what we've seen is the government has struggled, most recently. I mean, we've been with this virus now for many, many months, and the government still doesn't have a testing system that meets demand. And people have been punishing him for that, unlike Bolsonaro, which as Carrie was pointing out, actually, Boris Johnson's approval ratings are now down to 35%.

MARTIN: So let's turn to Jackie Northam now here in Washington, D.C. Is there any concern that other countries might take advantage of the situation here, which is seen even in this country as fairly chaotic?

NORTHAM: Sure. There is a concern that with President Trump out of action perhaps for several weeks, we don't know that an adversary of the U.S. could be emboldened and use this opportunity to advance their own agendas, you know? Think China, Iran, Russia, North Korea. The list goes on. But the U.S. national security apparatus is monitoring these threats. And frankly, Michel, the Trump administration has been preoccupied for months with a raft of controversies and serious issues. And an adversary could have already taken advantage of the situation if they wanted to. But, you know, there's a sense that, you know, allies and adversaries alike are just waiting to see the outcome of the presidential election because that can determine how a relationship with most of these other countries is going to go.

MARTIN: I do want to point out that Vice President Mike Pence has tested negative. That's the latest information that we have. We also want to mention that this isn't the first upheaval in the Trump White House. I mean, the Mueller investigation, impeachment, the terrible COVID toll. So, Jackie, I guess I'm wondering if this kind of disarray, turmoil is, in a way, baked into foreign leaders' dealings with this administration.

NORTHAM: You know, President Trump is very adept at keeping foreign leaders off balance when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. I spoke with a number of analysts about this yesterday, and that includes Jon Alterman, who's over at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And he said, paradoxically, Trump's illness could make U.S. foreign policy more consistent. Let's have a listen.


JON ALTERMAN: And when you take the president out of the equation, in many ways, it's more predictable how the U.S. will behave. It's easier to anticipate what the red lines are.

NORTHAM: But, you know, Michel, while President Trump is battling the coronavirus, there are other countries that want information from senior administration officials and reassurance that the U.S. is stable.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Jackie Northam. We also heard from NPR's Carrie Kahn and NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thank you all so much for talking with us today.

NORTHAM: Thanks, Michel.

KAHN: You're welcome. Thank you.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINDELIQ'S "THALASSA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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