Shirley de Villiers.
Shirley de Villiers.

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“It can take a grave national crisis to fire a flare, revealing the ugliest features of a society defined by injustices that the wealthy and powerful would rather forget.” That’s what Owen Jones argues in his latest column for The Guardian.

By the same token, the Covid-19 pandemic – now at 1-million confirmed cases with around 50,000 deaths – is exposing the manifest failings of some of the world’s political leaders. (Admittedly, some were more than adept at making this point before the crisis took hold.)

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has effectively torn up the constitution to rule by decree indefinitely – a draconian move rubber-stamped by parliament. Doing away with the vestiges of democracy is ominous, to put it mildly, but not surprising, given his previous advocacy of an “illiberal state”.

In the Philippines, strongman Rodrigo Duterte this week doubled down on his callous disregard for his people. In the same week that he told the country’s under-fire health workers that they would be “lucky to die for their country”, he ordered the security forces, if faced with trouble during lockdown, to “shoot them dead”.

In Brazil, drug gangs in Rio’s notorious favelas have enacted curfews to contain the viral spread – this as President Jair Bolsonaro called the virus “a measly cold” and told all but the elderly to return to work. “Some will die,” he’s reported to have said, “such is life.”

Lest this leave the impression that it’s only leaders in the developing world, and those already on the knife-edge of authoritarianism, that have thumbed their noses at science (and human lives), US President Donald Trump has shown himself willing to pave the road to economic prosperity with human lives. He’s stubbornly refused to take the virus seriously, and his policy prevarication has contributed to its spread.

Last week, Trump said he wanted all US businesses operating at normal levels by Easter, because “this cure [a lockdown] is worse than the problem”. This week, however, after claiming 200,000 deaths in the US would be a win for the country, considering it could lose 2.2-million people to the virus, he disingenuously told reporters: “A lot of people were saying just ride it out … Think what would happen if we didn’t do anything.”

If that looks like a contradiction, it’s because it is – and it lies at the heart of Trump’s political longevity. It’s a subject worth exploring in this column by Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn, who opens with the memorable line: “A virus can adapt quickly, and so can Donald Trump.”

For more on the incoherence of the US response – and the failure of leadership at both executive and state level – GQ magazine’s Mari Uyehara offers a layered, eloquent analysis. Her inclusion of South Korea’s much more successful containment strategy – the two countries confirmed their first cases of the virus on the same day – makes for a useful point of comparison.

It’s cold comfort, of course, that democracy gives voters the opportunity to remove leaders who exhibit such incompetence (or indifference) from power.

In this sense, both The Guardian’s Jones, and the New Yorker’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor invite their readers to imagine new political futures.

It’s useful to read them together: both consider how the white-anting of the welfare state has allowed crises such as the current pandemic to amplify existing social cleavages, or “deliberately ignored social ills”, Jones says.

It allows, if nothing else, for the possibility of a reset.

De Villiers is features editor of the FM