The real enemy

Tuesday, July 28, 2020 - 12:59am

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As I write this article from my home in Miami, Fla., my state’s COVID-19 rates continue to peak at tens of thousands of new cases per day. An article from The Guardian described the magnitude of the Sunshine State’s crisis as such: “If Florida was a country, it would be one of the world’s biggest hotspots.” Nonetheless, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has adopted an optimistic, yet somewhat dismissive outlook on the growth in cases. In June, DeSantis chose to veto an increase in health care spending from the state’s budget. More recently, while advising Floridians to be cautious but not fearful, DeSantis quipped, “I think fear is our enemy here.” 

DeSantis has been criticized for his lackluster response to the pandemic — and rightly so. In spite of expert medical advice, DeSantis has pushed to reopen the state’s businesses, its schools and even Disney World as soon as possible. His eagerness to open back up has been criticized by many as prioritizing economic gain over protecting vulnerable lives, but it’s also been criticized for its deference to President Donald Trump. Many local, state and international leaders have expressed concern with the commander-in-chief’s statements and policy regarding COVID-19. The Red Cross even spoke out against the U.S.’s response, deeming it divisive and ineffective. 

In Brazil, however, Trump’s bombastic rhetoric may have found a receptive audience, especially within the Latin American country’s own executive branch, based on the leaders’ similar responses to the pandemic. In April, Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro had responded with a shrug when reporters pressed him about Brazil’s record number of deaths. “So what?” said the president of the largest and most populous country in Latin America. He continued dismissively, “I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”

It is unlikely there is any single explanation for the drastic rates of infection and death in the U.S. and Brazil. Americans and Brazilians are not inherently sicklier or weaker than the rest of the world. While some structural factors — geography, public health resources and even the weather — can make disease spread more likely in any given country, the impact of irresponsible and reckless leadership on transmission is pronounced. To that extent, Brazil and the U.S. certainly have many geographic, structural and climatic differences but do share one eerie commonality: a lack of effective, responsible leadership. 

I am often hesitant to assign too much theoretical power to any particular politician because government is inherently complicated and a single person is rarely the only one responsible for a larger phenomenon or problem. But the reality is that Bolsonaro and Trump do wield an incredible amount of persuasive power over some of their constituents. Many people do make decisions based on what their country’s leaders say, even if what’s being said is misleading or simply untrue. 

As Brazilian media has reported, every time that Bolsonaro downplays the coronavirus on television, his supporters' adherence to social distancing declines. Likewise, to say that Trump has also been dismissive of COVID-19’s spread throughout America would be an understatement. Despite the massive scale of the outbreak that is raging through major metropolitan centers throughout the U.S., the decision to wear a mask appears increasingly political. As the U.S. handles tens of thousands of new cases a day, the White House is planning to block funding for test-and-trace funds and other prevention measures. On July 19, Trump insisted in an interview on “Fox News on Sunday” that the coronavirus would eventually “disappear.” 

Both countries’ leaders have publicly minimized the pandemic. That matters. A politician’s ineffective leadership can affect the behavior of fervent supporters and casual observers alike as well as make the difference between a minor dip or a spike in cases. In the wake of misinformation and new data around COVID-19’s transmission and fatality rates, this much is likely true for the U.S. and Brazil: It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. That’s something we know based on scientific expertise and thoughtful analysis of public health outcomes from professionals who are trained to assess risk to vulnerable populations. Brazilians and Americans alike should continue to practice social distancing, wear a mask and encourage others who are reluctant to do the same. 

Fear is not the enemy. Carelessness is the enemy. The willingness to sacrifice lives for economic and political gain is the enemy. Reckless behavior and misinformation serve as powerful vectors for disease. When Gov. DeSantis opens the public beaches — which he will, sooner rather than later — we should not take that to mean COVID-19 no longer poses a serious public health concern. Instead, we should acknowledge it means the very opposite.

Allison Pujol can be reached at ampmich@umich.edu.