When the White House insisted this weekend that Donald Trump was in “good spirits” had “mild symptoms” and was working hard, even as an obviously weakened president was being helicoptered to hospital, the upbeat official commentary all had a familiar ring in London.
When Boris Johnson fell ill from coronavirus in March, Downing Street was just as upbeat. The country was repeatedly told the condition was mild and the irrepressible prime minister was soldiering on with Churchillian bravado.
Even when he was hospitalised on the night of 5 April, the nation was assured he was in “good spirits” and it was merely a “precautionary” measure, just as the White House has insisted Trump’s helicopter trip to Walter Reed hospital on Friday evening was out of an “abundance of caution”.
Britain discovered later that the government’s account of Johnson’s illness had significantly downplayed its gravity. It came as a shock to the public when the prime minister was transferred to intensive care.
Trump is the third of the world’s populist leaders to discover that bluster and wishful thinking are no match for a virus that is indifferent to both. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who had dismissed the coronavirus as little more than a common cold and made a point at mingling with crowds of supporters, fell ill in July and spent three weeks in isolation before finally being declared Covid-free.
For reasons that have yet to be fully understood, each patient’s experience of coronavirus is different. It can be entirely without noticeable symptoms; it can be lethal. Bolsonaro seems to have had a mild form of the disease, which he put down to his “background as an athlete”. Johnson became seriously ill. He emerged from hospital in awe of the men and women of the NHS, saying: “I owe them my life.”
At 74, Trump is significantly older and less fit than Bolsonaro, 65, and the 55-year old Johnson. On the other hand, understanding and treatment of the virus has advanced since March. The trajectories of the other two leaders say little about what is now facing the US president.
The fortunes of Johnson and Bolsonaro, since their recovery, are also of limited use in predicting how it will affect Trump’s chances should he too be able to shake off the virus in time for the 3 November election.
Johnson did benefit from a bump in public esteem in March, though the YouGov polling group have pointed out that “the surge had already taken place by 23 March – four days before the PM announced he had Covid-19.
His chastened post-infection gratitude to the NHS did improve his popular image, but that advantage has since been frittered away through repeated Covid policy U-turns and the government’s continued dissembling and double standards, in the case of the insouciant wandering around England by Johnson’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, while others were observing restrictions, for example.
Bolsonaro’s approval ratings remain high and have even seen a recent boost, probably driven in part by an emergency cash payment aimed at helping poorer families through the crisis, but analysts say his survival and rebound have also played a part.
“His quick recovery helped him consolidate the narrative that the virus isn’t really that bad,” said Oliver Stuenkel, an International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.
Unlike Johnson, the Brazilian president does not seem to have been temporarily chastened by the experience, telling a crowd in the Mato Grosso agricultural heartland recently: “This weak talk of staying at home is for sissies.”
Bolsonaro’s troubles still lie ahead of him. Brazil has been one of the countries worst-hit by the pandemic. Nearly 150,000 people have died. GDP is forecaste to contract by at least 5% and the end of the emergency cash payment will have to stop at some point.
Johnson is also confronting plummeting popularity and grim economic prospects. The UK has the worst toll from coronavirus in Europe, with 56,000 deaths and a second wave crashing over the country. But Johnson does not have to stand for election until 2024. Bolsonaro’s next election is not until 2022. The US election is a month away.
The degree to which Trump benefits from a post-Covid bounce will depend largely on the speed and manner of his hoped-for recovery.
That will affect whether he is seen as weakened – or will the myth of invincibility be reinforced? A sympathetic response to a pollster’s inquiry is different from the decision taken at the polling booth on whether to grant another four years to the same leader. In conditions that are entirely novel for the whole world, other leaders’ past is unlikely to prove prologue for Donald Trump.