Putin, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Trump: men too macho for masks

Why leaders who want to be seen as strongmen are afraid to take Covid-19 safety precautions

With the news this week that Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, is in hospital with Covid-19, the virus has now penetrated the Kremlin, 10 Downing Street, the Palácio do Planalto and the White House.

Putin, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump are all very different politicians. But all have had one thing in common in their responses to coronavirus: a belief or suggestion, at least in the early stages, that taking personal protective measures against the virus is somehow unseemly and at odds with their macho political brands.

Trump has refused to wear a face mask, even when touring a mask-making facility; Bolsonaro has questioned the need for social distancing and been pictured shaking hands and hugging fans. Johnson infamously announced that he had shaken hands with everyone when he visited a coronavirus ward, an admission that was crying out to be overlaid with music from the Ghanaian pallbearers meme but became less amusing when he was subsequently admitted to hospital with the virus.

Putin has also seemed unclear on how the virus spreads, donning a full-body banana-yellow hazmat suit to visit a coronavirus ward back in March but then shaking hands with the head doctor, who later tested positive for the virus. His prime minister and now his press secretary also have the virus.

Of the four leaders, Johnson is the only one known to have contracted Covid-19 himself, and he emerged from his hospital stay with very different rhetoric about this virus. Putin did eventually introduce a strict lockdown, but much later than in most other European countries. Ministers or aides to all four leaders have come down with Covid-19, and macho posturing in the face of the pandemic may be part of the reason.

“Appearing to play it safe contradicts a core principle of masculinity: show no weakness,” according to Peter Glick, a scientist who has co-authored research on how so-called “masculinity contest culture” poisons work environments. All the leaders have built brands as strongmen offering maverick solutions, and want to be seen as recovery presidents sweeping the illness aside, even if the virus has other ideas.

Of course, coronavirus does not only hit at those who foolishly defy it, and not all politicians who have contracted coronavirus are part of macho administrations. Equally, not every strongman leader has been willing to risk their health for fear of looking weak in a mask. In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orbán caused controversy for the opposite reason, when he was pictured visiting a hospital early in the pandemic wearing an N95 mask, while the head doctor had to make do with a simple surgical one.

However, many leaders prone to macho posturing have been reluctant to take basic protection measures. In an extreme example, Alexander Lukashenko, perhaps Europe’s only genuine Covid-dissident leader, said, “It’s better to die standing than to live on your knees” when explaining why he was not introducing any restrictions to help prevent the spread.

Trump and his vice-president, Mike Pence, have both refused to take what many scientists agree is the simplest precaution, and wear a mask. Even as cases of coronavirus spread inside the White House, the president has balked at the idea: “I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself. I just don’t. Maybe I’ll change my mind,” he has said.

His supporters seem to agree. “It’s submission, it’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak – especially for men,” a pro-Trump protester angrily shouted at mask-wearing journalists outside a Trump event recently.

This has created a paradox: Putin and Trump are two of the world’s best-protected leaders, cocooned by their protection officers to minimise security risks from the people they meet, the places they go to and the food that they eat. Yet both leaders refused to take simple precautions against a deadly virus.

Compare all of this to the European nation with the lowest death toll per capita – Slovakia. There, a new government coalition was sworn in in March, all in masks, president Zuzana Čaputová has made all public appearances in a mask, and even television presenters have read the news in masks, to drill the message home to the population that there should be nothing embarrassing or emasculating about wearing one. The country is now coming out of lockdown, having suffered just 27 deaths from the virus.

Bolsonaro, and to some extent Trump, appear to be driven by a populist mistrust of science, while other leaders may feel constricted by the political brands they have built themselves. There may also be a more natural human impulse at work: understanding the risks but nevertheless feeling above them.

“People are built in a way that although you know that you should be ready for it, you still think that you personally will be able to escape,” Peskov said in a newspaper interview from his hospital bed this week.


Shaun Walker

The GuardianTramp

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