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COVID-19 and 'stable' leadership

In March, when UK PM Boris Johnson tested positive for COVID-19, the UK and the world with it, was shocked. Leaders had caught the virus before but this was big. Unambiguously the most important public figure to get infected at that point, Johnson's illness raised several questions regarding the future of pandemic control efforts in the UK and the state of Johnson's political fortunes following his infection. It must be noted that Johnson was not one of the leader's who deliberately downplayed or otherwise obscured the dangers of the pandemic. His administration was however responsible for a confused campaign with many public fallings that he persistently managed to dodge taking responsibility for before his unfortunate infection. Before his infection, his Government had shown signs of leaning towards a more hands-off containment approach based on the Swedish model. Johnson's announcement of a more total lockdown had considerably worried many in his administration, Then, he fell ill. While his illness could have gone either way, ultimately it dragged out with visibly dangerous phases where the PM was unable to carry out his duties. This ultimately may have served to bring home the seriousness of the pandemic to the UK and its politicians. When Johnson returned, he was more serious and sober in his messaging. He even managed a rise in approval ratings based on his recovery, an encouraging sign for a nation (a gain that he swiftly lost). After his recovery, many observers hypothesised that had Johnson had a milder COVID-19 experience, he would have likely been more dismissive of the dangers and may even have opted for relaxed quarantine measures.

Now, in October, as the US (and to a much lesser extent, the world) reels from shock over the infection of US President Trump and the First Lady, similar questions are being asked. Unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson is the most frequent source of comparisons for Trump and his current situation. While no doubt a more polarising figure than Johnson, Trump shares the characteristics of being a populist, divisive leader who is not considered a political insider. While both have been criticised for a delayed and unfocused COVID-19 response, Trump has turned the fight into an ideological battleground where following COVID containment measures such as social distancing and wearing masks is considered a sign of political leaning. Trump has flip-flopped between treating the virus as a serious threat and a manageable nuisance for months now. As the Presidential Elections neared, it was noted that his administration was pushing back against state COVID containment measures and promising a vaccine much in advance of what the scientific community was safe with approving. At the same time, he ignored pandemic control measures and organised large election rallies with little safety concern, a stark contrast to the much smaller events put on by his rival. All this meant that most global news outlets saw Donald Trump's positive test as something unsurprising and obvious given his reluctance to wear masks or social distance. Since Trump tested positive, others who have shared his company are also testing positive, indicating that the White House botched its COVID safety measures.

At this point, the information on Trump's state of health is unclear. The Republicans have made a show of putting on a business as the usual front with Mitch McConnell pushing on with the SC nomination. Many have even given contradictory reports on the President's health with anything from 'serious' to 'perfectly fine' being used to describe his current state. What makes Trump's case particularly chaotic is the fact that it is coming so close to the elections. Trump may earn a bump in approval as was the case with other leaders. It is also possible that his infection will weaken public faith in his ability as a COVID "war-time leader". The weeks ahead will determine how Trump's infection will play out with wide-ranging implications for the US and the world.

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