- As of April 10, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected more than 1.6 million people and killed at least 102,000 worldwide, leaving countries scrambling for protective resources and struggling to treat new patients.
- Even as outbreaks have stormed the globe, many world leaders denied the severity of the virus at first.
- Mixed messaging from politicians across the globe led to a late start for countries containing the virus outbreak in China, Italy, the US, and others.
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Doctors weren’t sure how to treat this new coronavirus, and the Chinese government eventually locked down an estimated 50 million people to contain the disease.
But it took some world leaders months to take the threat seriously.
As death toll creeps higher every day, over one-third of the world has now been placed under lockdown, and countries are scrambling to halt the spread of COVID-19.
Here are eight world leaders who didn’t take the novel coronavirus seriously at first, possibly putting their countries at greater risk for infection during crucial early moments.
Chinese authorities downplayed the threat of the outbreak when it first began in December, failing to communicate crucial information, and allowing millions of people to travel throughout the world.
Reports of the novel coronavirus first surfaced in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, but researchers now suspect it was circulating in November.
On December 31, the government released a statement to the World Health Organization saying the diseases was “preventable and controllable.”
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By late January, Chinese authorities identified the illness to be a new strain of coronavirus and acknowledged that it could spread from human-to-human contact. But the government allowed millions of people to travel before initiating lockdowns.
As the outbreak worsened, the government was accused of suppressing healthcare workers who warned of the virus’s spread, and downplaying reports on the number of reported cases and deaths.
The US Intelligence Committee has reportedly determined that President Xi Jinping and his Communist Party spread misinformation and lied about the severity of the outbreak. As of Friday, China has reported more than 82,000 infections and at least 3,340 deaths, but many believe the real number is far higher.
After reporting little to no new infections over the last couple weeks, China has lifted the lockdown on the city of Wuhan.
Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte downplayed the coronavirus infections in February, and the country’s foreign minister accused the media of inflating information about the spread of the illness.
Italy has become the third-most infected country and the epicenter of the deadliest outbreak in the world, with more than 18,800 deaths as of April 10.
Though Italy has initiated one of the most sweeping nationwide lockdowns to date, mixed messaging in late February when cases began to rise led to a slowed government response.
On February 23, Prime Minister Conte downplayed the spread of the virus by attributing a rise in numbers to an increase in testing. A few days later, Italy’s foreign minister Luigi Di Maio accused the media of inflating the severity of the virus by stating that only “0.089%” of Italians was under quarantine and calling the news coverage an “infodemic.”
At that point in the outbreak, social distancing measures were initiated on a local basis. Even the mayor of Milan – a city only miles from the center of the outbreak in Lombardy – promoted the idea that people could still go out with a “Milan doesn’t stop” campaign. Tourist attractions and cathedrals were kept open, and people didn’t hesitate to leave their homes. According to The New York Times, at least 2,300 deaths occurred during the mixed messages early on.
But as cases continued to surge, the government took a far more serious approach, implementing a nationwide lockdown and warning that the rest of the world needs “to be ready.”
President Donald Trump has repeatedly downplayed the virus, calling it a “hoax” early on and claiming to have everything completely under control.
Throughout January, February, and March, Trump consistently downplayed the coronavirus outbreak in the US, saying things like, “We have it totally under control,” “It will disappear,” and, “America will again and soon be open for business.”
At a campaign rally in late February, Trump referred to the coronavirus as a “new hoax” formed by the Democratic Party, and in early March, he minimized its threat by comparing it to the seasonal flu.
The US is now the global epicenter of the outbreak, with more than 486,000 confirmed cases and at least 18,000 deaths as of Friday. Many attribute the surge in cases to a lack of federal guidance and blunders from the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force early on.
In the first few weeks of the outbreak, the US experienced a severe lack in testing, mixed messaging with social distancing protocols, and confusion over when the nation would return to normalcy.
The country still doesn’t have a nationwide lockdown – each state has set its own guidelines and eight states have yet to issue stay-at-home orders. With the existing orders, about 95% of America’s population, or about 306 million people, are now under some form of lockdown.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the UK government believed the coronavirus was a “moderate risk” up until late February, and were late to impose a national lockdown.
Johnson has received scrutiny for downplaying the coronavirus outbreak in its early months, by labeling the threat “moderate” and seeking to attempt a “herd immunity” strategy, rather than implementing containment measures.
In early March, Johnson nonchalantly said he had been shaking hands, even in a hospital setting among coronavirus patients (He has since contracted the coronavirus and is currently being treated in the hospital).
In mid-March, as bars and restaurants began to shutter across Europe, Johnson merely urged, rather than ordered, people to avoid dining out, causing flocks of people to gather across London.
The UK has also been slow to administer tests, issuing about 10,000 a day by late March. As of Friday, the UK has the eighth-highest number of cases, with more than 74,000 infections and at least 8,900 deaths.
Iranian officials confidently told the country that the virus would not be a problem, and have been accused of withholding crucial information.
In late February, Iranian officials boasted that the coronavirus problem devastating China would not happen to them, and even bragged about sending face masks to aid China.
But just two weeks later, Iran found itself among the top infected countries in the world. In early March, the government began scrambling to contain the outbreak by proposing sending the military to conduct door-to-door sanitation, and threatening the death penalty on any individual accused of hoarding masks or medical supplies.
Authorities began worrying about the spread of information, and attempted to control the narrative of the outbreak by threatening nurses and healthcare workers to stay silent.
According to The New York Times, one nurse described receiving a letter that said discussing information about infected patients would cause “public fear mongering,” and constitute as a threat to national security.
A severe lack of testing in Iran has raised doubt as to how many cases the country actually has. Johns Hopkins’ tally records the number of infections has exceeded 68,000, with at least 4,200 deaths as of Friday.
As COVIS-19 cases soared, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez allowed large gatherings to proceed in sports stadiums and rallies.
In early March, as cases of the coronavirus began to rise in Spain, Sánchez continued to allow people to congregate in massive crowds at sports games and permitted 120,000 to gather at a feminist rally in Madrid.
In the beginning of the outbreak, the government perceived the coronavirus as an isolated threat, dismissing notions that it could soon become a domestic crisis, Vox reported.
Sánchez did not initiate a nationwide lockdown until March 14, which many viewed as too late. In defense, he cited the failures of other nations to quell the outbreak and noted that Spain declared a lockdown at a time when it had fewer infections than when Italy, Britain, or France declared theirs.
Spain is now the second most infected nation in the world, with more than 157,000 cases and at least 15,900 deaths as of April 10.
Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has blatantly ignored warnings over the coronavirus and has encouraged Mexicans not to succumb to “fear or psychosis.”
López Obrador has proudly stood against coronavirus warnings throughout the outbreak by telling Mexicans not to succumb to “fear or psychosis,” and accusing the media of exaggerating the threat.
In late March, he downplayed the virus by refusing to restrict travel and ignoring recommendations to avoid close contact and touching people. During that time the president was seen kissing children, touching supporters, and refusing to use anti-bacterial gel, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Despite warnings from healthcare workers, López Obrador has insisted that Mexico has a sufficient supply of medical supplies and hospital beds. But according to a recent report, Mexico has fewer nurses and ICU beds per capita than Italy, South Korea, and the US, making it highly vulnerable for a devastating outbreak.
Starting on April 1, Mexico declared a health emergency, closing down all nonessential businesses and recreational areas for 30 days, but many fear the response has come too late.
“His irresponsibility is almost criminal,” Mexican political analyst Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez wrote in an op-ed, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly downplayed the coronavirus by calling it “a measly cold” and questioning the merits of social distancing measures that scientists have found successfully limit the spread of the virus.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly denied the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in Brazil, belittling it as a “measly cold,” and stating that Brazilians are uniquely defiant at staying healthy.
In late March, Bolsonaro blatantly ignored his health ministries by visiting one of the busiest commercial districts in Brazil and encouraging Brazilians to get back to work.
He has been quoted saying that “some will die” from the virus but that “such is life.” His recent comments questioning the effectiveness of social distancing were deleted across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, for violating public health guidelines.
The president has repeatedly dismissed quarantine guidelines and has maintained that the economic toll to contain the virus cannot be worse than the spread of illness itself.
Despite Bolsonaro’s reluctance to halt the virus, governors across the country have implemented their own measures, urging Brazilians to stay indoors and effectively ignore the president.
As of April 10, Brazil has recorded more than 19,000 cases and at least 1,000 deaths.