Are Populist Leaders Creating the Conditions for the Spread of COVID-19?; Comment on “A Scoping Review of Populist Radical Right Parties’ Influence on Welfare Policy and its Implications for Population Health in Europe”

Document Type : Commentary


1 London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK

2 Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway

3 Carlo F. Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy, Bocconi University, Milan, Italy


Do populist leaders contribute to the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)? While all governments have struggled to respond to the pandemic, it is now becoming clear that some political leaders have performed much better than others. Among the worst performing are those that have risen to power on populist agendas, such as in the United States, Brazil, Russia, India, and the United Kingdom. Populist leaders have tended to: blame “others” for the pandemic, such as immigrants and the Chinese government; deny evidence and show contempt for institutions that generate it; and portray themselves as the voice of the common people against an out-of-touch ‘elite.’ In our short commentary, focusing on those countries with the most cases, we find that populist leaders appear to be undermining an effective response to COVID-19. Perversely, they may also gain politically from doing so, as historically populist leaders benefit from suffering and ill health. Clearly more research is needed on the curious correlation of populism and public health. Notwithstanding gaps in the evidence, health professionals have a duty to speak out against these practices to prevent avoidable loss of life.


Main Subjects

  1. Rinaldi C, Bekker MPM. A scoping review of populist radical right parties’ influence on welfare policy and its implications for population health in Europe. Int J Health Policy Manag. 2020;10.34172/ijhpm.2020.48. doi:10.34172/ijhpm.2020.48
  2. Greer SL, Bekker M, De Leeuw E, et al. Policy, politics and public health. Eur J Public Health. 2017;27(suppl_4):40-43. doi:10.1093/eurpub/ckx152
  3. Bekker MPM, Greer SL, Azzopardi-Muscat N, McKee M. Public health and politics: how political science can help us move forward. J Public Health. 2018;28(suppl_3):1-2. doi:10.1093/eurpub/cky194
  4. Johns Hopkins. COVID-19 Dashboard. 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020.
  5. FT Visual & Data Journalism team. Coronavirus tracked: the latest figures as countries fight to contain the pandemic. 2020.  Accessed May 14, 2020.
  6. Albertazzi D, McDonnell D. Introduction: The sceptre and the spectre. In: Albertazzi D, McDonnell D, eds. Twenty-First Century Populism: Springer; 2008:1-11.
  7. Galea S, Maani N. The non-immigrant visa proclamation is the latest step toward self-destructive othering. 2020.  Accessed July 1, 2020.
  8. Bor J. Diverging Life Expectancies and Voting Patterns in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Am J Public Health. 2017;107(10):1560-1562. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2017.303945
  9. Koltai J, Varchetta FM, McKee M, Stuckler D. Deaths of Despair and Brexit Votes: Cross-Local Authority Statistical Analysis in England and Wales. Am J Public Health. 2020;110(3):401-406. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2019.305488
  10. McKee M, Stuckler D. "Enemies of the people?" Public health in the era of populist politics: Comment on "The rise of post-truth populism in pluralist liberal democracies: challenges for health policy.” Int J Health Policy Manag. 2017;6(11):669-672. doi:10.15171/ijhpm.2017.46
  11. Milman O. Trump administration cut pandemic early warning program in September. The Guardian. April 3, 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020. Published March 4, 2020.
  12. Daily Telegraph. Boris Johnson 'scrapped Cabinet pandemic committee six months before coronavirus hit UK.’ Telegraph. June 13, 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020.
  13. Phillips D. Brazil loses second health minister in less than a month as Covid-19 deaths rise. The Guardian. May 15, 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020. Published May 15, 2020.
  14. Kalra A, Wilkes T. Modi Government Cuts Planned Funding for National Health Mission By Almost 20%. 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020.
  15. Milman O. Trump's staff cuts have undermined Covid-19 containment efforts, watchdog finds. The Guardian. March 24, 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020.
  16. Erdemir A, Lechner JA. The Coronavirus Will Destroy Turkey’s Economy. 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020.
  17. Page K, Taraciuk Broner T. Venezuela’s Health Care Crisis Now Poses a Global Threat. 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020.
  18. Diethelm P, McKee M. Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond? Eur J Public Health. 2009;19(1):2-4. doi:10.1093/eurpub/ckn139
  19. Russell J. Opinion: Boris Johnson Is Not Cut Out for This Crisis. New York Times. March 26, 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020. Published 2020.
  20. Phillips T. Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro says coronavirus crisis is a media trick. The Guardian. March 23, 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020.
  21. Graham-Harrison E, Tom P, Ellis-Petersen H, Burke J. As coronavirus spreads around the world, so too do the quack cures. The Guardian. April 16, 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020.
  22. Smith D. Top vaccine expert says he was fired for resisting Trump on hydroxychloroquine. The Guardian. April 22, 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020.
  23. Trump D. Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing. The White House website. 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020.
  24. Kavakli KC. Did Populist Leaders Respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic More Slowly? Evidence from a Global Sample, working paper. Milan: Bocconi University; 2020.
  25. Mudde C, Kaltwasser CR. Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press; 2017.
  26. Simonov A, Sacher SK, Dubé J-PH, Biswas S. The persuasive effect of fox news: non-compliance with social distancing during the covid-19 pandemic. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2020.
  27. Jamieson KH, Albarracin D. The Relation between Media Consumption and Misinformation at the Outset of the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic in the US. The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review. 2020;1(12).
  28. Bump P. Analysis | Coronavirus has come to Trump country. The Washington Post. June 17, 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020.
  29. Badger E, Quealey K. Red vs. blue on coronavirus concern: the gap is still big but closing. The New York Times. March 21, 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020.
  30. Algan Y, Guriev S, Papaioannou E, Passari E. The European trust crisis and the rise of populism. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. 2017;2017(2):309-400.
  31. Oxford Analytica. COVID-19 intensifies the cyber race on disinformation. Emerald Expert Briefings.  
  32. White AI. Historical linkages: epidemic threat, economic risk, and xenophobia. Lancet 2020;395(10232):1250-1251.
  33. Reny TT, Barreto MA. Xenophobia in the time of pandemic: othering, anti-Asian attitudes, and COVID-19. Politics, Groups, and Identities 2020. doi:10.1080/21565503.2020.1769693
  34. Stephenson J. United Nations Seeks to Counter COVID-19 Misinformation with Digital First Responders. JAMA Health Forum.June 2, 2020.
  35. Galofré-Vilà G, Meissner CM, McKee M, Stuckler D. Austerity and the Rise of the Nazi Party. Washinton DC: National Bureau of Economic Research; 2017.
  36. Gustavsson G. Has Sweden’s coronavirus strategy played into the hands of nationalists? The Guardian, May 1, 2020.  Accessed June 25, 2020.
  37. Betz HG. After COVID-19: will Matteo Salvini lead Europe’s radical right? 2020.  Accessed June 25, 2020.
  38. Lepelletier P. Coronavirus: Marine Le Pen trouve légitime de se demander si le virus ne s'est pas «échappé» d'un laboratoire. Le Figaro. March 30, 2020.  Accessed June 25, 2020.
  39. Wang Y, McKee M, Torbica A, Stuckler D. Systematic Literature Review on the Spread of Health-related Misinformation on Social Media. Soc Sci Med. 2019;240:112552. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112552
  40. Dharamsi S, Ho A, Spadafora SM, Woollard R. The physician as health advocate: translating the quest for social responsibility into medical education and practice. Acad Med. 2011;86(9):1108-1113. doi:10.1097/ACM.0b013e318226b43b
  41. Luft LM. The essential role of physician as advocate: how and why we pass it on. Can Med Educ J. 2017;8(3):e109-e116
  42. Arya N. Advocacy as medical responsibility. CMAJ. 2013;185(15):1368. doi:10.1503/cmaj.130649
Volume 10, Issue 8
August 2021
Pages 511-515
  • Receive Date: 22 June 2020
  • Revise Date: 01 July 2020
  • Accept Date: 04 July 2020
  • First Publish Date: 01 August 2021