[Rushtalk] Putin, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Trump: men too macho for masks
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Wed May 27 12:56:24 MDT 2020
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
un 17 May 2020 03.47 EDT
Vladimir Putin in March, shaking hands with Denis Protsenko, the head of
Moscow’s new hospital treating coronavirus, who later tested positive
for Covid-19. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency/Getty
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.
Covid-19 puts Putin's power plans on hold and economy in peril
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
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
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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
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
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
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