Trump’s Ridiculous Behavior at Pandemic Briefings Baffles a Watching World

While Donald Trump has made every White House coronavirus briefing about himself, many of the world's other leaders let medical experts brief the public.

U.S. President Donald Trump, center, speaks during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Saturday, April 4, 2020. Trump said he would use the Defense Production Act to retaliate in cases where companies ship medical equipment elsewhere that’s needed in the U.S. to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. Photographer: Tasos Katopodis/Bloomberg
President Donald Trump takes center stage during every coronavirus briefing. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Bloomberg via Getty Images

To get a sense of just how much damage Donald Trump is doing each day, by making the daily White House briefings on the coronavirus pandemic mostly about himself, and distracting attention from vital updates on the public health emergency delivered by scientists, it helps to look at how very differently this is handled in other democracies.

In Greece, for example, the nation is briefed at 6 p.m. each evening by Dr. Sotirios Tsiodras, an unassuming professor of medicine who studied infectious diseases at Harvard and now leads the Greek government’s coronavirus task force. Tsiodras, often reading from his notes, has been credited with helping to rally the nation to quickly accept a national lockdown that has, so far, been more successful than most, largely by presenting the science in a calm, rational voice of authority. On the rare occasions when his level-headed facade has cracked — like a moment last month when he appealed to Greeks to protect their elderly relatives by staying at home — the impact has been all the more powerful.

On Friday, Tsiodras announced that there were 56 new cases of Covid-19 in Greece, and four more deaths, bringing the total number of cases to 2,011, with 90 fatalities. He ended his opening remarks by calling for solidarity with the country’s Roma minority. “There is no room for discrimination, for hatred, for fear, for division, for divisions in our society or in the rest of the world’s societies,” Tsiodras said. “What we need to overcome, what will help us overcome this pandemic, is above all unity and solidarity between us.”

Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has used Twitter not to attack regional officials or complain about the lockdown’s impact on the economy, but to share a video showing how successful the drive to empty the nation’s streets has been.

In other words, Greeks live in something like the parallel universe Americans could inhabit if Trump would refrain from commenting on subjects he knows nothing about and let Dr. Anthony Fauci deliver calm, fact-based updates on the fight against virus, and occasional empathetic comments on the health disparities it has revealed in American society.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron is nowhere to be seen when the daily update on the spread of Covid-19 is delivered on live television by Dr. Jérôme Salomon, an epidemiologist who is the chief medical advisor to the nation’s department of health. Salomon also takes questions from the press, because, according to L’Obs, a French news magazine, Macron wanted the public to be informed by a trusted expert, not a politician.

Although Macron did spend Thursday in Marseille, meeting with Prof. Didier Raoult, a virologist researching the potential use of the drug hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19 patients, the French president, unlike Trump, has declined to endorse the untested treatment as a miracle cure.

Germans also get their daily updates on the battle to slow the spread of the virus from a medical expert, Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute, the federal agency responsible for disease control.

In Ireland, updates are delivered daily by Dr. Tony Holohan, the country’s chief medical officer, despite the fact that its current leader, Leo Varadkar, is also a doctor.

Holohan, like Tsiodras and Fauci, has become a local celebrity since the start of the pandemic because he is seen as a man of integrity who speaks in plain language.

Canadians get bilingual updates on the virus from news conferences led by an elected politician, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, but she largely defers to the medical experts, the chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, and her deputy, Dr. Howard Njoo.

Rather than attacking his political opponents or whining about criticism from the press, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has dedicated his media appearances to making the case to the public for the necessary measures recommended by the scientists.

At a provincial level in Canada, British Columbia’s daily briefings are led by Dr. Bonnie Henry, a public official modest enough to admit that part of the region’s success so far has been down to “luck.”

In Spain, ministers deliver the updates, but alongside a medical expert, Dr. Fernando Simón, the director of Spain’s health emergency center, who was himself infected with the virus in March. The doctor, who has achieved a kind of cult status, recently rejoined the briefings by video link from quarantine.

Even in countries where politicians take the lead in providing updates, like Austria and Japan, officials have, unlike Trump, modeled good public behavior by observing social distancing and wearing masks.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, an anti-immigrant populist tycoon, has superficial similarities to Trump, but embraced the science fully enough to declare a state of emergency before the country’s first Covid-19 death took place. Babiš allows the coronavirus press conferences to be handled by his health minister and, having made masks mandatory in public last month, wears one himself when addressing the nation.

The daily briefings in Britain, which are led by a senior politician, have been criticized by some observers as overly political — even Trumpian “defensive look-how-well-we’re-doing drivel.” At one news conference before he became infected with Covid-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson even shared the Trump-like boast that he had continued to shake hands, even while visiting a hospital treating coronavirus patients.

Yet at each briefing in London, the senior elected official leading it has been flanked by two medical experts who have been free to field questions from journalists after the politician’s opening remarks.

Even two of the planet’s most Trump-like leaders, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, have allowed the experts to speak, mostly unimpeded.

Erdogan was criticized for initially downplaying the threat posed by the virus, but permits his health minister, Dr. Fahrettin Koca, to deliver science-based, daily updates on the effort to combat its spread.

Bolsonaro, who has made a show of flaunting social distancing guidelines, and threatened to fire his health minister, Dr. Luiz Henrique Mandetta for supporting it, still lets the doctor lead the daily updates for the public.

On Thursday, Mandetta warned the public to beware of “false prophets,” promising cures, and mocked anti-vaxxers, claiming that as soon as a vaccine is developed for Covid-19, they will be the first to take it.

Bolsonaro shares Trump’s fixation on the possibility that the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine could be a miracle cure for Covid-19, and his impatience with medical experts who want to see proof that it is safe and effective in randomized clinical trials before recommending it to patients. Last month, Facebook and Twitter deleted video of Bolsonaro saying that the drug was “working” everywhere to cure Covid-19, flagging it as a violation of their policies against spreading misinformation about the coronavirus.

As a result, Mandetta has reportedly resisted pressure from Brazil’s president to approve the use of hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19 patients at the first signs of illness. The health minister said earlier this week that doctors could prescribe the drug for outpatients, but they would have to take responsibility for the risks of possible side effects if they do. In the past two weeks, there have been 43 cases of heart trouble related to hydroxychloroquine treatment among coronavirus patients in France, according to that country’s drug safety agency.

Updated: Saturday, April 11, 4:09 p.m. PDT
This article was updated with a new headline and to add information about how Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš is handling the crisis.

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