If a leader has a political weakness, novel coronavirus is finding it.

It’s too early to score countries on their overall responses to a pandemic whose life cycle is likely to be measured in years. Yet it’s clear already that some used the time they had to prepare and act in the critical, early stage of the outbreak far less well than others.

In China, the virus revealed a damaging addiction to secrecy, shared by local officials and President Xi Jinping alike. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s blustering approach to policy cost not only time, but almost his life. In the U.S., President Donald Trump’s chaotic management style and politicization of the outbreak appears to have hampered a rapid, coordinated federal response.

In the age-old debate over whether leaders matter in deciding history, the answer from the first few months of 2020 is a resounding “yes they do,” says Francois Heisbourg, a former official in the French foreign and defense ministries who now advises the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.

The costs of being found wanting are potentially high. The death toll from the virus to date is over 330,000, global supply chains have ruptured and millions of jobs have been destroyed. A Bloomberg Economics estimate, based on optimistic recovery scenarios, projects the pandemic will carve $6 trillion out of the global economy.

Saving Lives
Much of the political impact from mistakes made has been obscured to date by a “rally around the flag” effect that has – with a few exceptions – shielded leaders across the board from criticism and seen their popularity rise, a pattern familiar from times of war. But that protective effect is starting to fade.

On Wednesday, U.K. opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer attacked Johnson in Parliament for having been late to protect care homes from Covid-19, late to expand testing, and now late with the rollout of tracing and isolation policies that helped Germany and South Korea control the pandemic.

The contrast between Johnson’s early counter-virus efforts and those of Germany, led by trained chemist and Chancellor Angela Merkel, is stark. The virus was discovered in both countries at the end of January, but by early March – a time when Johnson was still making a show of shaking hands in crowds - Germany was declaring a protective equipment emergency and was developing tests for mass production. The number of Covid-19 deaths per million inhabitants is now four times as high in the U.K. as in Germany.

Urged by Johnson on Wednesday to be less negative and recognize the government’s plan to have a “world beating” test, track and isolate system in place by June 1, Starmer replied: “34,000 deaths is negative. Of course I’m going to ask about that.” On Thursday, the official fatality number stood at 36,042.

Still, Johnson has carefully deferred to scientists and made a big pitch to depoliticize the crisis by lavishing praise and attention on the National Health Service, sometimes described as the closest Britain has to a national religion. Not so Trump.

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