How Catching Coronavirus Affects Your Popularity as a World Leader

Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro and now Trump. What does COVID-19 do to your approval ratings?
October 2, 2020, 4:08pm
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Photo: Alamy. 

Since the announcement that President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19, social media has gone into meltdown over the potential ramifications of the diagnosis.

Aside from the QAnon believers suggesting that Trump got coronavirus on purpose as an elaborate cover to arrest Hillary Clinton, or the Chinese social media users calling his diagnosis “sweet karma”, many have questioned how the news could affect the President’s handling of the pandemic and the outcome of November’s election.

On the 1st of October, two days after the first Presidential debate, various polls put Trump’s approval rating at between 46 percent and 49 percent. Will the positive diagnosis lead to a swell of sympathetic support, or a dip in popularity?

As many others have pointed out, that is currently near-impossible to tell. No polling results have been released since the announcement that he and the First Lady are experiencing “mild symptoms” – and as for his response, well, Trump is famously unpredictable.

However, what we can do is examine two similar cases – the positive diagnosis of both UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, men who took similarly cavalier approaches to the virus as Trump – to see what, if anything, can be gleaned.

BORIS JOHNSON

On the 3rd of March, the same day his government’s scientific advisers warned against “greetings such as shaking hands”, Prime Minister Boris Johnson boasted that he had visited a hospital where there were confirmed coronavirus cases, and “shook hands with everybody”.

The Conservative Party’s response to the pandemic ever since has been widely criticised as a shambles.

Former scientific advisor to the government, Professor Neil Ferguson, said that had a lockdown been imposed a week earlier than it was (on the 23rd of March), 20,000 lives could have been saved. While many countries started rolling out tests, none were available to the UK public. At the same time, NHS staff were scrambling to access PPE, as were staff in care homes, which witnessed a huge number of deaths as a result.

Then, in news that was both shocking and entirely not shocking whatsoever, Number 10 announced that Johnson had tested positive for coronavirus. Initially, his spokespeople denied that the Prime Minister was seriously ill, but a week after the announcement, when his symptoms worsened, Johnson was taken to hospital. On the 7th of April, he was moved to intensive care. After a few days, the Prime Minister was discharged from the hospital and allowed to rest outside London.

While YouGov polling data shows that Johnson catching COVID-19 did not improve the popularity of the Conservative Party, it did inspire a small rise in popularity for him personally. After he was released from the ICU, Johnson saw his approval rating rise from 54 to 60 percent. This positive rating has now fallen, with under 40 percent of Brits still having a favourable opinion of the Prime Minister.

When Johnson got ill, many felt this could be a turning point in the way he managed the pandemic. However, months later, the government’s stance is still being criticised as ineffectual, having led to a second spike in cases, many areas having to go into a local lockdown and the looming prospect of millions of people losing their jobs.

JAIR BOLSONARO

On the 8th of July, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tested positive for COVID-19.

Much like Johnson, this wasn’t hugely shocking news – Bolsonaro had been sceptical of the threat posed by the virus, refusing to wear a mask in public and saying that, if he did test positive, he would "not have to worry, as I wouldn't feel anything".

He was also dismissive of lockdowns, and said in March that “from what I have seen until now, there are other kinds of flu which have killed more people than that [coronavirus] one". When he announced his positive test result to the media, he even removed the mask a federal judge had ordered him to wear in public.

Meanwhile, Brazil was struggling with a huge rise in coronavirus cases. From early May, the number of diagnoses had begun to rise exponentially, and to date Brazil has the second-highest death rate after the US.

Yet, in August, one month after his diagnosis, Bolsonaro’s popularity was at an all-time high. On the 14th of August, data showed that 37 percent of those polled said they found the government good or great, a rise from 32 percent in June, before he was diagnosed. A more recent poll from September puts Bolsonaro at a 38 percent positive approval rating.

Despite remaining bullishly opposed to lockdown measures since his recovery – and saying vaccination for the virus shouldn’t be mandatory – the government’s emergency funding for nearly 63.5 million Brazilians has clearly played well, with almost half the country saying Bolsonaro isn’t to blame for the toll COVID has taken.

So: both Johnson and Bolsonaro enjoyed a small (and in one case brief) rise in popularity after contracting coronavirus – but neither appeared to change their stance to the handling of the pandemic.

Of course, those two men are also not Donald Trump – and it’s too early to say whether any links can be drawn between the reaction to their diagnoses and that to the President’s positive test result.

What’s certain is that Trump’s ability to campaign will inevitably be affected by his diagnosis. Even if he tests negative within the next 14 days, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to attend rallies in three key states (Wisconsin, Florida and Arizona) or the next presidential debate, which is scheduled for the 15th of October.

For now, the world is reacting in other ways – the global stock markets have dipped, France said the news proves “the virus spares no one, including those who have shown scepticism” – but it’s yet to be seen how exactly the American people will respond.