A majority of Americans recognize that the Trump administration’s handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic has been bad, a perception that may cost Trump re-election. Their assessment is undoubtedly correct, but just how bad has the administration performed? Although it is tempting to listen to Trump downplay the severity of the disease and claim that his handling of it has been ‘the best,’ and conclude that the opposite must be true because the 45th POTUS is a pathological liar, there is better approach. Here is how to know for certain.

Almost ten months after the World Health Organization announced a Public Health Emergency it is obvious that the responses of some national governments have been much more successful than others in limiting the death toll. Mortality rates per 100,000 population very enormously not only across all countries but also across similar countries. Comparing the performance of national leaders almost inevitably encounters the ‘apples and oranges’ incommensurability defense, so before attributing all of the cross-national differences in mortality rates to leadership, it helps to establish a contextual baseline with which to judge what is superior and inferior performance.

Where COVID-19 cases have been reported across the globe

Geography is important. Countries with large populations sharing continents with other countries with large populations ought to struggle more to control infection than countries with small populations occupying all of an island because they must limit both air travel and surface travel. International land borders are more porous than international water and air borders. Infection itself is more difficult to contain in the United States and Germany than in New Zealand and Cyprus.

Demography is also important. Countries with younger population profiles ought to present lower mortality rates. The median age in Africa is 18 compared with 42 in Europe and 30 or more on the other inhabited continents. Mortality rates ought to be lower in lower in Africa and higher elsewhere, especially Europe, as indeed they are. Ghana and Nigeria present mortality rates of, respectively, 1.04 and 0.57 while those for Denmark and Norway are, respectively, 11.68 and 5.23.

Whether national leadership can make any difference also depends on ‘state-ness,’ on the size and effectiveness of a country’s bureaucratic apparatus. That’s why a German or Austrian national leader ought to be more effective than their Peruvian and Ecuadoran counterparts, as indeed they have been. Germany and Austria present mortality rates of, respectively, 11.74 and 9.91, while those for Peru and Ecuador are 90.41 and 72.78.

To judge the performance of the Trump administration the proper comparison is between the USA and countries with large, older populations sharing continents and comparable levels of state-ness. Consider the following data:

The best thing that can be said about the performance of the Trump administration is that it is not as miserable as that of the governments of Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmés or Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti, but is execrable by comparison with that of the governments of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. That Trump is almost as envious of Trudeau and Merkel as of his predecessor in the Oval Office makes that more than a wee bit funny.

What of the performance of Trump’s rightwing populist counterpart in Airstrip One, Prime Minister Boris Johnson? Here the appropriate peers are island countries with older populations and comparable levels of state-ness. Consider the following data:

So once the important contextual differences in geography, demography and state-ness are taken in consideration, the Johnson government appears to have underperformed even the Trump administration. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen have proven themselves much more competent than Merry Old Boris. Johnson it is worth noting is reportedly given to old fashioned, albeit English style, sexism. That national leadership in the Covid-19 Pandemic Crisis has mattered is undeniable. Some of the specifics of Trump and Johnson’s dereliction have differed. Trump’s decision to establish both a Coronavirus Task Force under Vice President Mike Pence and a Shadow Coronavirus Task Force under son-in-law Jared Kushner – literally a Team B created to meet a nepotistic demand – is textbook ‘not how to do it’ crisis decision-making. Johnson’s inability to recall details of official lockdown orders eroded public confidence at a time when that was what was sorely needed. Most damning of all, Trump and Johnson engaged in patterns of delay and denial that signaled their contempt for public health. On both sides of the Atlantic that has meant many more Americans and Britons dead than needed to die because they were in charge.


Feature Image Credit: Earth all masked up and ready to go socialize is a composite image created by LikeTheDew.com using an image from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (flickr/Creative Commons) and a surgical mask from a promotional catalog.


John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.