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How Much Is the Coronavirus Infecting World Leaders and Disrupting Governments?


In 1918, the Spanish-influenza pandemic—spawned by another zoonotic virus transmitted from an animal to humans, in that case a bird—worked its way through Woodrow Wilson’s White House. His daughter Margaret caught it. So did the President’s secretary, senior staff, members of his Secret Service detail, and the White House sheep. “Two sheep belonging to the aristocratic flock that frolics on the White House grounds are indisposed and under the care of an expert of the department of Agriculture,” the Washington Post reported, on January 27, 1919. “They are in an animal hospital and are said to have influenza symptoms.” The flu caught up with Wilson in April, 1919, when he was in Paris for peace talks to formally end the First World War. His fever rose to a hundred and three degrees; he had difficulty breathing, uncontrollable coughing, and wild hallucinations. Wilson’s illness, his physician Cary Grayson wrote, “was one of the worst through which I have ever passed. I was able to control the spasms of coughing but his condition looked very serious.” Wilson, his daughter, his staffers, and the White House sheep all made it through.

The peace talks to end the Great War nearly unravelled. As did life in Washington, which reported almost thirty-four thousand cases in just four months, between October, 1918, and January, 1919. Almost three thousand died. Schools, churches, libraries, playgrounds, the courts, universities, theatres, and public events across the nation’s capital were closed. Funerals were banned. Businesses were ordered to operate on a staggered schedule. By the time the influenza ebbed, the death toll in the United States was six hundred and seventy-five thousand.

A century later, microbes from the novel coronavirus are again not discriminating on the basis of power or politics. The White House announced on Saturday that President Trump’s test for the coronavirus was negative. Yet, from Brasília to Paris, Tehran to Ulaanbaatar, government officials on six continents—cabinet ministers, lawmakers, military leaders, senior policymakers, and health officials—have been infected with numbing speed by the virus. Dozens have gone into quarantine. “It’s reasonable to expect disruptions in public services and government that we haven’t even envisioned yet,” Lindsay Wiley, a public-health law and ethics expert at American University, told me.

In Italy, which has the highest number of cases after China, Nicola Zingaretti, head of the Democratic Party and a co-partner in the coalition government, announced on Twitter that he was infected. On Tuesday, the medical chief of the Italian province of Varese, Roberto Stella, died of COVID-19. The President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, opted to self-quarantine after he returned from Italy. In France, President Emmanuel Macron cut back face-to-face meetings after his minister of culture, Franck Riester, fell ill with the disease; five French members of parliament have also been diagnosed with the coronavirus. In Spain, the lower house of parliament suspended all activities on Tuesday when Javier Ortega Smith, the secretary-general of the far-right Vox Party, tested positive; he had attended a party rally in Madrid with many fellow legislators. Photographs captured Ortega greeting dozens of supporters with handshakes, hugs, and kisses. Vox apologized and mandated that its fifty-three members of parliament self-quarantine for two weeks.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opted to self-quarantine—and telework—after his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, tested positive for COVID-19, on Wednesday, after returning from London. The British junior health minister, Nadine Dorries, tested positive shortly after she met with Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Her office posted a sign on the door: “COVID-19 DO NOT ENTER.” On Twitter, she described the illness as “pretty rubbish.” In Poland, General Jarosław Mika went into isolation on Tuesday after he came down with the coronavirus. He had just returned from a military conference in Germany, which the Pentagon subsequently said was also attended by Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli, the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, and several staff members.

In Iran, one of the four early hot spots, two vice-presidents, three cabinet officials, nine per cent of the members of parliament, the director of Emergency Medical Services, the chief of the Crisis Management Organization, senior Revolutionary Guards officers, and prominent clerics are on a long list of officials infected. Ali Akbar Velayati, a doctor trained at Johns Hopkins University and a senior adviser to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, went into quarantine on Thursday. Another senior adviser died the previous week. Velayati, who served as the foreign minister for sixteen years, was infected while working with medical staff on ways to contain the disease.

After the first case in Turkey was announced, on Wednesday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told lawmakers, “No virus is stronger than our measures.” But he was followed around by an aide with a thermal camera to scan people who came close to him for a fever. The Mongolian President, Khaltmaagiin Battulga, went into precautionary quarantine after returning from a one-day trip to China, the epicenter of COVID-19. The Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was admitted to a hospital in Queensland on Friday after he tested positive. Dutton recently returned from meetings in Washington with, among others, Attorney General William Barr and Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump. Dutton was part of a cabinet discussion on Tuesday about the Australian government’s stimulus package.

President Trump’s health became a major issue when Fabio Wajngarten, the press secretary for the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, came down with COVID-19 this week. On March 7th, Trump stood shoulder to shoulder with Wajngarten and Bolsonaro when they visited Mar-a-Lago. Wajngarten dropped in on a birthday party for Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Donald Trump, Jr., which President Trump also attended. On Friday night, the Brazilian embassy tweeted that Brazil’s acting Ambassador in Washington, Nestor Forster, who sat at Trump’s table Saturday at Mar-a-Lago, had also tested positive for the coronavirus.

Trump’s reluctance to take action regarding his own health was in contrast to Senator Rick Scott, the Florida Republican, who opted to go into isolation because he met with Bolsonaro and his delegation on Monday in Miami. “The health and safety of the American people is my focus, and I have made the decision to self-quarantine in an abundance of caution,” he said, on Thursday. So did South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who also was at Mar-a-Lago.

Two Republican congressmen—Doug Collins of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida—and Texas Senator Ted Cruz went into self-quarantine last week after being exposed to an unidentified person infected with the virus at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland this month. Gaetz had made headlines for spoofing the threat of COVID-19 when he tweeted a picture of himself in a gas mask, used to protect against chemical warfare, before subsequently flying on Air Force One with the President. Trump spoke at the same conference. In all, five Republican lawmakers and two Democrats have self-quarantined because of exposure to people who have tested positive.

The risk of serious illness and death from the coronavirus increases with age, especially for seniors over sixty, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned. In Washington, many top officials qualify as senior citizens, beginning with President Trump, who turns seventy-four in June. Vice-President Mike Pence is sixty. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McDonnell, the Kentucky Republican, is seventy-eight. On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat, told fellow lawmakers, “We are the captains of the ship. We are the last to leave.” Pelosi turns eighty on March 26th. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at the National Institutes of Health, is seventy-nine.

“An awful lot of leaders around the world are in that age group,” Dr. Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan and an expert on the 1918 flu pandemic, told me. “When you have a government made up of senior citizens who work in close quarters, like Congress or the House of Commons in Britain, on top of political duties where they meet a lot of people, shake hands and kiss babies—these are all activities considered at high risk for the spread of a respiratory virus. These are professions that don’t practice social distancing.” (President Wilson was sixty-three when he caught the Spanish flu.)



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