President Trump’s bout with the novel COVID-19 this October made him one in a long line of world leaders who have personally contracted the virus. From Monaco to Honduras to the U.K., the world has watched and realized the unprecedented effects of this global pandemic on a nation’s most powerful people. In this age of technology, social media and the rapid spread of information, the rules around privacy standards for health are different when you’re in a position of power. How is the COVID experience different when viewed through the lens of privacy, elections and campaigns, policy and agency? NBN Opinion Investigates.

Graphic by Kylie Lin

Eli Doroshow, Weinberg ‘22

In the era of Trump, the simple answer to this question is misinformation. But, as it turns out, world leaders may have always had an affinity for deceiving the public in the midst of global pandemics. Today’s COVID-19 crisis has often been compared to the Spanish Flu of 1918. In the U.S., both health crises overwhelmed the country’s healthcare system, closed workplaces and altered daily social life. Both outbreaks also witnessed the president downplay the virus, only to contract it later — and then continue to lie about it.

Although the 1918 flu pandemic would go on to kill 675,000 Americans, “[President Woodrow] Wilson never made a public statement about the pandemic,”  according to historian John M. Barry. Instead, the president had his sights set on winning World War I overseas, and he wanted to keep morale high back home. Echoing the Trump White House’s frequent comparisons of the coronavirus to “the common flu,” government officials under Wilson often claimed that the virus was an “ordinary influenza by another name.” But Wilson’s public denials, like Trump’s, did not make him immune; he contracted the flu in 1919 while in Paris negotiating The Treaty of Versailles. Wilson, 63 at the time of his infection, felt the virus’ wrath in full force. He suffered severe coughing fits, gastrointestinal symptoms and at one point, had a 103-degree fever. Yet all of this was unbeknownst to the public. With no televisions, smartphone cameras or social media platforms, Wilson’s administration had little trouble keeping the president’s condition a secret.

The whole country learned about Trump’s positive COVID test and subsequent hospitalization via the president’s twitter account in early October, but, even with modern technology, we have yet to learn the true extent of his illness. During Trump’s heavily-reported stay at Walter Reed, White House doctor Sean Conley continuously misled the public, providing rosy updates on Trump’s status without initially revealing that the president had actually received supplemental oxygen and dexamethasone, a steroid generally reserved for COVID patients with severe symptoms. But while the American public didn’t know the entire truth about either Wilson or Trump’s personal battles with the global viruses of their respective times, we do know this: more people died, and will continue to die, than would have if Americans had a president who was honest with them.

Kate Schlager, Weinberg ‘22

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and U.S. President Donald Trump — National leaders that are fighting for the top few slots worldwide in  number of COVID-19 related deaths — have both woefully misled their countries in their handling of the pandemic. Since Bolsonaro’s election in 2018, the two have often been likened to one another due to their similar nationalist worldviews and their brazen embrace of quasi-authoritarian leadership styles. Unfortunately for these two leaders, the strong-man personas they put out and their brazen populist rhetoric could do nothing to protect them from the coronavirus, and within months of each other, both presidents announced positive tests.

On the global stage, the fact that both Bolsonaro and Trump contracted COVID seems more like the workings of karma, given their approaches to the virus — which involved diminishing its severity and undermining public health officials by refusing to wear a mask. As the U.S. continues to lead the world in COVID deaths and with Brazil coming in at third highest number of deaths, the situation begs the question: have these leaders really even learned anything from their own bouts with virus?

The unsettling conclusion is that leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro — who have consistently been criticized for their authoritarian tendencies (like accusations of “fake news”) aren’t actually concerned for the health and wellbeing of their citizens. For Bolsonaro and Trump, contracting the virus was a chance to construct a narrative without any evidence of truth (that was peppered with unclear or inconclusive answers). Throughout the pandemic, they’ve tried to push the idea that the virus is surmountable and that there is no need for restrictive lockdowns and requirements. This message isn’t one truly meant to comfort their citizens — if it was, it would be accompanied by declining cases and fewer deaths. But it’s clear that when leaders are determined to preserve their own image, they care far less about the truth or about protecting those they are supposedly serving. Rather, they perform self-serving stunts like the drive-by that Trump performed outside of Walter Reed, or posting videos extolling the success of the drug hydroxychloroquine despite scientists’ statements claiming its lack of efficacy.  Ultimately, for these self-absorbed leaders, contracting COVID-19 didn’t do much to change their responses to the virus or their efforts to protect their citizenry because they weren’t, and still aren’t, really concerned with anyone besides themselves.

Graphic by Kylie Lin

Jo Scaletty, SoC ‘23

When thinking about a world leader’s responsibilities toward disclosure of health information, I took a look back in time.  Over the course of world history, of course, there have been times during which the leader of an empire, nation, or community has fallen ill or been severely injured. When thinking about these times, I find myself wondering: who knew? Were those immediately around the person desperately keeping it quiet, as in the case with Kim Jong-un and the rumors of his death? Or was the country, or in some cases the world, updated on the situation, like Shinzo Abe’s openness about his battle with ulcerative colitis? And the answers to these questions give way for understanding the context of a leader’s decision in revealing their medical information.

In the case of Donald Trump, it’s clear that, for better or for worse, the national and international community was well-aware of what was happening — at least in the very beginning. Quickly, though, Trump, and those who he spoke through, began weaving lies about his condition into public discourse. To me, this is unacceptable. Regardless of how any person feels about the President, he is fully entitled to HIPAA; this does not mean that he should be given free reign to lie to the world about a very serious problem. He was free to omit any information at any time, though he did begin his battle with Covid with a very public statement. Instead, however, he began telling — and getting caught in — lies. There was no attempt to hide the situation, but instead stoked fear and mistrust, similar to the situations of Xi Jinping and Hugo Chávez, who each have given conflicting information about their own medical ailments. In the case of Donald Trump, however, this was disheartening, though completely expected; after all, twisting the truth into a knot is exactly what this administration has been known for.