President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are not the only world leaders facing political backlash as governments scramble to contain the vicious COVID-19 virus.
Pressure is mounting for world leaders to contain the spread of the virus, even as outbreaks threaten the economy as well. Opposition parties and ordinary citizens are beginning to question whether their governments can properly handle the growing crisis.
Conservative populists in Europe such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen have tied their critiques to their signature issue of immigration and are slamming government officials for what they say is a failure to recognize the real threat.
“Allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible,” Mr. Salvini, the onetime interior minister who is now a harsh critic of the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, told reporters in Genoa this week. Mr. Conte, he said, should resign “if he isn’t able to defend Italy and Italians.”
Officials from the World Health Organization insisted during a press briefing Tuesday that countries must be prepared to wage a “full-on assault” to curb the spread of the coronavirus. WHO officials declared this week that the spread of COVID-19 is on the cusp of a global pandemic.
“Think [as if] it’s going to be there tomorrow …,” WHO official Bruce Aylward said in a press briefing. “I keep hearing, ‘Oh, if it hits us we just have to accept it and it’s going to spread.’ Why? You’ve lost before you’ve started.”
Moon, Abe struggle
Governments across Asia are already on the defensive over their early responses to the virus.
As the outbreak in South Korea worsens, President Moon Jae-in faces growing criticism that he has taken the spread of the virus too lightly. The number of infections in South Korea rose to more than 1,200 Wednesday, making it the second most affected country after China.
Mr. Moon recently visited the city of Daegu, the center of the outbreak in his country, and called the situation “very grave.” The virus is believed to have started in the obscure Shincheonji Church of Jesus, whose membership includes 9,000 people now in quarantine. As Mr. Moon’s administration scrambles to contain the virus by screening tens of thousands of people daily, critics say the president did not act swiftly enough in the critical early days of the emergency.
“The coronavirus situation spun out of control as the president was mired in optimism, saying that the outbreak wouldn’t last long,” the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper, a frequent Moon critic, said in an editorial. “If we can’t block the virus, the whole country will be in danger.”
Opposition politician Kim Seung-dong organized a public protest in the streets of Daegu on Friday. He said in a post on Facebook that Mr. Moon’s administration “failed to respond early to the coronavirus.” Mr. Kim now says people are dying of “Moon Jae-in virus,” Time magazine reported.
An online petition with more than 760,000 signatures on a website linked to the presidential office demands that the Moon government consider a travel ban on visitors from China. Officials in Hong Kong and Israel have instituted blanket bans on South Korean travelers, but Mr. Moon’s administration has balked at a total prohibition on the entry of Chinese citizens.
Japanese President Shinzo Abe is also facing heat after reports that he delegated much of the responsibility for crisis control to Health Minister Katsunobu Kato. Mr. Abe was seen as largely silent throughout the nightmarish ordeal of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which left nearly 700 people infected and trapped aboard the quarantined ship in a Japanese port for weeks.
“Where is the leadership?” former Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis remarked to Reuters. “Even now, he’s not out there, not talking to the public and mobilizing people. I think this will hurt him the longer this goes on.”
The infections in Japan, which totaled nearly 160 through Tuesday, has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the Summer Olympics set to kick off in Tokyo in July. Critics say Mr. Abe may have underplayed the coronavirus crisis and delayed prevention and detection moves for fear it would endanger the success of the 2020 Games.
The Japanese economy took a big hit in December because of a rise in the sales tax, and critics speculate that Mr. Abe’s administration could be resisting an outright ban of all Chinese travelers to the country in hopes that tourism will give the economy a much-needed boost.
Keeping China happy
In Thailand, authoritarian Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his aides have been mocked and criticized for what critics say has been a series of confusing, contradictory statements on the public health threat.
Mr. Prayuth and other officials initially were accused of downplaying the crisis as they rejected demands to stop incoming flights from China or end special visa privileges for Chinese visitors.
Like Japan, Thailand’s economy is heavily dependent on Chinese visitors, Chinese investment and Chinese markets.
Opposition parties have accused the government of using the coronavirus as an excuse to ban large gatherings and stifle political dissent.
Mr. Prayuth responded by suggesting that anyone who “politicizes” the government’s response could be imprisoned.
Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who is not a doctor, received heavy criticism this month when he criticized “those damn Caucasian tourists” who, he said, were refusing to wear the medical face masks that Thai officials are distributing.
“They need to be kicked out of Thailand,” Mr. Anutin told reporters.
In neighboring Cambodia, longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen is also under scrutiny for his full-throated support of China and his refusal to follow the lead of other countries in restricting Chinese visitors.
Hun Sen was one of the first foreign leaders to travel to Beijing in support of Mr. Xi as the crisis was unfolding and later allowed the MS Westerdam cruise ship to dock at Sihanoukville despite fears that the passengers and crew could be infected with the highly contagious virus. Critics said Cambodia’s authoritarian leader was more concerned with preserving China’s economic and diplomatic support than with protecting his people from the virus.
Cambodia’s domestic press is tightly controlled, but the government has lashed out at foreign media outlets that it says have distorted the country’s response to the health crisis.
“Such hasty, unsubstantiated, unprofessional and accusatory articles and statements have spurred unnecessary fears and confusion among the public regarding the spread of the coronavirus,” Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said in a statement last week.
Blowback in Europe
More than a half-dozen European countries have reported cases of COVID-19. Italy has the highest tally outside of Asia with more than 325 infected and 11 dead as of Wednesday.
The disease spread quickly in Italy over the weekend. Confirmed cases jumped from three to more than 200 in three days, according to Time.
Mr. Conte, the prime minister, gave his opponents an opening with an interview Sunday acknowledging that the surge surprised him.
The ambitious Mr. Salvini pounced. The leader of the right-wing nationalist Northern League party has long coveted the prime minister’s job.
Mr. Salvini has pressed Mr. Conte to suspend the European Union’s liberal travel regime and close the country’s borders to combat the spread of the virus. Mr. Conte countered that the “conditions” for that decision did not exist yet.
In response, Mr. Salvini shared a video on his social media accounts blasting the Italian government for allowing a migrant rescue ship to dock in a Sicilian port Sunday.
“It is simply insane that the landings continue as if nothing had happened. This government is every day more reckless and deplorable,” Mr. Salvini said in his video. “And Conte has the courage to go and say on TV, ‘I’m surprised.’”
The threat in France has been far more limited, but Ms. Le Pen and her far-right National Rally party are taking a page from the Salvini playbook in attacking the government of centrist President Emmanuel Macron.
The government’s handling of the crisis has been “totally incoherent,” Ms. Le Pen told reporters in Paris on Tuesday as she called for far more stringent border controls.
“Has the government realized the full extent of the problem?” she asked. “No, I don’t think so.”
⦁ Richard S. Ehrlich contributed to this report from Bangkok.