(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It was only a matter of time before a sitting world leader tested positive for Covid-19. In confirming he has a mild case of the new coronavirus, Boris Johnson follows a string of other lesser political figures, from France’s culture minister to Iran’s deputy health minister (and Britain’s Prince of Wales if you consider his constitutional role).
He won’t be the last. Pandemics don’t respect class or wealth, and the virus has thrived in the political world, where age and experience reign, crowds gather to press the flesh and travel is constant.
It’s a safe bet this virus will change the course of human history as a result, even if we don’t yet fully understand how deadly it will be. The past offers several examples, from the benign to the dramatic. The Spanish flu epidemic a century ago struck several leaders at a critical time for peace talks after the First World War, confining British premier David Lloyd George to his sick bed for 10 days. In the 19th century, yellow fever killed so many of Napoleon’s troops in Haiti that he ended up abandoning his imperial ambitions in the U.S., resulting in the Louisiana Purchase and Haitian independence.
If the coronavirus seems much less politically cataclysmic so far, it’s because 21st-century technology and health care are helping western leaders such as Johnson — and Germany’s Angela Merkel when she confined herself to her Berlin flat because of a suspected Covid-19 case — to project an aura of “business as usual.”
Whereas a great deal of information about the Spanish flu was kept hidden from the public to avoid creating fear and uncertainty, including Lloyd George’s illness, Johnson has announced publicly that he will run the country via video-conference even as he self-isolates. “Be in no doubt that I can continue, thanks to the wizardry of modern technology, to communicate with all my top team,” Johnson told his Twitter followers. If the public can work from home, so can the prime minister; as can his health secretary, Matt Hancock, who tested positive too.
Nevertheless, running countries via video-conference is new in world affairs. It would be wrong to assume that the transition will be smooth. In Brussels, for example, the workings of the European Union have been turned upside down as leaders and officials meet virtually to respect social-distancing measures. That doesn’t just make vital crisis meetings prone to technical glitches and delays — multiplied by 27 in the EU’s case — it also robs them of the huddles, side-meetings and mini-breakthroughs that can lead to more fruitful results.
On Thursday, six hours of video talks between European leaders on the Covid-19 response ended in a dispiriting fudge. History is full of underwhelming EU summits, of course, but forced distance could make things even worse.
That the virus has also infected ministers and local officials lower down the chain of command in several countries will also have an impact, putting more sand in the gears of government. Every minute counts when a country is rolling out vast and unprecedented stimulus packages to save businesses from going under, divert precious resources to overwhelmed health services, and to maintain other public services as normal.
Longer-term plans are also likely to be frustrated, such as Johnson’s promise to the British public of a quick post-Brexit trade deal with the EU. London and Brussels have already had to cancel the second round of face-to-face trade negotiations, and both sides’ chief negotiators have tested positive for Covid-19. Will video-conferencing really help overcome what Michel Barnier called “very serious” differences? It’s doubtful.
The public craves leadership in a crisis, hence the sky-high polling for many leaders over their handling of the pandemic, including Johnson. For now politicians believe they can keep delivering it, despite infection. But politics is a “cut-and-thrust” business, where fortunes rise and fall rather quickly. If squabbling advisers or gossiping factions take advantage of a “self-isolating” leader, that might chip away at their authority. What do they say about keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer still.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.