Opinion: In a race to the bottom, Prayut stands with the worst world leaders

Our leaders seem to be headed in a competitive race to the bottom. 

Trump, Pedro Sanchez of Spain, XI Jinping, even Generalissimo Prayut of Thailand have come under criticisms from their respective populace over their handling of the coronavirus outbreak. 

All of these men once had a strong base of support which was impervious to outside attempts at influence or even arguments based on reason and logic. 

Yet the Covid-19 outbreak has penetrated their Teflon coated shells. 

It remains to be seen whether leaders so dependent on the power of their personality can survive a crisis where scare mongering and grandstanding has so little effect on the outcome. 

The astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson was once asked about climate change denial and those ignorant of the evidence. 

His answer was apt and appropriate for the current crisis. 

“Science doesn’t care about your feelings or what you think. It will happen whether or not you like it.”

Well the virus doesn’t care for propaganda or rhetoric, it matters little whether it’s from China or Arkansas, if unprepared it will spread, infect, and kill. 

In the United States, Trump has made a living reading on wisecracks and boasts. His popularity hinges on his ability to project his own power and the image that he was dominating every subject matter, no matter the subject. 

Yet being the largest personality in the room matters little when there’s so little substance to back it up. The US is headed towards a massive outbreak, with state governments shutting down entire cities in a bid to curtail the virus. 

It hasn’t helped that Trump has gutted his infectious disease office, or that he didn’t think much of the threat until very recently, or that his understanding of science is superseded by his ego. 

US experts have said it is likely to get worse before it gets better. Once the smoke clears, if it clears, from the carnage that covid-19 has brought, it will be interesting to see if Trump’s base and their sentiment survive intact. 

In China, Xi Jinping was made president for life. It seemed nothing could penetrate the personality cult and propaganda walled that protected the Chinese leader from criticism. 

Winnie the Pooh memes, criticisms about concentration camps for Muslims, even last year’s ongoing battle with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong did little to dent Xi’s popularity. Or at the very least, there was little appetite for taking on the state apparatus by criticizing Xi Jinping. 

The outbreak has seemed to change that. Residents of Wuhan by all accounts care little for their leader, jaded by the central government’s combination of propaganda before reality and inaction at the onset. 

It took thousands of deaths, including that of the whistleblower that notified the world of the virus Dr Li, to tend Xi’s stranglehold on information and popularity but it seems to have done so. As many analysts have pointed out, for the first time in a long time, Xi Jinping looks vulnerable. 

Which brings us to our dear leader. Like it or not, Prayut Chan-ocha was popular with certain sectors of the Thai population. 

How else would you explain the millions that voted for the Palang Pracharat party? They certainly were not voting for Thamanat or Pareena or even Paibul. 

They were voting for Generalisimo Prayut Chan-ocha, protector of Thainess, dictator and all-around good guy. But Uncle Tu, as he is known to the Thais, has never seen his popularity sink lower than it has now. 

Masterminding a coup against a democratically elected government didn’t do it, blaming victims for their own rape and murder didn’t do it, being allowed to become premier by a shady constitution didn’t do it, but this coronavirus is denting his popularity. 

It is all anecdotal of course. Thailand still doesn’t really do polling properly because the truth is inconvenient. But those that have long been Uncle Tu’s biggest fans are now the ones calling for his head. People who have led protests calling for an unelected government have questioned publicaly the government’s response to the crisis. 

And boy, what a response it has been. Whether it is a tone deaf speech when the country needs uniting (Thailand must win, remember?) or allowing a cabinet minister to associate with illegal exporters of face masks, or even prioritizing Chinese tourists over his own people, Uncle has dropped the ball every opportunity he’s been given. 

Perhaps, now, his base will wake up to the fact that men who assume power based purely on the back of crisis with the threat of violence are not best qualified to run a country. 

Perhaps indeed. But epiphanies are bittersweet when we are all dying from the virus.  

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