On Jan. 10, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced on his Twitter account that he had COVID-19—again. His first bout came in 2021.
When I first heard that AMLO had tested positive for a second time, my mind quickly jumped to conclusions: I thought it was a natural outcome of his poor management of COVID. But he’s not the only world leader to get COVID twice: Andrzej Duda, president of Poland, and Arif Alvi of Pakistan have also tested positive two times. I wanted to see if my assumption—that leaders who don’t take COVID seriously on behalf of their countries are more likely to experience the disease twice themselves—held true for Poland and Pakistan, too. What I found surprised me.
Since the pandemic began, Mexico’s response to the virus has left much to be desired. In mid-March 2020, the official position of the government was to basically treat COVID like the seasonal flu. For instance, it would use surveys to estimate the number of infections, instead of a nationwide system offering COVID tests.
That changed at the end of March 2020, when the General Health Council declared a suspension of all nonessential activities and declared COVID-19 a sanitary emergency, but the government didn’t implement economic measures to help the people and businesses who were missing work. Moreover, the country didn’t close its borders to international travel, and there was a lot of misinformation about the severity of the disease and the effectiveness of measures like social distancing and the use of face masks.
In December 2020, for example, the president suggested that lockdowns and curfews were dictatorial measures and explained that he seldom used a face mask, as a matter of freedom: “Everyone is free. … Those who want to put on the mask and feel safer can do it.”
Naturally, the number of infected people skyrocketed, while at the same time there was a shortage of protective equipment for medical personnel in the hospitals and of supplies to treat the disease, like ventilators. By the beginning of 2021, Mexico had become the country with the third-highest number of COVID deaths worldwide, more than 155,000. (The United States and Brazil took first and second place.) And then, in late January 2021, the president got sick. He had been touring the country without using a face mask or keeping safe distance.
After he recovered and the coronavirus vaccine rollout was announced to the public, the president began to use the vaccination strategy as an excuse to pull back on other prevention measures, while debates arose over misleading rates of vaccinated people that the government was reporting. Cases continued to rise.
From the beginning of the pandemic to mid-January 2022, more than 4 million people in Mexico have been infected. Approximately 300,000 have died. In early January, the Ministry of Health reported that at least 88 percent of the population had finally received at least one COVID vaccine dose.
Thanks to the omicron variant, the country is seeing higher daily case counts than ever before. But López Obrador didn’t seem to be worried about it on Jan. 10 when he said, “I think that fortunately we are not going to need to be hospitalized, nor are we going to suffer from loss of human lives. This is different. I would say that this virus is on its way out. It is not going to the lungs and very soon things will normalize.” A week later, he tested positive for a second time. He had been feeling sick during his daily in-person press conference but disregarded the symptoms as a cold. He still refuses to wear a mask.
During the first global wave, Poland managed to keep spread to a minimum. The first case was detected on March 4, 2020, and by March 12 the government had issued a first set of regulations to contain the virus. It closed public places like restaurants, bars, schools, and mass events. Later that month, Poland also shuttered its land borders and international airports, limited nonfamily gatherings to a maximum of two people and religious gatherings to six people, forbade nonessential travel, and closed parks, boulevards, and beaches. The government also issued a support package for Polish businesses of almost $26 billion to counteract the economic effects of the lockdowns.
At the beginning of May, authorities felt the pandemic was under control and began loosening some of the restrictions. Bars and restaurants reopened, and people, feeling safe again, stopped wearing masks and maintaining social distance. Then came the elections.
Duda was running for a second term with the support of the Law and Justice party, which has a right-wing populist ideology that some feel threatens the rights of those who don’t align with its definition of “national identity.” Originally, the elections were scheduled to happen on May 10, but because of the pandemic Duda postponed them till June 28, with a second round on July 12. In order to gain voters, he promoted his success in handling the first wave of the pandemic. He won.
Then everything changed. In September 2020, the government reopened the schools, but infections spiked, and Poland became one of the countries with the highest number of cases in the European Union. In October 2020, the authorities announced the closing of restaurants and bars and banned public gatherings of more than five people, although schools stayed open. That same month, Duda tested positive for COVID.
In 2021, Poland’s health care system nearly collapsed and faced shortages of staff and ICU beds. Poland also had high rates of vaccine skepticism: 45 percent of people in a survey disagreed with the statement “If a vaccine for COVID-19 were available, I would get it.” (In the U.S., 33 percent of the population said the same.) The government ruled out a complete lockdown to avoid more economic damage to the country, but bars, restaurants, and gyms were closed; schools went to online classes; and public gatherings were limited to five people.
At the start of 2022, Duda was vaccinated and had received a booster shot when he tested positive for COVID a second time on Jan. 5. By then, 193 cases of the omicron variant had been detected in the country, about 7 to 8 percent of new COVID-19 cases.
A week later, most of the members of Poland’s Medical Council, which advises the prime minister on COVID-19—Poland is a parliamentary representative democratic republic, where the prime minister is the head of the government and shares power with the president—resigned, protesting that the government hasn’t been using scientific evidence to influence its policies.
In October 2020, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said that if the U.S. had handled the pandemic as well as Pakistan, “we would have saved in the neighborhood of $10 trillion.”
Even before any coronavirus cases were detected in the country, Pakistan’s health ministry made an alliance with the World Health Organization and implemented its Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan. It raised up to $595 million from donors around the world to address the disease once it arrived in the country.
Nevertheless, the health care system was unprepared and unequipped to handle the cases, and many lacked personal protective equipment. Doctors protested both the shortages and the closing of the country’s top health professionals’ regulatory body, the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council, just six months before the pandemic. This left around 15,000 fresh medical graduates without certification and 30,000 doctors waiting for their routine five-year registration renewal to continue practicing medicine.
Lockdowns were also implemented in all major cities, and as early as June, the government began distributing information about the risks of the disease. It also screened people entering the country for COVID and established isolation and quarantine centers at the airports of Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore. However, the government was criticized for allowing international travel in these airports and for not testing and quarantining those arriving from Iran.
The country increased the number of tests from 200 per day to 30,000 per day by June 2020. Simultaneously, authorities were taking disciplinary action against people who didn’t use masks, maintain social distance, or practice proper sanitation in public places.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Imran Khan contradicted WHO recommendations by advising people not to go to the hospitals for tests and instead stay at home and wash their hands. He was also against full lockdown measures. (It is worth mentioning that in Pakistan the prime minister is the one in charge of running the federal government, while the president only acts as ceremonial figurehead.)
Vaccines became available in early 2021, but Pakistan received very few doses. On March 29, President Arif Alvi tested positive for the virus. He had just received the first dose of the Chinese COVID vaccine on March 15 and was scheduled to take the second dose in the first week of April. It was too soon for the vaccine to have taken full effect. Alvi advised people to “continue to be careful.” Meanwhile, misinformation about the vaccine swirled.
In October, Asad Umar, the leader of the government organization that oversees Pakistan’s pandemic response, said that 46 percent of the population ages 12 and up had been fully vaccinated, and 63 percent had received at least one dose. The government advised people to continue using masks and keeping social distance in light of the rise in omicron cases. On Jan. 6, the president tested positive for the virus a second time.
I had expected that world leaders who experienced the disease twice would be those who downplayed the pandemic. But for Alvi and Duda, that seemed not to be the case. It serves as a reminder that even the countries that seemed at first to have a handle on the virus have struggled; there is no magic formula to face a pandemic.