Medical populism and the COVID-19 pandemic

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This paper uses the vocabulary of ‘medical populism’ to identify and analyse the political constructions of (and responses to) the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil, the Philippines, and the United States from January to mid-July 2020, particularly by the countries’ heads of state: Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, and Donald Trump. In all three countries, the leaders’ responses to the outbreak can be characterised by the following features: simplifying the pandemic by downplaying its impacts or touting easy solutions or treatments, spectacularizing their responses to crisis, forging divisions between the ‘people’ and dangerous ‘others’, and making medical knowledge claims to support the above. Taken together, the case studies illuminate the role of individual political actors in defining public health crises, suggesting that medical populism is not an exceptional, but a familiar response to them. This paper concludes by offering recommendations for global health in anticipating and responding to pandemics and infectious disease outbreaks.