Trump and Putin's Pandemic Duet: Trump's America Is Far More out of Tune

What do Texas and Sverdlovsk have in common? Remarkably, quite a bit. They’re both large, diverse, economically vital areas of their countries just emerging from a completely avoidable second wave of coronavirus infection that has ripped through society, imposed special cruelties upon racial minorities and the poor, bent health systems to the breaking point, and exposed failures of leadership. And they are case studies of the ways the U.S. and Russian responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have been eerily, and disastrously, similar.

Russian president Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump share a playbook that has led each country into deep turmoil. But Trump has also travelled well beyond the commonalities—in terms of his abdication of leadership, generating chaos and incoherence; the assault upon science and U.S. public health institutions; and the politicization of the pandemic response. As a consequence, the scale, scope, and velocity of the U.S. outbreak far outstrips Russia’s (and the rest of the world’s), as does the staggering loss of life. U.S. prestige and influence have suffered. The United States has entered a world of trouble far beyond anything Russia faces today.

The United States has over one-quarter of the globe’s total cases, around 5.5 million, and average deaths have exceeded 1,000 per day for over three weeks running. The pandemic has officially claimed over 170,000 lives in the United States and almost 16,000 in Russia, though these reported numbers likely undercount the virus’s true toll. The United States is on course to top 300,000 deaths by year’s end. Russia currently has the fourth-largest reported Covid-19 caseload in the world, almost 1 million, behind only the United States, Brazil, and India. Its daily incidence has slowly declined over the last two months, currently registering around 5,000 new cases per day.

Trump and Putin’s Shared Harmony

Both countries observed the initial outbreak in China in January and had ample time to prepare as China enacted an unprecedented, forcible lockdown of 150 million people over a 70-day period. But each let that opportunity pass, refusing to take early, decisive action, as many of China’s neighbors in Asia did. Each instead chose denial, obfuscation, and delay. Each favored late, partial measures that were subsequently relaxed prematurely.

As the pandemic unfolded, both Trump and Putin confronted clear challenges to their rule—impeachment in the U.S. Congress and opposition to Putin’s quest to alter the Russian Constitution to significantly extend his presidency. Each chose to minimize the Covid-19 threat and assert they had nipped it in the bud with early flight bans and border controls. These measures looked tough on paper but proved porous in practice and ignored the reality that Covid-19 was already silently coursing through their respective societies. It took too long for either Putin or Trump to get even marginally serious about testing and other response measures essential to get ahead of the pandemic.

In both the United States and Russia, the pandemic hit first in large urban areas—Moscow and St. Petersburg, Seattle and New York—but more recently, accelerating community transmission has brought the virus to secondary urban and semi-rural doors. Both presidents tried to slough off responsibility when things got rough. Trump’s approach, described by White House officials as the “state authority handoff,” deliberately shifted broad authority—as well as blame if things went badly—to governors and mayors. This strategic retreat, initiated in the middle of April, abdicated federal lead responsibility to coordinate supply chains, deliver testing, and ensure the capacity to test, trace, isolate, and quarantine; exploited misleadingly rosy disease models; and ultimately enabled scores of ongoing viral “embers” across the South and Southwest to burst into runaway wildfires, generating almost 2 million cases in July alone.

Putin traveled an analogous road from the moment the first cases were confirmed in Russia, appearing oddly passive and disinterested during a handful of nationally televised addresses in late April and early May and passing the buck to lower-level authorities. Competent, charismatic local leaders have fought back as the plague unfolded in New York City and Moscow; Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin is now routinely dubbed “Russia’s Andrew Cuomo.”

In both cases, emergency government assistance has conspicuously favored big business and flagrantly and callously disfavored many low-income and blue-collar workers on the edge of poverty and desperation. The near-total absence of centralized leadership has generated an unprecedented need for neighbor-to-neighbor support, with cars lining up for miles at local food banks across the United States and nongovernmental organizations mobilizing with lifelines for health workers, the homeless, and other vulnerable groups throughout Russia. Marginalized workers have been similarly, disproportionately placed at high risk of the disease: meatpackers in the United States and migrant laborers in Russia, in both cases largely first- or second-generation immigrants from often-derided neighboring countries. And although racial disparities in access to health care are not as pronounced in Russia as they are in the United States, Covid-19 has hit some of Russia’s regions dominated by non-ethnic-Russian, Muslim minorities—Dagestan, Ingushetia—particularly hard.

Whether it is Kremlin-controlled Russian television hyping the unrest in Portland, Oregon, but ignoring unprecedented protests in Khabarovsk, or Fox News outlets trying to expose hypocrisy in a two-second clip of Dr. Fauci sliding his mask aside to sip a beer during the Washington Nationals home opener, media under Putin and Trump’s sway have enabled them to skew reality toward their political goals. In both countries, the politicization of the pandemic has opened the door to misinformation, denialism, and conspiracy theories.

In the United States, the sirens of pro-Trump cable news and social media stoke complacency, libertarianism, and resignation, not vigilance, discipline, and common purpose in the use of masks, the practice of social distancing, and regular hand washing. Young people are taking reckless risks in the return to U.S. and Russian beaches, bars, and nightclubs. Russian retailers echo the themes of their American counterparts: people are tired of wearing masks, employees are hot and uncomfortable in them, there’s an overall weariness underpinning the desire to get things back to normal.

In an effort to reopen their economies at all costs, both countries are massaging their Covid-19 data. It’s been obvious for months that Russia is fudging its numbers, both indirectly (via lower-level bureaucrats reporting just the good news the boss wants to hear) and deliberately (by tallying deaths with Covid-19 separately from deaths from Covid-19). Cases of community-acquired pneumonia—clearly how the Russians are categorizing much of Covid-19—are up substantially over previous years. But even the state-controlled Russian press cannot cover up social media-based reports of still-overwhelmed hospitals and morgues from places like Ufa and Dagestan.

President Trump, in his statements to the press, repeatedly miscasts the pandemic in falsely optimistic terms, while condemning as “pathetic” factual statements by his own White House public health officials about the runaway community spread in over 20 states. Disturbingly, the White House has recently transferred responsibility for Covid-19 data collection from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to a private sector contractor controlled more tightly by the Department of Health and Human Services, raising questions of whether the transparency and reliability of information available to U.S. citizens and health providers is deliberately diminishing. This comes against the backdrop of Trump’s active, ongoing assault upon the CDC, the world’s premier public health institution.

The U.S. testing regime has ramped up steadily since June in absolute numbers, currently covering about 750,000 people a day, but those numbers still fall far short of what is truly required while delays in delivering results are so severe that asymptomatic carriers are keeping the virus circulating in some communities. Testing levels across the wildfire U.S. states have actually begun to decline, a reflection of mounting public frustration and fatigue in the face of long lines at testing centers and long delays in receiving test results.

Both presidents have cast the accelerating race toward a Covid-19 vaccine in terms of national stature and prestige, nipping around the margins of established regulatory protocols to increase political yields. Trump continues to assert that there is likely to be a vaccine available by the November 3 election day, all other indications notwithstanding, feeding expectations of a pre-election “October surprise” in which Food and Drug Administration authorities may be pressured or simply overruled to permit the premature launch of a vaccine.

Russia is still basking in the recent glory of its August 11 “Sputnik moment,” marking premature registration of a vaccine candidate that has not yet been subject to advanced field trials for efficacy and safety. After having completed only phase one and two trials, Moscow is now on the threshold of mass vaccination for high-priority health workers and educators, a methodological sleight of hand presented as a substitute for the rigors of true phase three testing. Other state employees are reportedly receiving letters requiring them to get the vaccine or lose their jobs. “Trust me” is Putin’s message of flagrant disregard for global scientific standards.

There is more to come. Vaccine opponents in the United States are already mobilizing against a Covid-19 vaccine, playing on preexisting wariness and skepticism of vaccines among an anxious public, declining popular trust in the country’s leadership, and concerns that speed and politics may triumph over public health and put many citizens at risk. Russia and the United States alike face the serious challenge that large shares of their citizens may refuse a vaccine in the early phases, if not beyond. We can count on Russia to pollute the information ecosystem with the usual stream of messaging designed to cast doubt on any vaccine’s safety and efficacy in direct contradiction to its official aims. A similar overheated confusion in the United States can be expected from ideological extremists in the dark web, 24/7 cable, and social media.

Where Trump Goes Off-Key

The many compelling parallels notwithstanding, Russia and the United States diverge conspicuously in a few powerful respects. The United States’ uncontrolled outbreaks and staggering death counts far outrace Russia’s. These American failings, unthinkable just a short while ago, are the compound product of dysfunctionalities that are simply not at play in Russia to the same degree: the abdication of leadership marked by recurrent chaos and incoherence; the extreme politicization of the response, including blatant and consistent disregard of science; a deeply divided and toxic polity, crowding out space for social solidarity; and an inherently inequitable, fragmented health system. Those differences convey a somber message: Russia, even with its multitude of shortcomings, is outperforming the United States, exposing some profoundly disturbing truths for anyone who believes in exceptional American values, resilience, and dynamism.

No city or province in Russia is now experiencing a runaway resurgent outbreak as extreme as what has been seen since July in the American South and Southwest, and now increasingly in the Midwest. Over 1,000 Americans are still dying of Covid-19 every day. Even if Russia’s numbers are fudged by a factor of two or three, and taking into account that the U.S. population is double that of Russia, the U.S. death toll is still an order of magnitude higher than Russia’s.

Most Russian regions have retained and extended a reasonable set of public health measures designed to curb spread of the virus. Transmission within and between health facilities, one of the most common problems early in Russia’s epidemic, has been largely interrupted there. In the United States, the virus has had free rein to exploit weak local public health infrastructure, underfinanced and short of staff after suffering a 30 percent loss of capacity in the 2008 recession.

Yes, Putin has elevated politics above public health. He is certainly no stranger to manipulative disregard for the truth. It is his tried and true method of undermining democracy. He cut short lockdown restrictions across the country so he could hold his rescheduled showcase Victory Day parades celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Nazi surrender and, more importantly, a referendum on constitutional amendments allowing him to remain in office potentially until 2036.

But in Russia, it is a different breed of politicization. Even Putin is not willing to deny the logic behind basic precautions against spread of the virus. No Russian leader is turning mask rejection into a political loyalty test, complete with implicit demands that everyone from White House staff, to partisans on Capitol Hill, to faithful supporters across the country disregard science and logic to such an alarming degree. Nobody in leadership positions in Russia is wielding face masks as a political weapon. Mask wearing is not a matter of political identity there. In fact, the authorities in Moscow have issued 5,000-ruble fines—about one-third of the average monthly salary—to more than 40,000 people for not wearing a mask on the metro since those rules went into effect in mid-May. In Russia, wearing a mask may be uncool, but it won’t be construed as an act of political disloyalty.

Putin still hews to the rule that authoritarian states ultimately have to deliver results. In the context of a global pandemic, that means he is beholden to the imperatives of fact and science and is consciously reliant on the state instruments of public health.

In the United States, by contrast, Trump and his allies continue to insist that everything is normal, hoping that opening schools and opening businesses will bring electoral gains come November. Instead, this form of public health malpractice has opened new pathways for the spread of the virus.

Early in the pandemic, when everyone was counting respirators and scrambling for personal protective equipment (PPE), it was widely assumed that health system capacity—the essential institutional prerequisites for pandemic preparedness—would be the key to beating the virus. By those kinds of measures, the United States should have put Covid-19 in the rearview mirror months ago. The Nuclear Threat Initiative’s 2019 Global Health Security Index put the United States at the very top of its preparedness ranking. Russia was 63rd out of 195 countries.

But we have learned that defeat of a new virus as fast and insidious as the coronavirus requires communal spirit and shared sacrifice, actions that can only take place in an atmosphere of widescale social trust and inspiring, effective leadership. Yes, Russia, like the United States, has seen individual displays of appalling, selfish irresponsibility. Russian head doctors have underreported Covid-19 cases to avoid paying promised pandemic bonuses to their medical staffs. Corrupt Russian businessmen and their public sector regulators have skimmed funds off the top of emergency PPE procurements. But Russia has not embraced mass denial, deliberately engineered from the top down. As a consequence, Russia has unquestionably fared better.

None of this absolves Putin from Russia’s abhorrent behavior in Ukraine, from disinformation campaigns and election interference in the United States and elsewhere, from barely concealed assassinations of political opponents at home and abroad. But it does lay bare Washington’s profoundly inept pandemic response and Trump’s starring role in it. Along all three broad, interrelated dimensions of this crisis—health infrastructure, social cohesion, and leadership—the United States has abjectly failed, in ways that even Putin has not matched. As the United States invites global disappointment and derision with its withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO), hoarding of remdesivir, and touting of its plan to apply those same “America First” principles to eventual Covid-19 vaccine distribution, both Russia and China stand poised to fill the leadership vacuum.

Whoever wins the November election—be it a Biden administration or a second Trump term—will face an inheritance of unprecedented malfeasance: damage deep and elemental; an uncontrolled, sweeping pandemic; unthinkable numbers of Americans dead; and a visible decline of prestige, standing, and trust. Recovery and repair will require far more effort, for far longer, than is commonly realized. The United States’ place in the world cannot be fixed simply by restoring WHO membership, by a quick about-face and apology for recent decisions.

For the first time in history, the rest of the world views the United States not with respect, contempt, fear, or even bewilderment, but pity. After all our handwringing about Putin’s deliberate attempts to weaken our basic institutions, to exacerbate existing cleavages in our society, to subvert our global standing, who would have thought we would end up doing it to ourselves? The U.S. and Russian pandemic response, side-by-side: a grim comparison with uncomfortable implications for the American position in a post-pandemic world.

Judyth Twigg is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Global Health Policy Center and Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. J. Stephen Morrison is senior vice president and director of the CSIS Global Health Policy Center.

The authors wish to give special thanks to Michael Rendelman and Anna Carroll for their extensive research assistance in the development of this paper.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Judyth Twigg

Judyth Twigg

Former Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program and Global Health Policy Center