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Crimes against humanity: How world leaders botched the response to the Covid-19 pandemic

WHO report analysing Italy's early response concluded the country's pandemic preparedness plan was outdated.
Published 01 Nov, 2021 05:00pm

As the official death toll of Covid-19 reaches five million, several world leaders and officials are under fire for their management of the pandemic, with some facing charges and legal investigations.

Brazil: Crimes and 'quackery'

In Brazil, one of the hardest-hit countries with more than 600,000 deaths, a Senate commission approved on Oct 27 a damning report that recommended President Jair Bolsonaro face at least 10 charges over his Covid-19 policies.

The far-right leader repeatedly played down the seriousness of the virus, calling it a “little flu”, promising treatments scientists said were ineffective, rallying against lockdown measures and vaccinations.

Among the charges are crimes against humanity, “quackery”, inciting crime and violation of health measures.

While the accusations are serious, the process may be just symbolic since Bolsonaro enjoys enough congressional support to avoid the opening of impeachment proceedings.

France ex-health minister charged

Former health minister Agnes Buzyn was charged in September with “endangering the lives of others”, over her handling of the pandemic.

Buzyn, who resigned from her post in February 2020, weeks after the first cases were confirmed in France, has faced criticism and ridicule over her initial statements about the crisis.

Former prime minister Edouard Philippe and current Health Minister Olivier Veran are also being investigated by magistrates at a special court that has powers to prosecute ministers and has had their offices searched.

Covid-sceptic Donald Trump

Former US president Donald Trump, who himself was infected with Covid, came under fierce criticism for his handling of the pandemic.

US President Donald Trump removes his mask as he stands on the balcony outside of the Blue Room as returns to the White House on October 5. — AP
US President Donald Trump removes his mask as he stands on the balcony outside of the Blue Room as returns to the White House on October 5. — AP

Under Trump, the number of Covid-19 deaths in the US soared to by far the world's highest toll as he resisted imposing face masks, shutdowns and other measures.

“Anyone who's responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America,” his successor Joe Biden said during an electoral debate.

The US has the world's highest death toll of more than 740,000 deaths.

British government inquiry

With one of the highest death tolls in Europe of more than 140,000, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged an independent inquiry will open in 2022 into his much-criticised management of the pandemic.

In a damning assessment mid-October, a cross-party group of lawmakers said the government's response had been “one of the most important public health failures” in the country's history.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson smiles at a media briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in Downing Street, London on January 15, 2021. — Reuters
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson smiles at a media briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in Downing Street, London on January 15, 2021. — Reuters

Leading advisors were guilty of “groupthink” and pushed a “gradual and incremental approach” to social distancing and lockdowns. This approach was marked by “fatalism” about the spread of the virus.

There were “many thousands of deaths which could have been avoided”, the report said, when elderly patients were discharged from hospitals into care homes without testing.

India's devastating wave

In April and May 2021, India was hit by a massive wave of infections caused by the highly contagious Delta variant, which saw peaks of around 400,000 cases and 4,000 daily deaths.

The central government's management of the crisis has come under severe criticism due to the catastrophic impact it had on the country's underfunded health sector.

Relatives wait next to a Covid-19 patient laying on a stretcher in a hospital complex for admission in New Delhi, India on April 24, 2021. — AFP
Relatives wait next to a Covid-19 patient laying on a stretcher in a hospital complex for admission in New Delhi, India on April 24, 2021. — AFP

Delhi's regional government set up a high-level committee to look into deaths caused by lack of oxygen supplies and while the city's lieutenant-general tried to stop its establishment his decision was overturned by the Delhi High Court.

Some politicians are facing prosecution in the High Court for alleged hoarding of drugs that were thought to help in the treatment of Covid.

Italy WHO official

Prosecutors from Bergamo, epi-centre of Italy's first wave, are investigating the potential mismanagement of the pandemic when it first hit the country in early 2020.

In particular, they are looking into the role played by one top World Health Organisation accused of lying after he spiked a critical report on Italy's virus response to avoid a political confrontation with Rome.

The 102-page WHO report analysing Italy's early response concluded the country's pandemic preparedness plan was outdated and its hospitals' first reaction was “improvised, chaotic and creative”.

In court over Austria ski cluster

In September, the first civil lawsuit was heard in a court in Vienna over a notorious outbreak at a popular ski resort in 2020, where thousands of people from 45 countries claim to have become infected and 32 died.

Workers stand on Vlies fabric, which is used to cover the snow of a glacier at Stubaier glacier ski resort near Neustift im Stubaital, Austria on May 7, 2020. — Reuters
Workers stand on Vlies fabric, which is used to cover the snow of a glacier at Stubaier glacier ski resort near Neustift im Stubaital, Austria on May 7, 2020. — Reuters

It is the first of 15 lawsuits filed by plaintiffs from Austria and Germany, who accuse the authorities of not responding quickly enough to outbreaks in Ischgl and other resorts in the province of Tyrol.


Header image: People in protective face masks walk through the quiet city centre during a lockdown to curb the spread of a coronavirus outbreak in Sydney, Australia on July 28, 2021. — Reuters