Justin Trudeau's wife has tested positive for COVID-19. Experts explain the possible fallout if a world leader caught the coronavirus.
AP Photo/Frank Augstein
- The coronavirus - which causes a disease called COVID-19 - has killed more than 4,700 people and infected over 128,000. It has spread to more than 100 other countries.
- On March 12, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, announced that she tested positive for COVID-19 and will remain in isolation at home.
- Other world leaders, including US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have also recently come in contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus.
- Several experts weighed in on the social, political, and economic impacts of what would happen if a major world leader were to contract COVID-19.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
As the new coronavirus continues to spread around the world, experts have weighed in on what would happen if a world leader like President Donald Trump, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, or Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were to test positive.
The coronavirus - which causes a disease called COVID-19 - has killed more than 4,700 people and infected over 128,000. It has spread to more than 100 other countries.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic - a designation not seen since 2009's H1N1 influenza outbreak.
The alarm over the possibility that a world leader may soon catch coronavirus is not misplaced.
Trudeau's wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, announced in a statement on March 12 that she tested positive for COVID-19 and will remain in isolation at home. Prior to the announcement, Trudeau announced that he was self-isolating while his wife was being tested, though Trudeau's office said in a statement that as of March 12 he is in good health with no symptoms.
Coronavirus has also hit close to home for other world leaders.
On March 10, Nadine Dorries, the minister for mental health in Boris Johnson's government, tested positive for COVID-19. Dorries was reported to have met with members of Parliament and Johnson before receiving the diagnosis, though Downing Street has said Johnson will not be tested and does not have symptoms.
And President Trump has also possibly come into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus
An attendee of CPAC also positive. Trump, Pence, and more than 19,000 people, including numerous White House officials, attended the conservative yearly gathering. Trump also may have come into contact with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's communications chief, Fabio Wajngarten, who tested positive for the virus.
And while Bolsonaro has gotten tested for coronavirus, The White House released a statement on March 12 saying that Trump and Pence don't need to be tested for COVID-19 because they had "almost no interactions" Wajngarten, despite photos showing them in close proximity.
Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via Getty Image
Experts say each country likely has a contingency plan for when a world leader catches something like COVID-1
While the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, experts say each country likely has a plan in place for when leadership comes down with a serious illness like COVID-19.
Ann Keller, associate professor of health politics and policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said that in stable democracies, there is usually a chain of command in place for if the leader becomes incapacitated due to illness.
"In stable democracies, if a head of state dies in office, there are clear patterns of transition so that there is no vacuum of leadership at the top," she told Business Insider.
In the US, for example, Vice President Mike Pence is second in the chain of command after Trump, followed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. In Canada, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland would temporarily take over Trudeau's responsibilities if he were to become ill. Other countries that are pluralist democracies may choose another elected official to lead.
Still, some experts say that even if a chain of command is laid out, the unique nature of this virus may change how responsibilities are carried out.
"Often there's something on paper, but the implementation is up to people around the leader making difficult and sensitive judgments that could easily backfire," Eugene Bardach, professor emeritus at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, told Business Insider. "That is, providing the leader is merely incapacitated and doesn't drop dead, in which case the needed actions get triggered quickly if the death becomes known."
The chain of command is less transparent in non-democratic societies, making it difficult to predict what would happen if a leader elsewhere around the world were to come down with the disease.
"In autocracies, a death signals a coup or civil war," Bardach said.
World leaders have gotten sick in office before
Should Trump or another leader get sick while in office, it would not set a historic precedent.
"It's not that unusual that world leaders get sick (or even die) in office," Sue Horton, university research chair and professor of health economics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario told Business Insider.
"There are a lot of examples of heads of state needing medical care, getting it, sharing that information, and continuing on with their elected roles," Keller said.
In 1955, former US President Dwight Eisenhower suffered a major heart attack while in office and required extensive hospitalization. Former French President François Mitterrand battled prostate cancer while in office until 1995.
In the current coronavirus outbreak, several Iranian MPs and even the country's health minister have been infected with COVID-19.
Keller said that while we have seen this situation play out in the past, the world has not been faced with the prospect of leaders around the world being impacted by a pandemic at the same time.
"What I think might be different in this case is that, in most cases where a head of state has been sick, they were not also in the middle of trying to lead their country through a crisis," Keller said. "That is an added complicating factor."
Some leaders in the past have also tried to downplay the severity of their sickness in order to maintain public trust. Former US President John F. Kennedy suffered from an autoimmune disease called Addison's disease, though Kennedy hid it while in office.
"Leadership benefits from its own credibility and doesn't want to lose it," Bardach said.
The worst fallout from a world leader getting sick will be public opinion and a hit to the global economy
Experts say a world leader falling ill may have serious social and economic impacts.
Experts have already predicted major economic fallout from the coronavirus as it continues to spread.
New modeling from The Australian National University predicts a global GDP loss of $2.4 trillion if the virus ends up being low severity. In the worst case, the global GDP loss could be as high as $9 trillion.
"Markets don't like uncertainty," Keller explained. "So if a head of state is sick and not able to perform her or his duties, that could create a lot of uncertainty."
Horton agreed that instability could create uncertainty in the global markets, but doubted that it would have a lasting impact overall.
"There is short-term anxiety about any such [leadership] change, but it has happened often enough that I don't think it would have that lasting of an impact," Horton said.
Experts say a social response to a world leader's illness may vary.
According to Bardach, the fact that the US is in the midst of an election season may impact the White House's decision to be transparent about a potential illness among its top ranks.
"The stakes are very high because it's an election season," Bardach said.
Keller said that there would more likely be a mixed response among the American public.
"I tend to think that there is no single public response," Keller said. "If a head of state dies, that can create what political scientists call 'rally around the flag' responses."
She said it was less clear what would happen if a world leader's illness is announced to the public via the media.
"That news could undermine morale for the public," Keller said. "Or it could bring home just how serious this pandemic is for members of the public who had been trying to minimize it."
"Along those lines, if a head of state got sick and recovered, that could help the public feel less fear around what might happen," Keller said. "Of course, an infected head of state who did not recover could produce the opposite public response."
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