A Fumbled Global Response to the Virus in a Leadership Void

The rise of populism has exacerbated the problem by reducing the incentives of countries to cooperate. European leaders, in a three-hour teleconference on Tuesday night, agreed to set up a 25 billion euro investment fund, or $28.1 billion, and to relax rules governing airlines to curb the economic fallout.

But they failed to overcome national objections to sharing medical equipment like face masks and respirators, given that health issues are the responsibility of national governments. Germany, the Czech Republic and other countries have tightened export restrictions on this gear to keep it for their own citizens.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s warning that the virus would infect 60 percent to 70 percent of people in Germany — a figure she attributed to the “consensus among experts” — was the most forthright admission of the scale of the problem by any world leader. It was fully in character for a physicist-turned-politician, reinforcing her status as the liberal West’s foil to Mr. Trump.

“We will do whatever is needed,” she said. “We won’t ask every day, ‘What does this mean for our deficit?’”

Yet even Ms. Merkel’s position has been weakened by the resurgence of the far right in Germany. Germany rebuffed a request for medical equipment from Italy, only to see China offer the Italians an aid package that includes two million face masks and 100,000 respirators.

In Britain, which left the European Union in January, there are already fears that the country will not have access to a vaccine, or will have to pay more for it than other European countries. Mr. Johnson’s government, which won its recent election on a populist-inflected platform of “Get Brexit Done,” is now struggling with how to communicate the risks of the outbreak to its public.

The Johnson government has put a lot of stock in a so-called nudge unit in Downing Street that specializes in behavioral psychology. But in trying to calibrate its response to what it deemed people capable of processing, the government risked condescending to Britons, said John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for the northwest of England.

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