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Trump, Kenyatta and the autocrats’ invincibility

Trump, Kenyatta and the autocrats’ invincibility

If he had had his way, Donald J. Trump would have concealed the news of his Covid-19. However, his leaky White House having informed a journalist that Hope Hicks, one of his closest aides, had tested positive for the disease, Trump quickly announced his own diagnosis to the world via his Twitter account. 


When things got worse within hours of diagnosis, forcing him to yield to admission to a hospital in Washington DC, Trump embarked on a predictable display of robustness and defiance against a potentially serious infection. 


Images of the 74-year old Trump at work in the hospital, then a video-recorded address to his countrymen were beamed to the world. It was lovely to see him appearing to be in reasonable shape. A patient fighting hard against his disease and maintaining a positive attitude is a good sign. 


However, Trump, being Trump, took a dangerous step in his quest to show defiance and stamina. Barely 48 hours after admission to hospital, he took a car ride, chauffeured by a presidential driver that was  presumably free of the virus. Two Secret Service agents were reportedly in the front seats of that completely air-sealed vehicle.


Designed to secure its occupants from gas and other external attacks, the airtight vehicle was the perfect environment for the highly contagious virus to be passed on to others. All because Trump’s vanity had, once again, interfered with common sense. All because his fear of being considered human like the rest of us had trumped caution and consideration of others.


On the evening of Monday October 5, 2020, Trump returned to the White House after tweeting that people should not be afraid of the new Coronavirus. He immediately took off his mask, posed for photos, his body language utterly contemptuous of a disease that had so far killed 210,000 Americans – and counting. 


Trump’s reaction to his illness brought back memories of a cast of characters that once inhabited some of the world’s palaces. These were men who shared a common pretence to invincibility and immortality. 


Joseph Stalin, the supreme ruler of the Soviet Union, was afflicted by serious illnesses from the early 1940s. A heavy smoker, he lived with severe high blood pressure that led to strokes and a major heart attack in 1945. His health remained a state secret, of course. 


By 1952, Stalin’s health was so delicate that his private doctor advised him to take a rest from work, or even retire. The doctor was promptly arrested, imprisoned and tortured.  Barely one year later, Stalin was dead, felled by a massive brain haemorrhage. He was 74.


Leonid Brezhnev, another ruler of the Soviet Union, was a very heavy smoker who suffered multiple breathing and heart conditions, followed by strokes that necessitated the constant presence of doctors by his side.


However, as late as 1981, when he was visibly disabled, his absences from public parades and meetings were still ascribed to “a common cold.” The television image of his frail body, atop Lenin’s tomb in the Kremlin on November 7, 1982, remains vivid in my mind. Three days later, he was dead, aged 75. 


China’s Mao Zedong, another heavy smoker, endured multiple lung and heart ailments and suspected degenerative brain disease that were treated as state secrets. Even his death following a heart attack in 1976 was kept secret for 16 hours before the announcement was made. He was 82.


Over in Kenya, during the rule of Jomo Kenyatta, the 1970s were years of great fear and drama. Discussion of matters such as the succession to the presidency was a criminal offence. Although Kenyatta had suffered a series of strokes and overt mental weakening beginning in 1966, Charles Mugane Njonjo, the Attorney General of Kenya, decisively squelched all talk of succession. 


Njonjo wrote on October 6, 1976: “In view of the recent sudden wave of statements at public meetings about the alleged need for amendment to our constitution, I would like to bring to the attention of those few who are being used to advocate that amendment, that it is a criminal offence for any person to encompass, imagine, devise or intend the death or the deposition of the President. 


“Furthermore, it is also an offense to express, utter or declare such compassings, imaginings, devices or intentions by publishing them in print or writing. The mandatory sentence of any such offence by a citizen is death, and any person who aids in such offence by being an accessory after the fact of it, is liable to imprisonment for life. Anyone who raises such matters at public meetings or who publishes such matters does so at his peril.”


Two years later, Kenyatta, stricken by another heart attack and stroke while on vacation in Mombasa, died on October 22, 1978.  He was at least 81.


In 2009, Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, confined to a hospital bed in Barcelona, Spain,  refused to acknowledge that he was down with advanced cancer. Instead he claimed that he was taking much needed rest due to stress occasioned by his wife’s death a few weeks earlier. He died on June 8, 2009. He was 73. 


Still in 2009, Nigeria’s Umaru Musa Y’Ardua, who had lived with serious kidney disease and had visited European clinics “due to stress,” was airlifted to Saudi Arabia for medical attention.


Reports that Y'Ardua was critically ill were dismissed as exaggerated, and the president did not bother to transfer power to his vice-president. He returned to Nigeria under the cover of darkness and his illness was finally confirmed by his death at the presidential palace. He was 58.


Of course, 2020 brought a terrible tragedy to the most Trump-like figure of all. Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, a previously very healthy young man, played Russian Roulette with Covid-19 by completely denying its lethal nature. It did not exist in Burundi. He carried on with his political rallies and such. He died of severe Covid-19 on June 20. The world was lied to that he had died of a heart attack. He was only 55.


To be fair, this aversion to revelation of ill-health has occasionally been manifest among democratic leaders. For example, America’s John Fitzgerald Kennedy had suffered from Addison’s disease for at least 13 years when he became president in 1961.


In addition to the Addison’s disease, a serious disorder of the adrenal glands that control a lot of body chemistry, Kennedy also had hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland). Furthermore, he struggled with  severe chronic back pain for which he had undergone surgery in 1954.  A lot of effort was expended to keep his public record untainted by news that the handsome Senator was susceptible to such human maladies. 


During the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy’s opponents, having got wind of his illness, made an issue of it. However, in one of the most brilliant demonstrations of a lawyer’s ability to tell the truth without telling the truth, Robert F. Kennedy, the candidate’s brother, told journalists: ”My brother does not now, nor has he ever had an ailment described classically as Addison’s disease, which is a tuberculous destruction of the adrenal gland.”  


Robert Kennedy was correct. His brother’s condition was not due to tuberculosis. Left unsaid was that it was due to another cause. His Addison’s and thyroid diseases were part of a condition known today as autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome-2 (APS-2). Evidently Robert Kennedy’s truthful deception worked. Historians have written that the journalists and the candidate’s opponents abandoned the subject. 


Interestingly, one of Kennedy’s characteristics that endeared him to Americans  was his tanned skin. What they did not know was that darkening of the skin was one of the classic signs of Addison’s disease. Ignorance was bliss. Ignorance worked. It still is. It still does.


Happily, many rulers and leaders have not been afraid to show that they are mortal beings. A current living example is Ali Bongo Ondimba, the man who succeeded his father as Gabon’s ruler in 2009. Ali Bongo suffered a major stroke while attending a meeting in Saudi Arabia in October 2019. To his credit, the 61-year-old Bongo, who continues to rule his country, recently appeared in public, very obviously handicapped by his illness, but devoid of pretence to be healthier than he is. 


Not so Trump, a man in the good company of some of the world’s greatest autocrats and dictators whose vanity blinded them to their mortality. If, in fact, they privately acknowledged the gravity of their illnesses, they were united in a futile deception that could not overcome the certainty of death. 


Trump would do well to acknowledge possession of a mortal body that, like the rest of us, is susceptible to illness, incapacitation and death. That admission would be humbling and liberating.  We pray for his speedy and full recovery.






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