Until Trump’s positive test, Johnson was the most famous world leader to be stricken.
Like Trump, Johnson was overweight, making him more vulnerable.
Like Trump, Johnson played down the threat of the pandemic, at least initially. He resisted early calls for a lockdown and boasted that he shook hands with people at a hospital.
The prime minister was stricken in March, as coronavirus cases were rising exponentially in Britain. He announced his diagnosis on March 27 and then spent 10 days ravaged by fever, self-isolated in an apartment at 10 Downing Street.
His spinners told a nervous nation that the prime minister was “working hard” while in isolation, and was in “good spirits” even as he was wheeled into the hospital “for some routine tests.”
But the public sensed something more. Johnson looked like death warmed over. In a last video clip before he was hospitalized, his face was pale and puffy, blotched with sweat and fever.
Finally, Johnson was ushered into an intensive care unit, to be kept alive by forced oxygen and the ministrations of a pair of immigrant nurses, “Jenny from New Zealand” and “Luis from Portugal,” Johnson said.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was tapped to stand in for Johnson, but there was a sense that the government was winging it, that decisions were being delayed pending the leader’s return. It was an anxious time, but not nearly as fraught as the current moment is for the United States, in the midst of the election.
Johnson catching the virus didn’t boost support for his government — that surge came before Johnson was sick — but it did appear to give him a personal bump in the polls. Suddenly he wasn’t just the ambitious prime minister but a plump middle-aged bloke fighting for his life. The public wished him well.
Johnson’s popularity ratings this year peaked during the week he left the hospital, reaching a high of 60 percent, according to a YouGov survey. Those figures have since slumped, with a poll this week showing that opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer has higher favorability ratings than Johnson.
The nation — and close political observers — are divided over what Johnson’s brush with death, at age 55, did to the man and the leader.
Some thought it made him more empathetic; others see him as weakened.
Perhaps surprisingly, some of the harshest criticism of Johnson these days comes from members of the libertarian wing of his Conservative Party, who worry that the jolly old Johnson is now beset, like some past English king or a Shakespeare character, by dark clouds and portents of doom.
Toby Young, writing in the Spectator, where Johnson once served as editor in chief, quoted a friend saying that surviving a near-death experience can affect people in one of two ways.
“Either you become more devil-may-care, thinking it could all end at any moment so why not live life to the full; or you become super-cautious, having been left feeling vulnerable by your brush with mortality,” Young wrote. “According to that armchair psychologist, Boris has gone through door number two.”
The Daily Telegraph, another former Johnson employer, is filled with columns questioning his virility and grit, suggesting that the English bulldog has become the whipped dog, intimidated by nanny-state medicos and fearmongering epidemiologists.
Young wrote, “A less generous theory is that the disease actually damaged his brain in some way — and there is some evidence that cognitive decline can lower your appetite for risk. Whether the damage was psychological or physiological, the implication is clear: he’s no longer fit to be prime minister and should step down as soon as he’s got Brexit done.”
Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College London, told The Washington Post that “it’s very, very hard to tell” how Johnson may have been influenced by getting the virus. He noted that Johnson and his partner, Carrie Symonds, had a baby boy at the end of April, only two weeks after he came out of the hospital.
“You could [attribute] some of the things he seemed to do as a result of coronavirus — his anti-obesity drive or the warmth in which he spoke about the National Health Service — to his fatherhood or to his illness. It’s hard, unless you’re a good friend of his, to know what is what,” he said.
Some have questioned whether Johnson’s hours of lying prone, having oxygen pressed into his lungs, influenced any major changes on his policies.
Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, said that if it had, “it’s not observable.”
“If he wanted to dramatize the necessity of following rules, Dominic Cummings would not be working for him,” he said, referring to Johnson’s top aide who was accused of breaking lockdown rules by driving across the country with wife and son while he was sick.
“Johnson is trying to balance protecting the economy with health advice,” Fielding said. “It’s arguable his balance has been more towards advancing business than health. . . . The idea that he’s been converted into a covid-radical is a fantasy within his own party. . . . In terms of policy, it’s nonsense to say he’s now captive of the science.”