Some leaders use pandemics and other crises to advance themselves and their own ends. Others rise to the challenges of epidemics and act wisely in the best interests of the people they serve, or at least seek to help their people while also benefiting themselves.
Take Napoleon Bonaparte as an example of a leader who trod both of these paths.
In the main salon of the Louvre in Paris hangs a massive painting, “Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa,” by Antoine-Jean Gros. This 1804 painting portrays a real event — though with Napoleon’s self-aggrandizing spin.
After his 1798 victory in Egypt, Napoleon traveled to Palestine to attack the Ottoman Empire. But the bubonic plague began decimating his army. He visited his infected soldiers to raise their morale, helping them on stretchers, and risking contagion himself.
In the center of the painting, Napoleon steps forward under the arcades of the Jaffa citadel that served as a hospital; the French Tricolor flies atop a distant tower. Awash in sunlight, he wears a gold-embroidered blue uniform jacket, tight white pants, and trademark black bicorne hat, with a gold and crimson sash tied around his waist. Surrounding him lie ill, near-naked soldiers.
A French officer standing behind the general covers his mouth with a white handkerchief. A Turkish physician kneels before Napoleon, urging him not to proceed, but the general steps forward undeterred.
With his left hand, Napoleon touches a pustule near an infected soldier’s armpit in a Christ-like gesture, as if to heal him.
Napoleon, who lived in what’s come to be known as the Age of Enlightenment, respected science and took with him to Egypt botanists, geologists, zoologists, and chemists. The archaeologists he brought along discovered the Rosetta Stone, which enabled scholars to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics for the first time. Together, these scientists significantly advanced research in many fields.
Napoleon ordered that soldiers with the plague receive full care and food, and have their clothes removed and their bodies vigorously scrubbed with soap and water, cleaning them of lice and fleas. But he also marched them against the Turks, even though plague had begun spreading among the army. He argued that fear spread the plague and that “moral courage” could protect against it. (In his defense, it took another 50 years for the world to appreciate that germs spread certain diseases.)
Following his visit to the hospital in Jaffa, Napoleon led his troops north to attack Acre but failed to capture the city, stymied by the Turks and their British allies. He retreated back to Jaffa.
For soldiers who were too sick to evacuate Jaffa and return to Egypt, the general ordered his chief surgeon to administer opiates to end their suffering and to avoid their being captured by the advancing Ottomans. The doctor refused, citing the Hippocratic oath’s prohibition against euthanasia and the fact that many plague sufferers spontaneously recover.
Bonaparte wrote to the French Republic government in Paris that he had retreated to avoid the plague — not because of his military failure.
The British navy under Lord Nelson had destroyed the French fleet, preventing its return to France. Napoleon abandoned his army and quietly escaped; the British captured his troops, along with the Rosetta Stone.
His enemies, in Britain and at home, castigated his behavior. In response, he commissioned the enormous canvas that portrayed himself as the brave hero.
Napoleon’s propagandistic impulses foreshadow those of several political leaders today. Notably, President Trump in the U.S., President Xi Jinping in China, and President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have responded to the current plague by constructing narratives that advance their own personal political ambitions. They seek to appear organized and in control in the face of chaos and destruction and to obscure their personal agendas.
But the painting also highlights differences, at least between Napoleon and Trump, and provides poignant political lessons.
Unlike Trump, Napoleon did not deny the plague, pander false cures, or ignore the suffering around him. Instead, he stepped forward — against others’ counsel — to engage with his sick soldiers, and drew on the leading scientific knowledge at the time about the disease and its prevention.
It would be a fool’s hope to believe that we can change certain leaders’ attempts to exploit the Covid-19 crisis to pursue their own goals. But the fact that “Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa” has remained prominently displayed for more than 200 years in one of the main rooms of one of the world’s largest tourist attractions should remind Trump and other politicians that history is watching and evaluating them. They will be held accountable for their behavior.
In the U.S. and most of the world, the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over. Infection rates are just beginning to skyrocket in many countries, and subsequent waves will undoubtedly occur in the U.S. and elsewhere. The disease will probably cause hundreds of thousands more deaths.
Leaders should not exploit epidemics to push their own agendas, but some will surely try to do that. If they cannot resist, they should at least realize they can do so in ways that can help people as much as possible and that advance science rather than ignore it. Leaders can try to divert attention toward only a few particular facts, but history will reveal the fuller truth.
Robert Klitzman is a physician, professor of psychiatry, and director of the online and in-person Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University. His most recent book is “Designing Babies: How Technology is Changing the Ways We Create Children” (Oxford University Press, 2019).