The 72 hours since U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted out his COVID-19 diagnosis have been filled with a shocking yet unsurprising flood of information, misinformation, facts, rumors, off-kilter video messages and one very ill-advised ride in his motorcade. Even with the whole world watching and asking, nobody has the answer to the question "How sick is he?" The week begins with Washington watching to see whether Trump, as leaked by presidential confidantes, will leave Walter Reed military hospital far earlier than most doctors believe is wise.

What's different: There is much that is unprecedented about Trump's first-hand personal (and presidential) battle with COVID-19. The political context is particularly charged, after the president had spent months downplaying the pandemic — and the timing couldn't be more momentous, one month before his reelection bid. Add to that, of course, is Trump himself who mixes patriotic appeals with an instinct for showmanship and notably casual relationship with the truth. Still, unlike other challenges he's faced over the past four years, the coronavirus itself is a nemesis that is harder to predict than Trump himself.

Despots and democrats: The criticism that Trump and his entourage are facing for the lack of transparency around his health is hardly new in the world of politics. Both the private nature of personal health, and the potentially high stakes of a head of state being incapacitated or worse, has prompted democratically elected leaders and dictators alike to go through great pains to obscure the truth.

Several U.S. presidents have hid chronic illnesses, while others have covered up the grave state of their health, right up until their death in office.

  • Just months after taking office for his second term in 1893, Grover Cleveland was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on the roof of his mouth. While surgeons removed the tumor — along with several of the president's teeth and a large part of his upper left jawbone — the White House announced that Cleveland was on a fishing trip. But the real cover-up came thanks to the president's trademark mustache, which covered his scars.

A portrait of U.S. President Grover Cleveland — Photo: The Bureau of Engraving and Printing

French secrets: Just months after François Mitterrand was elected President of France for the first time in 1981, he was diagnosed with cancer.

  • As Paris-based daily Libération reports, he wound up concealing the illness for 11 of his 14 years in office, finally going public in September 1992 following an operation. He died from prostate cancer a year after leaving office in 1995, at the age of 79.
  • A subsequent book, called Le Grand Secret, recounts the lengths Mitterrand went to hide his illness, even publishing false health reports. During his campaign for the presidency, Mitterrand had promised to be transparent about his health, after one of his predecessors, President Georges Pompidou, had died in office in 1974 from cancer that too was long kept secret.


From Russia with secrecy

  • Though Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's health had been deteriorating since the end of World War II — he suffered from atherosclerosis as a result of heavy smoking and had two strokes in 1945 — the official newspaper of the Soviet Union's Communist Party Pravda first reported about Stalin's disease three days after he suffered a massive stroke and one day before his death in 1953. The leader was already unconscious, receiving no medical attention as Soviet leaders competed for his succession (a well-documented episode that even led to a 2017 dark comedy).

  • As the BBC Russian Service once investigated, mum's the word when it comes to Moscow's authorities and their health, with Vladimir Lenin being the only leader whose medical bulletins were published regularly. In subsequent decades, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and Boris Yeltsin all had significant health problems that were shrouded in mystery.

François Mitterrand and Ronald Reagan in 1981 — Photo: Wikipedia

Chavez's cancer: As early as summer 2010, rumors that Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez had cancer started, with Chavez readily denying them.

  • In June of the next year, new rumors started to spread when the president went to Cuba to undergo surgery and didn't appear on media for two weeks, following a knee injury, El Periodico reported at the time.

  • The next month, Chavez finally revealed during a television address that he was being treated for cancer and that the surgery in Cuba was conducted to remove a tumor. He added however that the illness would not prevent him from staying in command of the country.

  • Despite the revelation, details about his illness were kept as vague (and positive) as possible and the state of his condition remained a mystery until his death in March 2013.

In India, the health of home affairs minister Amit Shah, who was hospitalized three times in less than two months due to coronavirus, has sparked a debate over the need for transparency concerning the medical condition of the country's political leaders.

  • The "medical status of public figures is taboo," writes Imran Ahmed Siddiqui in the Telegraph India, as health is seen as a private and personal matter that should not be discussed publicly. Shah, considered India's second most powerful person after his close ally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

  • But Bharat Bhushan, writing for Indian magazine The Caravan argues that as tensions are still vivid with China on the Ladakh border, the need for the home affairs minister "to function efficiently ought to be a matter of public concern". "Revealing the health condition of a leader requires a tough balancing act between transparency and individual privacy. While transparency contributes to public accountability, its absence can endanger the nation, the government and impact public interest", writes Bharat Bhushan.

Silvio's nip and tuck: Leave it to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to make a high-stakes health drama out of a face-lift operation.

  • Around Christmas 2003, the billionaire leader had disappeared for more than a month and reemerged with a notably tighter face.

  • Though Berlusconi never officially confirmed the intervention, La Repubblica reported on anger among Italian plastic surgeons that the operation took place at a Swiss clinic.

  • Six months later, there was speculation that Berlusconi had resorted to hair replacement procedure after he appeared alongside British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a bandana at a Sardinian resort.


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