Our ignorance about Covid makes managing the pandemic very hard even when people are willing to follow government guidelines. The job turns into mission impossible if leaders refuse to set an example, because when it comes to making personal sacrifices for the good of society, few things are as off putting as policymakers who think that the rules don’t apply to them.
The UK has had some bright spots in its tumultuous experience with the coronavirus, such as its early vaccine rollout and its development of effective treatments. These were the result of its status as a global science and technology leader, with elite institutions such as Oxford University leading the charge.
However, many of the difficulties faced by the UK government reflect ordinary people’s sense of disenchantment, resulting in their diminished willingness to put society’s interests before their own. It is here that Prime Minister Boris Johnson bears much of the blame, as he has repeatedly behaved in a manner that suggests that the rules do not apply to him.
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One of the hallmarks of a mature political system is rule of law, which means that the political elite – including the head of state and the head of government – are subject to the same laws as the masses. It wasn’t always like this, but a brutal civil war and a largely bloodless glorious revolution helped ensure that modern prime ministers should expect no special treatment if they jump a red light or discard litter in the street.
Rule of law is important for building trust when parliament passes unpopular bills that serve the general interest. If people are going to be conscripted to fight in a war or need to stay away from loved ones to limit the spread of a lethal pathogen, policymakers’ demands for personal sacrifice will have a lot more credibility if everyone – including the prime minister – follows them.
Moreover, in terms of human psychology, people are much more willing to follow orders if their supervisor sets an example, as few things are as inspirational as a leader leading the charge.
Historic champions such as Alexander the Great and Caesar earned their people’s unwavering loyalty precisely because they fought on the front lines, sometimes on foot, exposing themselves to the same risks as their fellow infantrymen.
This is why in May 2020 the UK public were annoyed to discover that Professor Neil Ferguson, a celebrated scholar and key government advisor on the pandemic, had brazenly violated the same social distancing rules that he had helped implement.
Ferguson’s resignation restored some credibility to the government, before it emerged that Prime Minister Johnson’s advisor, Dominic Cummings had also more blatantly breached stay at home orders.
Cummings refused to fall on his sword, but by November 2020, mounting differences with Downing Street forced his resignation. In the interim, ordinary Brits were livid that they could not visit loved ones in hospital or enjoy a drink with friends while elite policymakers assumed that the rules didn’t apply to them.
What may turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back is the discovery that in December 2020, when Johnson was imploring people to sacrifice their personal mental health for the common good by staying at home, he was holding an office party. To add insult to injury, the man Johnson appointed to lead the inquiry into the allegations – Simon Case – has now had to resign because it turned out that he had organized a Christmas part of his own.
While every government has made errors during its navigation of the pandemic, I recently noticed one of the things that the Bahraini government had absolutely gotten right. I was attending an official function on the eve of our national day, and it was held outside with only around 30 people attending.
Despite this, all those attending – including several senior officials – made a point of properly wearing their masks and socially distancing when seated. When the photos were published in the newspapers the following day, the message being conveyed to the general public was clear: the daily Covid-19 numbers might be low, but nobody should gather en masse, and everyone must continue to wear a mask. And everyone means everyone.
We can all benefit from this lesson, whether it is the Bahrain government in other areas, the UK government when dealing with the pandemic, CEOs with their employees, or parents with their children. Because when it is time for personal sacrifice, few strategies are worse than “do as I say, not as I do.”
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