Elites flout coronavirus restrictions – and it could hurt us all

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So, when the powerful or influential break the rules, it provokes fierce public anger and highlights the inequalities in society.

Irish Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary had already resigned over the so-called Golfgate scandal. The dinner came a day after the government in which he served, facing an upsurge in cases, imposed restrictions – effective immediately – limiting gatherings inside to six people, down from 50 previously allowed.

Social distancing appears to have been largely ignored during the events of the Republican National Convention in the United States last week. In perhaps the most striking case, more than 1,000 people gathered on a White House lawn, few wearing masks and sitting side by side, to hear President Donald Trump accept his party’s nomination Thursday night.

And in the UK, the behavior of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings has come to exemplify a double standard in the public mind where ordinary people are supposed to follow the rules while the elite can. apparently violate them with impunity.

Cummings declined to apologize for driving alongside England with his wife and child during the lockdown, as his wife was sick with suspected coronavirus, then drove to a beauty spot. Despite the fury, Cummings did not resign and was not sacked. His activities were investigated by the police, but he faced no action.

Such examples have a lasting impact on the public’s willingness to abide by the restrictions, said Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London (UCL). Michie is on the behavioral advisory group of the government’s Emergency Science Advisory Group (SAGE), which has led its response to coronaviruses. She is also part of a separate expert group called Independent Sage.

“We know that trust and perceived fairness are both very important in terms of membership protection,” Michie said. “We also know from data collected from weekly surveys that trust has dropped dramatically, as has membership, after the Dominic Cummings affair. Confidence is very hard to rebuild – it’s easy to lose, hard to build. ”

Johnson and his cabinet’s decision to defend Cummings’ actions only made matters worse, Michie said.

Other high profile British figures have also broken the rules. Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, resigned in April and received an official warning from police after twice breaching lockdown restrictions to visit her second home.

Professor Neil Ferguson, a leading epidemiologist who has advised the UK government on its response to coronavirus, resigned his government post in May after breaking lockdown rules by allowing his reported lover to visit his home.

Such actions on the part of influential figures “exacerbate a feeling of deprivation of the right to vote because they send the message that it is a rule for us, as for the privileged, and a rule for them,” said Linda. Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh.

“So it’s very, very damaging, it’s a very unfortunate thing. “

‘The dumbest thing’

Sports stars and members of the cultural elite have also been caught flouting the restrictions.

Author Neil Gaiman sparked outrage – and a visit from local police – when he blogged in May about New Zealand’s trip to his home on the remote Scottish island of Skye amid restrictions on trip were in place.

In a later article, he said he had not thought clearly because of marital issues. “I want to apologize to everyone on the island for creating such a stir,” he wrote. “I also want to thank and apologize to the local police, who had better things to do than watch me. I’m sure I’ve done dumber things in my life, but it’s the dumbest thing I’ve done in a while. ”

England cricketer Jofra Archer has been barred from a test match against the West Indies after breaking the team’s bio-secure protocols with an unauthorized visit to his home.

And a number of English Premier League footballers, as well as Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho, have been found to have breached lockdown restrictions. England and Manchester City footballer Kyle Walker has apologized for throwing a party with two sex workers, while Everton striker Moise Kean was reprimanded for attending a party.

Examples like these all have an impact, Michie said, especially on young men, who are less likely to play by the rules. Michie said she had urged the UK government – so far unsuccessful – to make more use of footballers, singers and actors as role models in its information campaign, in order to reach different groups in society.

“We know that the more people identify with the source, the more likely they are to buy into it,” she said.

The poorest are the hardest hit by the pandemic

The inequalities highlighted when the rich and powerful flout the rules only add to public discontent.

The coronavirus has made British society even more unequal than it already was, Michie said, with restrictions on access to outdoor space and job losses hitting the poorest. “Doing it then in terms of” a rule for us and a rule for them “completely undermines the importance of collective responsibility,” she said.

“Especially for those who live in overcrowded housing, it’s very upsetting… when they then see that people who have a lot in society want more, while those who have very little don’t get more. ”

Professor Stephen Reicher, a behavior specialist at St. Andrews University in Scotland, has warned that too much media coverage of those breaking the rules of the coronavirus in the UK – among the general population more than politicians – was a risk in itself.

“One of the most remarkable things about the pandemic is that the level of compliance has been very high,” said Reicher, who is also a member of the UK government’s Behavioral Science Advisory Group and an advisory group. on Covid-19 in Scotland. .

“If we put too much emphasis on violations, the danger is that it’s not just a misrepresentation, but that it can undermine compliance by creating false standards, by telling us’ if everyone goes out, if everyone is breaking the rules, why don’t we? He said.

Reicher also warned of a tendency to blame young revelers for rising rates of coronavirus infection. The numbers actually showed that their level of compliance had been high, although the lockdown was often more onerous for them.

Another danger lies in imposing strict lockdowns without providing sufficient material support to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, he said.

“If you want people to comply, that’s a motivational thing, to create a feeling of ‘we-ness’, we’re all together. You have to support people and help people do what they want, overall do. “

Why leadership matters

So what should leaders do? It’s really simple – lead by example.

“Effective leadership really depends on being seen as part of the group the leader wants to lead. People must have confidence in this leadership. Anything that separates leadership from the rest of the group really undermines it, ”Bauld said.

“If leaders do things that don’t set an example, then we lose confidence in them and are less likely to follow the rules. ”

Bauld pointed out that politicians in Canada, Germany and most countries in Southeast Asia have been successful in sticking to their own guidelines.

Many governments appear to be successful in maintaining confidence despite the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic. A Pew Research Center survey released Thursday found that the United States and the United Kingdom were the only two of the 14 countries surveyed where a minority of people said the government had handled Covid-19 well.

This will be just as important in the months to come, as students increasingly return to school and winter threatens to usher in a second spike in coronavirus infections in the northern hemisphere.

All countries rely on their populations playing by the rules and changing their behavior to protect the most vulnerable, Bauld said.

“If there’s a reason not to comply, or you are given an excuse not to comply, then that undermines the entire public health effort. “

CNN’s James Frater and Schams Elwazer contributed to this report.

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