Kerry Boyd Anderson
Last week, police sent a questionnaire to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson regarding allegations about gatherings at his home and office that violated COVID-19 regulations. The questionnaire is the latest development in a scandal that might oust Johnson from office. Johnson’s case has highlighted a broader trend of political leaders breaking COVID-19 rules.
The cases that triggered significant political consequences often featured a politician who wrote the regulations or at least advocated for them – and then proceeded to break their own rules. Johnson is probably the most high-profile example. Over the past few months, allegations have come out regarding about 16 gatherings – often without masks – at 10 Downing Street.
While an investigation is continuing, it appears that the events violated the very rules that Johnson’s government implemented at the time. Members of Parliament and the public have noted that many Britons were making intense personal sacrifices to curtail COVID-19 infections at the same time that Johnson and his aides apparently held parties.
Legally, Johnson might receive a relatively minor “fixed penalty notice.” Politically, the “Partygate” scandal has been far more damaging. So far, his government has held together, but several members of his party have openly criticized him, even calling on him to leave. Much will depend on the outcome of an internal inquiry. Johnson is hardly alone. Very early in the pandemic, his top adviser, Dominic Cummings, and his family went on a long road trip while exposed to and then sick with COVID-19, despite strict stay-at-home measures throughout the country. Johnson defended Cummings, who resigned a few months later for other reasons.
Several US politicians have faced criticism for violating their own COVID-19 regulations and advice. Perhaps the most consequential was California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s November 2020 dinner with 12 friends at the French Laundry restaurant. Although Newsom said that he followed the “restaurant’s health protocols,” the dinner might have violated California public health rules and at least was contrary to the advice that Newsom was giving to the public. At a time when many people were canceling major events and struggling economically, Newsom’s decision to attend a party at an expensive restaurant rankled many Californians, which helped lead to a September recall vote to remove him from office. Newsom still won the vote, partly because many Californians feared that his competitor would lift all public health restrictions at a time when the delta variant was soaring. Other US politicians, particularly at the state and city levels, have experienced public disapproval for behavior that appeared to violate their own regulations. For example, on Jan. 31, Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti were pictured at an NFL game without their masks, despite Los Angeles County mandates that required masks indoors and the stadium’s own mask rule. Several governors and mayors traveled while encouraging citizens to avoid it.
Several European politicians have faced similar allegations. In December, Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin went clubbing after having close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19. While Marin did not violate any rules, as she was fully vaccinated, her night out led to criticism because it contradicted public health advice. Last year, Norwegian police fined Prime Minister Erna Solberg after she violated rules for her birthday party. Earlier in the pandemic, Irish Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary resigned after attending a golf event with more than 80 people shortly after the government tightened pandemic restrictions. There are examples in other countries, as well. These include a senator in the Philippines who broke quarantine, senior Canadian officials who traveled early in the pandemic, and Hong Kong politicians playing fast and loose with pandemic rules.
In some cases, politicians flouted their own governments’ public health recommendations after openly opposing those measures. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro constantly violated public health recommendations that he had openly opposed. Former US President Donald Trump also did not comply with much public health advice, but he also had not supported those recommendations. While public health experts criticized these leaders’ stances, the leaders did not face allegations of hypocrisy – at least not for this – since they were not advocating for the public health measures. Some cases in which political leaders failed to comply with public health measures highlighted confusion over pandemic regulations. For example, it was not clear whether Newsom’s dinner violated his own administration’s rules because the rules were confusing. Other cases have demonstrated problems with practical issues such as contact tracing as well as widespread confusion as the pandemic evolves and restrictions ease and tighten. If the people implementing and communicating public health measures cannot fully understand them, then how should everyone else be expected to fully comply?
Leaders who knowingly violated the rules that they had made or the advice that they had shared appeared tone deaf at best and hubristic and hypocritical at worst. Some tried to justify their behavior by explaining their personal concerns, such as the need for child care or some relaxation from the stress of the pandemic; of course, nearly all members of the public could reply that they had the same concerns and were still following the rules.
These cases led to accusations that the elite political leaders believed the regular rules did not apply to them. Such behavior from leaders at a time of widespread suffering deepened anger, distrust, and alienation from government. Leaders lost credibility just when they needed it most to combat a historic pandemic.
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