Liam Hehir: Do as I say – the ongoing risks of covid hypocrisy

Liam Hehir: Do as I say – the ongoing risks of covid hypocrisy

The hypocritical actions of political leaders throughout the global Covid pandemic have damaged public faith in institutions and governance. Liam Hehir chronicles the way in which contemporary politicians have let down the public, and explains how real leadership means walking the talk.


During the Blitz, when German bombs were falling all over London, the question was raised as to whether the royal family should be evacuated. Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, then the Queen consort, was having none of it. As she put it: “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.”

All throughout the war, the royals made an effort to share in what the people were going through. When the Palace was bombed, the Queen declared that she was glad for it because it meant she could look working class Eastenders in the face. No less a person than Eleanor Roosevelt commented on the royal household’s participation in food rationing and even limited bathwater use.

These were people who were born into privilege. That, perhaps, gave the family a heightened awareness of the importance of leading by example. If only today’s ruling classes felt the same way.

A persistent subplot of the coronavirus pandemic has been rank hypocrisy on the part of those in government. We are not talking about the boneheaded actions of idiots like soon to be former president Trump. Those frequently caught out are often counted among those most fervently calling for strictness.

There are too many examples to list, from all parties and cliques, but it may be useful to review some of the lowlights.

Back in May, British scientist Neil Ferguson, whose team at Imperial College caused headlines by predicting hundreds of thousands of death in the United Kingdom, was snapped violating social distancing rules. What was more important than leading by example on this important issue? Participating in an extramarital affair.

Fergusson resigned from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies over the matter.

Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, is a lockdown hardliner who has imposed stricter rules on her country than prevail elsewhere in the United Kingdom. That didn’t stop her from enjoying herself at a bar sans any kind of mask. Scotland’s chief medical officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, breached a lockdown by travelling to her second home and was later caught taking her family on a trip that was more than an hour away.

Dominic Cummings, while a senior advisor to the prime minister, also created popular outrage when it emerged he had driven from London to Durham after the lockdown had commenced.

In the United States, where the virus has run rampant, elite hypocrisy has been at its worst. The governors of New York and California, both lockdown hawks, are just two of many who have been caught out. A Senator who called for masks to be made mandatory at airports didn’t bother to wear one herself. Politicians and media personalities alike supported protests and even riots for politically progressive causes even as the virus raged across the country.

Dr Deborah Birx, who serves on the White House response team, insisted upon people not having family members over for the holidays. This didn’t apply to her, however, and she hosted three generations of family members for Thanksgiving dinner. Excuses given ranged from a need to “winterize” her holiday home to her parents feeling lonely.

None of which will go down well for those who missed the opportunity to comfort dying relatives and who were forced to skip their funerals due to the restrictions That we ”little people” are expected to follow.

We were not immune to this in New Zealand, of course. While the government was urging us to take social distancing seriously, they frequently flouted guidelines for things like selfies. Selfies.

Health minister David Clark made headlines around the world when he went mountain biking during the nationwide lockdown. It then emerged he also moved house. Jacinda Ardern eventually sacked him but he is back in her cabinet now.

When progressive New Zealanders wanted to march in solidarity with American protestors and rioters, they received tacit and, in some instances, open support of our government and press too.

Of course, there have been other ways in which the governing class have undermined themselves. Dr Anthony Fauci, who attained a kind of secular sainthood status among progressives the world over, seems to have admitted to initially misleading the public about the efficacy of masks to prevent a run on them. He has now openly admitted not being straight with the public on the question of herd immunity.

Those kinds of “noble lies” have probably been damaging in their own way. They can, however, be rationalised by those of a certain ethical flexibility on the basis of the greater good. There are no theoretical justifications for elite hypocrisy, however, and we should not underestimate the immediacy of the damage that occurs when your own health minister flouts the safety rules to which he wants everyone else to adhere.

Decades ago, the author Michael Young created the word “meritocracy” to refer to the emerging class of people who attained success and prestige not through the accident of birth but through their own talents. The term was immediately seized upon as a positive when, in fact, the word was intended to be ominous. People with inherited status are at least sometimes aware that, by dint of having inherited their position, they must live up to it.

Those who believe themselves to have earned power, on the other hand, risk coming to see their status as something to which they are entitled thanks to their superior merit. There is no reason to assume this will not bestow on the new ruling classes all the arrogance and vanity that we associated with the worst of aristocracy. Flagrant covid hypocrisy may be a textbook example.

None of this disproves the correctness of prescriptions for social distancing, lockdowns and the need to take the risk of coronavirus seriously. Indeed, it is because the danger is so real and the need for compliance is so high that persistent lapses in disciplines by our elites is so unforgivable. Or should be.

With the emergence of vaccines it may feel like the end of our ordeal is near. Plenty of horses break legs on the home stretch, however, and the waves of new infections rocking Europe illustrate the need for vigilance right up until the end. We may well be forced back into lockdowns here before the covid threat is neutralised.

If that happens, maintaining the cohesion and discipline of 2020 will be crucial. It may well be a challenge to keep people motivated. It will require leadership.


Liam Hehir lives in the small Manawatu village of Rongotea. He has been a conservative columnist since 2013. He is a practising Catholic and sympathises with the aims of the National Party, for which he formerly volunteered in a variety of low-level roles.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.