Boris Johnson's special adviser Dominic Cummings leaves his residence in north London on May 26, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

“With great power comes great responsibility.” That’s what Ben Parker, Peter Parker’s uncle, said in the Spider-Man comic books and movies. But reports say the origin of the quote can be traced to great men like the French writer and philosopher Voltaire, former British prime minister Winston Churchill, and both the Roosevelts, former presidents of the United States.

The quote is still relevant. It applies to all high-ranking public officials who have the power to reshape a country’s future and the lives of its people. They have a responsibility to act responsibly. But time and again we have been let down by some of them. Their indiscretions have been glaring at the time of the coronavirus pandemic.

Boris Johnson, his aide Dominic Cummings, Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, New Zealand minister David Clark and Indian minister Sadananda Gowda are some of the high profile officials who have shown utter disregard for the safety regulations to combat COVID-19.

If officials in high places flout the rules, how can you expect the public to follow them? More pertinently, these regulations are to safeguard everyone. And that includes officials. Which begs the question: Is there one rule for the elite and another for the rest?

The virus doesn’t discriminate. All humans are at risk of catching SARS-CoV-2. Johnson realised that after he contracted the disease following his failure to follow health advice, and shook hands with everyone when he visited a coronavirus ward. “I needed litres of oxygen,” the British prime minister said of his treatment at an ICU (Intensive Care Unit).

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a daily news conference on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at 10 Downing Street in London on May 25, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

Boris, Cummings and the lockdown breach

For an official who suffered the ravages of the virus, it’s irresponsible of Johnson to ignore the flap around Cummings. The British PM refuses to sack his chief adviser for breaching lockdown rules despite a growing revolt from his Conservative party.

Cummings drove 400km to his parents’ property in Durham country when his wife was experiencing coronavirus symptoms. He was also reported to have driven to Wakefield with wife and son. Ironically, the trips violated the rules he helped write. “He just wanted to be a rule-maker, not a rule-taker,” Marina Hyde wrote in The Guardian.

Trump unmasked
US President Donald Trump holds a face mask in his left hand as he speaks during a tour of Ford's Rawsonville Components Plant that has been converted to making personal protection and medical equipment, in Ypsilanti, Michigan on May 21, 2020. Image Credit: AP

Trump unmasked

Across the Atlantic, US President Donald Trump stubbornly refuses to wear a mask, in violation of the recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What’s worse is Vice-President Mike Pence too rejects the practice of wearing a mask to protect the people nearby.

The White House is also reported to have mocked presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for wearing a mask in public.

“He’s a fool, an absolute fool to talk that way. I mean every leading doc in the world is saying you should wear a mask when you’re in a crowd,” Biden told the CNN.

But Trump is reported to have worn a mask during a tour of the Ford manufacturing plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, but “didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it”. Looks like he doesn’t want to be seen covering his face in public. “I don’t know, we’re going to look at it,” Trump told White House reporters when asked if he would wear a mask.

Mask or unmasked, Trump has come under withering criticism with experts accusing the United States of botching the coronavirus response. With the pandemic worsening in 17 states, and the deaths in the US passing the threshold of 100,000, Trump seems to have reined in his early braggadocio.

With all 50 states reopening after a two-month partial lockdown, experts fear a second wave of infections. A mask could help, even if Trump doesn’t wear it in public.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters upon arrival at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on May 24, 2020, amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Image Credit: AFP

Trump playbook for Brazil’s Bolsonaro

The US president has a follower in Latin America. They even call Jair Bolsonaro the Brazilian Trump. He shares the US president’s penchant for playing up to the Conservatives bases and ranting heavily on social media.

Even in tackling COVID-19, the Brazilian leader follows the Trump playbook. Bolsonaro shares Trump’s aversion to masks but is not averse to hugging or shaking hands with supporters at rallies. Certainly, not the right thing to do at a time when Latin America has emerged as the latest coronavirus hotspot.

Bolsonaro chided Brazil’s state governors and even scoffed at the measures against the coronavirus, calling them “the tyranny of total quarantine.” The president doesn’t seem too perturbed by the mounting number of infections, which has neared 400,000, making it the highest after the US.

But like Trump, Bolsonaro too seems to have realised that the virus does not succumb to rhetoric. Of late, he’s been spotted wearing a black mask in public. A wise move.

Sadananda Gowda
D.V. Sadananda Gowda: India's minister for chemicals and fertilisers Image Credit: PTI

Virus exemption for Indian minister

The newest untouchable is Sadananda Gowda, minister for chemicals and fertilisers in the Narendra Modi-led government of India. After flying into Bengaluru from Delhi recently, Gowda claimed that since he’s a minister, he’s exempted from the mandatory institutional quarantine after air travel.

“Guidelines are applicable to all citizens, but there are certain exemption clauses, for those who hold certain responsible posts,” Gowda told news agency ANI.

But the Prime Minister’s Office did not take it too kindly, ordering Gowda to home quarantine.

“I am pained by what is happening. Unfortunately, I have also received a call from the PMO and I have now placed myself under home quarantine,” he told The Print.

One rule for the minister and another for the people, seems to be Gowda’s principle. What happened to democracy? What about the rule of law? All those Indians who were beaten up by the police for breaching lockdown rules must be wondering.

David Clark
David Clark: New Zealand minister Image Credit: AP

Lockdown rules hold in New Zealand

Amid such irresponsible action by high-ranking officials, New Zealand continues to be a shining beacon. Last month Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern cracked the whip, demoting the health minister for ignoring the lockdown rules.

David Clark, who drove his family to a beach 20km from his home, apologised for the poor judgment at a time when people were urged to stay at home.

“At a time when we are asking New Zealanders to make historic sacrifices I’ve let the team down. I’ve been an idiot, and I understand why people will be angry with me,” Clark said in a statement.

He was stripped of his portfolio and pushed to the bottom of the cabinet rankings.

That sure sends the right message. Everyone is equal before the law. The lockdown rules are no exception.

The coronavirus can’t differentiate between presidents, ministers and people. All of them are vulnerable to COVID-19. A fact that seems to miss errant officials.