Saturday 04 February 2023

Would I lie to you? How the trust in Governments has been eroded

This column first appeared in Malta Today

My Dad used to love to roll out these old sayings as we were growing up, which were his mantras for life.

One which was constantly drummed into my head was, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” (Which has become rare in this world where people feel they are entitled, if not almost compelled, to pass nasty comments).

Another of his favourites was,  “Always thank people afterwards when you have been invited somewhere” (Again, a rarity, in a world where many do not even have the courtesy to acknowledge that they have seen a message or email, let alone say thank you).

Those of my generation will recognise this one: “Children are to be seen and not heard” (which does not go down too well these days as some parents allow their children not only to dominate the conversation, but to basically rule the entire household).

But the one which has basically stayed with me throughout my life is: “Once you start with one small lie, you have to keep lying to cover it up”.

As an impressionable child, this stuck with me and I was always so convinced that even one tiny white lie would be my undoing, that my Dad would give me one questioning look and I would cave and blurt out the truth.  Talk about an effective lie detector test.  

This aversion to lying has stood me in good stead and although I am definitely no saint, that little voice has helped me on many an occasion to just stick to the truth.  I mean, why try to invent a lie when just saying it like it is, is so much easier?  What a relief, for example, to just say, no sorry I’m not doing it, because I don’t want to, rather than coming up with some lame excuse. 

Of course, life is not always that straightforward and people do lie, all the time.  Everyone has experienced that pang of deep disappointment on realising that those you thought you could trust, have let you down. I am often gobsmacked by stories of people who are able to lie so blatantly, whether it is to their families or to the country as elected politicians.  To this day, I am almost morbidly fascinated by pathological liars, who can sit there, with no shame, look you straight in the eye and lie through their teeth, convinced that they can get away with it.  In some cases they do get away with it, for a long time, but on the whole, the truth eventually does come out because (like my Dad used to say) it becomes more difficult to keep track of one’s lies and you hang yourself with your own rope, to quote another saying.  

The issue of lying and who to believe occurred to me again this week, as Covid cases started to rise again, and a horrible sense of deja vu started to grip the nation, Europe, and the world.  Mentally, psychologically and emotionally we cannot take much more of this. The dystopian feel of being trapped in a nightmare which you can never wake up from has taken its toll. At the crux of it all is the recurring question: who are we going to trust?

For these last two years many have wondered whether everyone has been lying to us all this time.  Between the media, politicians, scientists, big Pharma and those who claim to be anti-vax, it was not always easy to sift the rubbish from the facts.  But trust has to be built on a solid foundation and lately this has taken a beating once again.  It didn’t help when two videos surfaced this week in the UK of high-ranking politicians and officials joking about social distancing and having a party at 10, Downing Street at a time when the country was in a grim Tier 3 lockdown in December of last year.  People were dying, the elderly were lonely and isolated and no one could celebrate Christmas properly and yet here they were, joking about it all.

It all started when ITV published a leaked video of Boris Johnson’s former press secretary Allegra Stratton laughing about how she would cover up a Christmas party in a mock press conference.   One aide was heard saying: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.”  “Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting,” Ms Stratton replied, to laughter in the room.  She added: “This fictional party was a business meeting… and it was not socially distanced.”

Her resignation came swiftly and brutally – she sobbed as she faced the cameras and said how much she regretted her frivolous remarks at a time when everyone in the country was being told to stay home and not socialise. 

Since then another video has surfaced, this time of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, mocking the ongoing scandal:“I see we’re all here obeying regulations, aren’t we? I mean, this party is not going to be investigated by the police in a year’s time. You are all very carefully socially distanced… we have moved, I am pleased to tell you, from the metric back to the imperial system: I know you are all at least two inches away from each other which is, as I understand it, what the regulations require during the social distancing period.”

To say that the reaction of the British public is one of furious outrage is putting mildly, and who can blame them? And the rage is not just in the UK but throughout the world, where protests against restrictions, wearing of masks and the vaccine have never stopped amid the long-held suspicion that the whole Covid-19 situation is all about government control.  When one sees politicians openly flouting the rules and mocking the whole thing in private, these suspicions are fuelled even more. 

Like everywhere else, here in Malta, the list of numerous inconsistencies has been one of the most exasperating aspects of this whole thing. There have been convoluted, restrictive measures for people to go to the theatre, and then we saw photos of the crowded Sigma convention where it looked like Covid never happened.  While the man-in-the-street and young schoolchildren have followed the rules, it took a while for politicians, including the Prime Minister, to realise the rules applied to them as well and they had to be constantly called out. In the bizarre case of Minister Edward Zammit Lewis he took off his mask during a meeting, while openly telling his colleagues that he had the flu: by now even a three-year-old could have told him that he should have stayed home.  And despite the fact that we have overdosed on Charmaine Gauci’s press briefings, some have still failed to grasp that you keep your mask on while you are talking, and not take it off to speak, as I have seen being done even at official events. 

With the announcement that as from yesterday (Saturday), we have to wear masks outside again, even if alone on an empty road, the tolerance threshold well and truly snapped as many pointed out the absurdity of this when restaurants, bars and clubs are heaving with people without masks.

Personally, I have no problem with wearing a mask, especially if it means we can still be out and about, and I firmly believe that it does help to protect us and others against Covid and other infections. But the general public reaction has been negative and it is going to be very difficult to get people to comply. There has also been a knee-jerk resistance to getting the booster because the reasoning goes “what is the point of the vaccine if we are back to wearing masks”?  It is useless trying to explain that the vaccine has worked since we are not registering daily deaths any more and hospitalisation/ITU numbers are still under control. Those whose trust has been completely eroded simply don’t want to know.  

They feel they have been lied to, that this is all one big hoax, and that we are going to keep being injected for the rest of our lives. A meme doing the rounds illustrates just that, with an aged Charmaine Gauci announcing “Year 2051: People understand the need to take the 53rd booster and to wear a mask at all times”.

The Maltese government (like all governments) has a problem on its hands because without the co-operation of the public it will never be able to get a proper hold on the situation, and “getting back to normal” will remain more elusive.  It all boils down to regaining our trust, which is a tall order, especially since on so many other crucial issues, we have learned that “they” were lying all along.  

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