THE POLITICS OF COVID-19

12 March 2020 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Significant public health events such as the current worldwide efforts to protect people from the Coronavirus almost inevitably spread a complementary infection in their wake, no matter how carefully they are managed.

Fear and insecurity can easily invade the minds of individuals and communities, particularly, as has become the case in Ireland over the past week, precautions against the spread of Covid-19 begin to intrude upon one’s daily routine and events such as the annual St Patrick’s Day Parades get cancelled.

As people’s living patterns, plans and habits get disrupted, so their sense of unease and worry starts to grow. Governments and health authorities charged with managing the response to the current situation must deal with these ‘secondary symptoms’ with as much care, attention and sensitivity as they lend to the formulation and implementation of measures of control, protection and treatment.

They must ensure that decisions taken that will have a significant impact on the working, shopping, social and community lives of the population are proportionate and measured. And they have an obligation to ensure that the information they disseminate is factual, clearly understood and constantly updated to take account of what at this stage of the response will inevitably be a constantly shifting scenario.

Thus far the official approach, the politics of Covid-19 if you will, has broadly hit these marks. It would be very hard for anyone in the country to be unaware by now of the major infection risks and how best to protect themselves from them.

Decisions with significant social or community impacts, such as the cancellation of the St Patrick’s Day festivities, have been made after careful deliberation, consultation and risk assessment.

The daily updates and regular media briefings from the National Public Health Emergency Team and Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan have conveyed a sense of calmness, proficiency and flexibility in the handling of the issue.

But the ripple effects of panic and impulsive overreaction have still been hard to contain. The unfortunate concentration in elements of the national media at the weekend on the more baleful statistics for infection and mortality that were attached to a highly speculative ‘worst case scenario’ situation have undoubtedly fuelled some of the more unfortunate reactions to the developing situation, such as the astonishing and insensitive guidelines that emanated from the Irish Association of Funeral Directors and the rather draconian restrictions imposed on those wishing to visit loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes, decisions which the group of medical experts being consulted on the situation have described as unwarranted and unnecessary respectively.

As we went to press there were 34 cases of the infection confirmed in the Republic of Ireland. It is very clear that there will be many more, and it seems inevitable that as the figure rises there will be greater precautionary restraints imposed on the processes of everyday life, particularly as community infection begins to manifest.

Education and employment are likely to undergo significant disruption and the economic impacts of the situation are bound to be profound. We are in the relatively early stages of a significant public health event.

We are not in a crisis or an apocalypse. We are a country with the resources, expertise and spirit of community to manage this issue capably, calmly and without losing our decency, humanity and compassion.

Since the emergence of civilisation the human race has been assailed by waves of disease that sometimes severely winnowed populations – perhaps some of the over-reaction to our current predicament is rooted in race memory.

But the advancements of our science and technology, and our methods of information dissemination, surely make our modern generation the best equipped in the planet’s history to combat the manifestations of epidemic, pandemic and disease that have always been part of the weave of the imperfect and fragile human condition.

If we use our knowledge wisely, and do not abuse the channels of communication we have with each other or infect them with misinformation or imperfectly informed speculation, then we should come through the current storm with the minimum of human suffering and with our compassion and empathy for our fellow man not merely intact but fortified, bettered.

It was somewhat disquieting, then, to see what appears to be sudden and significant progress in the parley taking place between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil towards the formation of a new government being framed in the context of the Coronavirus issue. Old Civil War enmities must be put aside for the sake of the country, it is being suggested.

A new Grand Coalition government is needed in order to manage the country safely through the current health emergency. This is utter nonsense. There is already a government in place, in caretaker capacity admittedly, but functioning quite capably and discharging its duties with regard to the Covid-19 issue and other matters in much the same fashion as it did pre-election.

With the greatest respect to Simon Harris and other members of his Cabinet, our politicians are not possessed of the expertise or specialist knowledge to make much difference to how effectively the spread of Covid-19 is contained, although they can make the work of the relevant medical professions easier or harder by some of their decisions.

So to suggest that the current public health situation is giving some sort of impetus or inspiration to the formation of the next government is spurious. And if it were to be the motivation for bed-sharing between FG and FF, how easily would the old foes rest beside each other once the Covid-19 fever has passed? The issue of Brexit apparently kept alive the Confidence and Supply arrangement that propped up the last Government, and the former Big Two of Irish politics saw what the voters made of that.

A government crudely sewn together on the pretence of dealing with a national health emergency simply will not last, and will not deserve to.

A coming together of FF and FG might well be a very good thing for Irish politics – it would certainly bring clarity to the current cluttered ideology of our political landscape if these Siamese twins eventually morphed into one right-of-centre entity.

But a Coalition union dressed up as medical “crisis” management will not wash with those who voted for change – it is not the politics of Covid-19 that the Irish people want, or need, to see.

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