Alison O’Connor: A health emergency is no time for conspiracy theories or for agendas

What is so difficult to understand are the cranks... casting their suspicious gazes around, writes Alison O’’Connor

Alison O’Connor: A health emergency is no time for conspiracy theories or for agendas
Chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, at a Department of Health Covid-19 press briefing. Picture: Sasko Lazarov/

“You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on”.

THAT Samuel Beckett quote has been going around in my head. It began early in the week, as I listened to the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, at a press briefing, as he ran through the latest Covid-19 statistics.

You didn’t need to be able to read the epidemiological tea leaves to know the numbers of new cases were simply too high, as well as the numbers in our intensive care units. I didn’t even know that quote was Beckett, just that it seemed appropriate to my mood.

The collective mood has become despondent as we have grappled with the idea of an extended lockdown. Some days are harder than others. You try to find the joy in the small things. If that doesn’t work, you remind yourself of people who have lost loved-ones to the virus; of people working on the frontline; of people who don’t have a garden, or of people who are stuck inside with someone who has an addiction or a nasty, violent streak.

In the moments when perspective returns, I acknowledge that this inevitable decision to extend our lockdown is based on the same, sound principle it has been since the beginning of all of this: To save as many lives as possible. We have become irritable and that is an entirely human reaction. But what is so difficult to understand are the cranks who spend so much time moaning about everything, casting their suspicious gazes around as they seek out nefarious agendas, when the obvious one has been about keeping them, and others, alive. An excellent example of this is the brouhaha about the minutes of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) meetings not being published.

I mean, who cares? The conspiracy theorists saw this as a major sign of, well, conspiracy, as opposed to NPHET being overworked. NPHET minutes have been published in recent days, so now the gaze will move elsewhere. It is, of course, important that these minutes exist, and are published, but if it is a choice between the people charged with protecting us spending their time doing that job, rather than attending to bureaucracy, then I’m OK with that.

What did people imagine would be unearthed in these notes? Take, for instance, the issue of personal protective equipment (PPE). There is a worldwide shortage of PPE. We’ve done exceptionally well, for a small country, to get what we did in the time frame in which we did. This point has been made repeatedly.

Yes, our virus testing has been slow to get up to speed. Perhaps promises were made that could not be kept, but how is this part of a grand connivance? Laboratories had to be sorted for testing and there has been a worldwide shortage of the necessary reagent.

What a facile argument to make that the “real” reason we are being kept in our current circumstances is because the testing regime is not up to scratch. The people who make these arguments choose to ignore the high numbers of people who are still testing Covid-19 positive or who are in intensive care, or choose to ignore the outbreaks in nursing homes.

They also wilfully ignore the success our authorities have had in containing the virus. The numbers of infections and deaths might have been much higher had the proper action not been taken.

Nursing homes are a particularly difficult subject. While the political and health authorities say that everything that could have been done was done, we will not know until long after this is over whether or not that is true. And if there was an oversight, it was not that people were sitting round filing their nails, but that they were scouring the globe for ventilators and other medical equipment. Another issue to explore further was the decision in March by the Department of Justice to move 100 asylum seekers from Dublin to Caherciveen, in Co Kerry, where there is now a Covid-19 cluster.

There have been 43 NPHET media briefings (mostly daily, barring weekends) since the virus arrived in Ireland. When I tune in most evenings, I see a bunch of people who must be utterly exhausted putting themselves in front of the media, answering questions. If you’re a regular viewer, you’ll have noticed that they have the patience of Job in answering the same questions more than once.

Questions are being repeated because the media are also under pressure. It is not always possible to send the same reporter to each briefing, so the reporter might not know what has already been so recently covered.

During a briefing, a broadcast journalist might have to leave the room to do a news bulletin or radio spot. When they return, they might ask a question that was asked 10 minutes previously. All the questions are addressed by NPHET, including those asked more than once. Sometimes, an issue will be raised and the journalists will be told that particular information is not available. They may ask the next night and it may still not be to hand, but it is almost always delivered within a reasonable time frame. Bear in mind that the definition of ‘reasonable time frame’ is relative in a pandemic. You can also see the value of the same journalists being regularly assigned to press briefings. They quickly pick up on the nuances or shifting dynamics and how those Covid-19 numbers are playing out.

The media has played a crucial role in asking the necessary questions, so that public confidence in the authorities has been maintained.

Alison O’Connor: A health emergency is no time for conspiracy theories or for agendas
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Minister for Health Simon Harris and HSE CEO Paul Reid visit the HSE Covid19 Assessment Unit set up at Dublin City University.

ON a Sunday morning, the HSE has its regular press briefing, headed up by boss Paul Reid. It covers similar territory to the NPHET press briefing. The topics range from deliveries of PPE, to the numbers of Covid-19 cases in nursing homes, to the provision of childcare for health workers who are parents.

The HSE has held 12 such briefings.

There has hardly been a day when we haven’t seen or heard from Simon Harris, the health minister.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has also been regularly visible, whether on a stage, telling us we’re all being confined to barracks, or on ‘doorsteps’, where journalists get to ask him questions.

I am not making an argument against accountability, just seeking some understanding in the horrendous circumstances of a once-in-a-century event.

At this point, we do need a new government with a mandate, and quickly. But let us bow down in some gratitude to the people who have steered us through recent times.

Did any of out current crop of politicians ever imagine, when they put their faces on those election posters, that they would have to make the stark choice between keeping their citizens or their economy alive?

As Mr Beckett pointed out, we simply need to keep on, keeping on. Anyone who disagrees would do well to remember that needless sniping is just not good for the mental health at the moment.

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