With the sheer volume of coronavirus news which emerged yesterday, it would be easy to think that Ireland has reached a crisis point in the battle against Covid-19.
The health service is now dealing with two realities — the progress of its own approach to containing the novel virus, and a change in public mood from compliance to panic.
That change in perception among the populace is most notable in local supermarkets, where people have been bulk-buying — ostensibly one imagines in contemplation of a protracted period of self-quarantine.
There are two major problem strands facing Ireland on foot of the arrival of Covid-19 on these shores — these are economic and health-related. And the latter is being exacerbated by the unpredictability of the situation at hand.
Ireland’s situation at present is reasonably healthy compared to that of most of mainland Europe, particularly Italy.
To an extent the country has benefited from recording our first case a little later than most, meaning the public has had a great deal of time to get used to the idea of looking for symptoms, reporting same, self-isolation, and most crucially, the need to wash one’s hands often and meticulously.
That public awareness has allowed the primary strand of the Government and HSE’s defence strategy to play out mostly unscathed — Ireland has been on a containment footing for several weeks, and the longer that continues the less impact the virus may have, at least from a public health point of view.
The main challenge facing the Irish health service is panic. Irish hospitals are still reeling from the recent flu season which saw the number of patients on trolleys hit record levels. Our available isolation berths are woefully inadequate to face a surge in serious cases.
And the longer we remain in the containment phase the more susceptible to panic we become. This primarily results from politicians, the media, and indeed some health officials, dealing with the vacuum of the unknown by comprehending worst case scenarios.
Yesterday, the HSE’s head of public health medicine sent a strongly-worded letter to general practices across the country imploring them to desist from querying the management of patients who have not been to affected areas, nor been exposed to confirmed cases of the illness.
It’s important to remember that most members of the population who contract Covid-19 will experience mild symptoms. Many may not even know they have it. As the fallout from the virus unfolds, many people with symptoms will likely be told to stay home, isolate, and take care of themselves, like a common flu patient.
“The real issue is that the health service wouldn’t cope if we were swamped with a sudden influx of very sick people,” one physician told the Irish Examiner.
This doctor expressed concern at communications from the top levels of Government as to the scale of the problem Ireland faces: “The Taoiseach has said it’s possible we are facing unprecedented events. There is an enormous amount of fear and trepidation as to how we will cope if everything goes pear-shaped, as opposed to it definitely being the case. Of course it might, but it’s not going to happen today, tomorrow, or in the next week. It seems like they are catastrophising, rather than leading.”
“The health services are now terrified they’re going to be swamped. Until now people have been broadly sensible. But we seem to be moving towards hysteria. And we need to delay moving to the next phases (delay and mitigation) for as long as possible, not just to prepare the system so that surgeries and outpatients can be cancelled, but because we are facing months of this. And people get bored. When they’re bored of being locked down they will start to misbehave.”