Alison O'Connor: We all have a hand in minimising the spread of the coronavirus

The Covid-19 outbreak is not easy on any of us, but the most important thing is we all pull together, writes Alison O'Connor.

Health Minister Simon Harris, Tánaiste Simon Coveney and chief medical officer Tony Holohan at a news conference today. Picture: PA
Health Minister Simon Harris, Tánaiste Simon Coveney and chief medical officer Tony Holohan at a news conference today. Picture: PA

We live in a fearful world. At our most fanciful, we might, in the past, have imagined a cure for cancer or life found on Mars being our global “where were you when” moment.

Instead, we’re all waiting for an axe to fall, waiting to be told to batten down the hatches and stay in our homes; wondering how many Irish lives will be taken by the coronavirus.

In such a stark situation, other issues simply fall away. There is little patience with matters not central to minimising risk for people, and little patience for people who put their own interests ahead of the common good.

This finally hit home for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil this week, when they realised that corononavirus neither knows, cares, nor respects who Michael Collins or Éamon de Valera were or their place in Irish history.

FG and FF won’t be crowing loudly about this, but they must be taking some solace from the fact that the virus fallout has also put a stop to the Sinn Féin gallop.

Party leader Mary Lou McDonald has been in the worrying position of having her children self-quarantining for the past fortnight. But she appears to have recognised that Sinn Féin being seen to push forward to cement its political advantage at a time of such crisis would likely be viewed very poorly.

Ultimately, anyway, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil being shoved together through circumstance could serve Sinn Féin well.

But who wants to be thinking about this now? Everyone reacts differently in a crisis, some more frightened than others. My own instinct is that with the dangers that lie ahead and the efforts that will be needed to minimise the loss of life, this is not the time for a new broom.

I want to stick close to Nurses Varadkar, Harris, Coveney, and Donohoe just now.

Let the parties keep quietly going about their coalition talks, with the Greens taking a reality pill on where the others are at. Again, it is difficult to put a time estimate on how long the coronavirus will be a threat and how long any shutdown might last, but a new government voice, one that might be hesitant, or unsure of its place, or which wants to make an impression, is not what we want now.

We want main players who already have the measure of each other, people who know exactly who they need to speak to when they pick up the phone, who have a measure of trust in each other, or know who not to trust.

It will be a long time before we know whether what we do regarding the coronavirus is the right thing. What everyone can do now is their absolute best to minimise the risk and row together. It is not the time for political sharp elbows.

I believe that the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, and his team, and the members of the National Public Health Emergency team, as well as the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, Health Minister, Simon Harris, and Finance Minister, Paschal Donohoe, are doing a very good job under exceptionally difficult circumstances.

The handling of today’s announcement was extremely well done.

What none of them need right now is to be undermined. Certainly, we are discovering, even on a personal level, that we do not know how any individual, in our family or wider circle, is going to respond to this threat.

I’ve seen people I thought would be more casual taking it very seriously, while others, through fear or downright irresponsibility, seemed to decide there’s some sort of big scam going on, and even if they accept the Covid 19 risk, still think the authorities are trying to hoodwink them.

The school shut-downs and other measures will have concentrated many minds.

Personally, my hands haven’t been this clean since I brought a newborn home from the hospital. “Wash your hands” is an order ringing through the house at regular intervals. Today, I was sent a “Prayer to Dear St. Roch” on WhatsApp. I’m told it was said in West Kerry during the Spanish flu of 1918.

It included the lines, “may, through his intercession, be delivered in soul and body from all mortal contagion.” I’m not quite there yet, but who knows?

Journalist Laura Spinney, who wrote the book Pale Rider about the Spanish flu, has said that a lesson taken from that time is that imposing public health measures on people does not work very effectively.

People need to be kept in the loop, properly informed about the threat they face, and to have trust that those in charge are working to protect everyone.

Authorities continue to urge people to wash hands regularly and thoroughly, and to use sanitary products whenever possible
Authorities continue to urge people to wash hands regularly and thoroughly, and to use sanitary products whenever possible

If these things are not present, the measures are not effective.

Many people cannot understand why schools were not closed earlier, or why, as an island, we haven’t stopped people coming in. But how long could we sustain that? How do you access the billions of euros of products, including drugs and foods, that we import?

If we jump ahead of the EU, acting unilaterally, we risk alienating our partners and the significant advantage of being a member at a time of crisis.

The decision to close the schools affected a million children — primary and secondary — and their parents.

It involved all sorts of logistical considerations. How about the people in the health service, who are working flat-out preparing for coronavirus and an influx of patients? Who will care for their children?

Or the members of An Garda who are parents? Who will care for their children?

None of these questions have easy answers and the health and political systems have been attempting to balance it all up. The public health evidence on school closures is not overwhelming, either. it’s not a given that it’s the best thing to do.

Past experience has shown that the longer people are expected to curtail their movements, the more compliance falls off. They become complacent.

After a period of time, people feel that the danger has passed, or that they ‘simply must’ do something. It is all an exceptionally fine balance for the powers-that-be.

As Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said on Wednesday: “Timing and when we go up to further levels really matter. It is not just timing, but sustaining it over a period of time.” It’s not easy on any of us, but the most important thing is that we all pull together.

We are only just out of the first phase of this, and into the “delay” phase now. What happens next is uncertain.

So patience and compliance are key.

The Covid-19 outbreak is not easy on any of us, but the most important thing is we all pull together.

    Useful information
  • The HSE have developed an information pack on how to protect yourself and others from coronavirus. Read it here
  • Anyone with symptoms of coronavirus who has been in close contact with a confirmed case in the last 14 days should isolate themselves from other people - this means going into a different, well-ventilated room alone, with a phone; phone their GP, or emergency department - if this is not possible, phone 112 or 999 and in a medical emergency (if you have severe symptoms) phone 112 or 999

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