Gerard Howlin: Ramifications of this crisis will hit Ireland hard for years to come

Gerard Howlin: Ramifications of this crisis will hit Ireland hard for years to come
The testing centre at Croke Park. What matters most isn’t being mentioned, writes our columnist: What is the plan to make permanent the changes being introduced as exceptional measures now?

Bodies pile up unburied in Italy and the dying are abandoned alone in nursing homes — those still alive remaining among the already dead in one instance, in Spain.

But we have hope. The hand of the “destroying angel” is averted. It will get much worse for us, but no matter.

Blackpitts in Dublin’s Liberties, near St Patrick’s Cathedral but just outside the medieval city, gets its name as a place of mass burial during the medieval plague.

“Let not the land be made desolate, and destroy not every living soul,” is the plea of the people to the destroying angel in the Mass for Deliverance from Death in Time of Pestilence.

It was approved by Pope Clement VI in 1348 when the continent was in the grip of the Black Death.

Nine million people died from air pollution last year, and most of that came from fossil fuels. China’s CO2 emissions dropped by up to a quarter in February, according to Carbon Brief.

The equivalent is about half of Britain’s total annual emissions.

Marshall Burke, a researcher at Stanford University, has said that “the reductions in air pollution in China caused by this economic disruption likely saved 20 times more lives in China than have currently been lost due to infection with the virus in that country”.

In his opinion, “two months of pollution reduction likely has saved the lives of 4,000 kids under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 in China”.

We won’t die in vain.

As some of us are unable to breathe unaided, remember that, as we gasp, others now breathe freely.

Their pollution is driven by the production processes required for our lifestyles and now increasingly theirs as well.

There is irony in the global spread of respiratory disease and something of divine vengeance.

Places as far apart as the Po Valley and New Delhi are reporting cleaner air. There isn’t a direct link between coronavirus and climate change, but the drivers of climate change created the conditions for the spread of the virus.

More generally, climate change is a threat multiplier. The deepest fear we should have is the normal we long for.

Between divine vengeance and global catastrophe, our own affairs seem paltry. To mention something as insignificant as the next exchequer returns on April 2 is almost to invite the ‘destroying angel’ back.

This will be the first concrete indication of how broke we are going, and how fast.

As billions are spent unbudgeted, and billions budgeted for fail to arrive, what will be first indicated next week will be even clearer in May.

At some point, the spending must stop, and a reckoning had. Largely the emergency measures are required. Nobody whipping the horse to jump higher now is offering any suggestion as to how the not far-off reckoning is arrived at.

Our fear, and the overwhelming majority of us, even if we have carried this virus on to others, will survive unscathed, should be of ending up back in the normal we now miss.

As a country, we wasted one crisis 10 years ago, precisely because the well-meant intention of the government was to get back to ‘normal’.

Our health service costs ever more but is substantially unreformed.

Two models of change — James Reilly’s Dutch model, based on universal insurance, and Sláintecare, based on universal access — are unimplemented.

One is past tense, the other is aspirational.

I take as a given that those in charge will do their absolute best in this crisis, and if they don’t get everything right, they will, on the whole, do as well as can be hoped for.

On that, let’s see if they are still heroes when inevitably the mortuaries fill up. Public emotion is the slipperiest of slopes.

What matters most isn’t mentioned. What is the plan to make permanent the changes being introduced as exceptional measures now? The 24-hour radiographer cover for example? Tele-medicine as a new normal? Routinely texting appointments?

This is only a brief, temporary lull in the trench warfare between vested interests for control of our healthcare. The heroics being told of are true. That won’t mean much, though, when this is all over.

Unless we have clear wins in permanently changed systems, we will literally be back to normal.

But in fact, we won’t. That normal will be much worse because everything delayed now will arrive back on top of that.

Looking past coronavirus, there is a slim chance some things will change. There is a bigger chance that nothing will. Just as economic recovery after the crisis must have the same priority as dealing with the emergency, we need planning now for a permanent corona dividend on health.

Look no further than the empty waiting rooms of GP surgeries. Where are all the children under six and their worried parents? Well, largely fine it seems.

A new government, put to the pin of its collar, could immediately row back on the ridiculous policy of free GP care for children. It may be desirable but was almost the worst possible way to spend the scarce commodity of public money and scarcer commodity still of doctors’ time.

Ireland has a robust multinational sector. Our domestic economy, however, is shot.

Economically 2020 is a write-off; 2021 won’t miraculously spring into bloom. A deficit of about 10% of GDP is looming and if you strip out the money to bail out the banks, that’s about as bad as 2010.

An approximately €90bn budget is out somewhere between €20bn and €25bn. You may recall talk during the election of competing plans for spending an extra €11bn between 2020 and 2025? Well, please forget. Tax cuts are off the table. Spending cuts are back on.

The biggest spending item this year is a new public sector pay deal.

Nobody, especially not any of the people busiest spending money, has had the decency to mention it, but a public pay freeze is required for a year at least, and maybe more. People out of work have to be prioritised over people in work.

Feeble attempts at government formation continue. After the election of a new Seanad next weekend, we won’t have a functioning Oireachtas because only a new taoiseach can appoint the 11 senators required.

So no more law-making, even if an emergency requires it. Incidentally, we won’t starve soon for a lack of law. There is talk of a national government to deal with the current emergency but leaving key cabinet members in place. That could help.

What is imperative to avoid again is the ‘destroying angel’ of normalcy. Only radical change and a government with far broader shoulders than one mainly consisting of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can provide that.

The exchequer returns on April 2 will provide a pretext.

Every manifesto can be put on the bonfire. There will be a universal indulgence for broken promises.

    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;
  • GPs Out of Hours services are not in a position to order testing for patients with normal cold and flu-like symptoms. HSELive is an information line and similarly not in a position to order testing for members of the public. The public is asked to reserve 112/999 for medical emergencies at all times.
  • ALONE has launched a national support line and additional supports for older people who have concerns or are facing difficulties relating to the outbreak of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) in Ireland. The support line will be open seven days a week, 8am-8pm, by calling 0818 222 024

More on this topic

Covid-19: Confusion reigns as people await list of essential workers Covid-19: Confusion reigns as people await list of essential workers

Caroline O'Donoghue: 5 ways to ruthlessly look on the brightside (no matter how hard it is)Caroline O'Donoghue: 5 ways to ruthlessly look on the brightside (no matter how hard it is)

Website shows you how far you can roam from home without breaking Covid-19 restrictionsWebsite shows you how far you can roam from home without breaking Covid-19 restrictions

Construction industry wants all building sites to shut immediately Construction industry wants all building sites to shut immediately