Michael Clifford: Crisis can bring out the better side of ourselves

Michael Clifford wonders whether the current solidarity and cohesion within Irish society, in order to battle the onslaught of Covid-19, will survive once the crisis has passed?

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Blair House, Washington DC, discussing the coronavirus crisis, last Thursday. The Taoiseach’s addresses have been measured yet definitive since the crisis began. 	Picture: Niall Carson/PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Blair House, Washington DC, discussing the coronavirus crisis, last Thursday. The Taoiseach’s addresses have been measured yet definitive since the crisis began. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

Through the fear, solidarity shines. As the curve of infection steepens and the country shuts down we are witnessing a better side to ourselves.

From those who govern all the way to a cyberspace ordinarily aflame with anger, every sector of society appears to be putting the best foot forward.

But before we, as a nation, overdo the self-praise a few questions should be addressed.

Can this solidarity last? And how will things be any different when — and it is a matter of when — the country emerges from this existential crisis?

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his frontline ministers have risen to the occasion. Nothing has become the Government like the manner in which they are leaving it.

As the recent general election highlighted, there is much disillusion with how the Fine Gael-led administration has handled the economic recovery from recession. Inequality has grown.

There has been an incapacity at cabinet level to view housing as a basic right rather than a function of the market.

The Sláintecare blueprint for health has been, to a large degree, long-fingered. And prosperity on a macro level has not seen all boats being lifted.

In the last 10 days or so, since the Covid-19 stain began to spread on this island, the Taoiseach and his colleagues have shown that they are capable of dealing with a very real crisis.

Mr Varadkar’s addresses have been measured yet definitive. For a politician who is frequently accused of lacking empathy, he has shown that he knows exactly what is required to lead at a time of living fearfully.

Simon Coveney, Pascal Donohue and Simon Harris have also been assured, empathic and firm in their respective public outings. Regina Doherty, a minister who is no longer in the Dáil, has also performed well.

Initiatives like the Covid-19 unemployment payments were quickly rolled out and providing that it doesn’t buckle under red tape will provide a basic level of solace to those who have lost their jobs in a state of shock.

The ultimate outcome of this crisis will judge whether the caretaker government has acted with due speed and sound judgement. 

But so far, they are entitled to plaudits at a time when we only need to look respectively across the Irish Sea and the Atlantic for case studies in how not to lead.

Solidarity has permeated society. Anecdotally, local residents groups all around the country have mobilised to ensure that elderly neighbours in particular are not left short of anything. 

In business, there have been numerous offers from catering or restaurant proprietors to provide food free gratis to emergency workers.

The solidarity is a weapon against the virus. 

Speaking on RTÉ Radio, Professor Paddy Mallon, an expert in microbial diseases, pointed out that the treatment for the virus is in the hands of society in general.

“The treatment for this infection is the actions taken by the community,” he told the Today with Sean O’Rourke show. 

“If everybody takes this seriously the treatment will be incredibly effective and we will get out of this quickly.”

One initiative that captures the spirit of the time is an online platform created by media professionals Samantha Kelly and Helen O’Rahilly. 

Their #selfisolationhelp platform has attracted over 2,600 volunteers from across the State willing to help out those in self-isolation in their own communities. 

This is social media at its best and most useful.

Solidarity on social media was also evident over the weekend with the relaying of images from a pub in Dublin’s Temple Bar where they were partying like there was no Covid-19.

Can it last? We have to hope so. 

In recent years there has been a number of occasions when solidarity paid a fleeting visit to society. 

Instances like the occupation of Apollo House in 2016 to provide shelter for those without homes was typical of occasions when a wide swathe of people felt strongly that it was time to stand with the most vulnerable. 

Invariably, these feelings pass and everybody, including the media, gets back to daily life.

If the disruption continues for up to months, if the virus begins to spread wildly, will the reserves of compassion currently available ultimately dry up or does the current expression of solidarity reflect a deeper societal connection? That will be a real test.

We have, in this country, had a recent example of solidarity, albeit during a crisis that is dwarfed by the current storm. 

Following the economic collapse the mantra was that “we’re all in this together”.

In the first post-collapse budget, the late Brian Lenihan described his plan as “a call to patriotic action”.

Solidarity prevailed. Social order was maintained despite the imposition of the harshest of economic measures, particularly on the sections of society least equipped to deal with them. 

Yet, when the recession was weathered and the economy began to take off, the concept of solidarity quickly dissipated.

Those best placed prospered in the new order while many who had been borne the greatest burden were left behind. 

The ultimate outcome was the widespread disillusion that was evident in the recent general election.

If social solidarity prevails this time around one can only hope that lessons have been learned and that the subsequent economic recovery will not repeat the mistakes of the recent past.

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