Victoria White: Complacency to challenge of Covid-19 poses existential threat

I would feel more secure if our Government took the ‘Covid first, whatever the consequences’ attitude belatedly being expressed in Italy, writes Victoria White.

Victoria White: Complacency to challenge of Covid-19 poses existential threat
A traveller wears a mask as she fills out a form at a check point set up by border police inside Rome’s Termini train station on Tuesday, after the Italian government extended a coronavirus containment to the entire country. Picture: Andrew Medichini/AP

MY DAUGHTER came home from a ski trip in northern Italy on February 21 along with 100 of her school-mates.

The following Monday they all went into school which has a student population of around 700.

I was relaxed.

The school was following HSE advice which was to self-isolate if you had returned from certain areas of northern Italy and were displaying symptoms.

Our girls didn’t have a fever though a few of them had nasty colds.

I knew the chances of them actually having Covid-19 were statistically small. I also knew, however, that it could take 14 days for symptoms to show.

There had not been a case from their actual ski resort but the county town, Brentonico, was affected and they went through Milan airport.

We sent our girls back into school from an affected area without knowing for sure that they could not infect the other 600 girls.

Travel from Northern Italy, including from ski trips, has so far been a major source of infection for the upwards of 50 cases of Covid-19 which are now presenting in the Republic and Northern Ireland. 

Interestingly, in Northern Ireland and the UK, many schools took the initiative of isolating pupils home from ski trips in Northern Italy.

We didn’t. We had no advice to do so. I don’t understand why not. Nor do I understand why Ryanair is still flying into Ireland from northern Italy until tomorrow; nor have I yet been told what measures will be taken to isolate and test any passengers before they disperse.

Victoria White: Complacency to challenge of Covid-19 poses existential threat

This newspaper’s editorial on Monday, in the wake of the weekend’s spike in cases, wisely cautioned: “Being responsible about where you source your information and being rigorous in what you accept as rational, may have become as important in the fight against the epidemic as any other exercise in personal responsibility.”

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan speaks of adopting a proportionate response to the virus because people become “fatigued by restrictions”. 

He has far more knowledge of epidemic management than I have — as in, I have none. However his mention of the word “fatigue” may point to a distinctive response in our population, or perhaps in Western populations like ours.

Look at the response of the Chinese authorities to the outbreak in Hubei province — now “curbed” — and compare it with ours.

If we don’t compare our response unfavourably with theirs, they do. Chinese students at a school for the learning of English in Dublin were last week contacted by their government and told to come home because the Irish response to Covid-19 was not serious or thorough enough.

Bashing our government in times of crisis is a national pass-time. 

It’s quite possible that Dr Holohan, and the health service he represents, have accurately taken the pulse of a cosseted, Western nation which has largely forgotten what dangerous contagion is, and that the level of constraint they are putting on us is partly dictated by what they think we will bear.

Speaking on Prime Time on Tuesday night, Minister Simon Harris spoke of the importance of taking the right measures, at the right time, for the right length of time.

It is a calculation, based on the advice of health professionals, which seems to measure our ability, as a nation, to comply and to calibrate economic loss against public health risk.

I understand that a collapsing economy will make providing services very difficult.

However, I would feel more secure if our government took the “Covid first, whatever the consequences” attitude belatedly being expressed in Italy, in marked contrast to the sentiment expressed by foreign minister Luigi di Maio in late Feburary that business people and visitors should still come to Italy and that an “infodemic” about the virus was doing more damage to the country than the virus itself. 

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan

Lazio tegion president, Nicola Zingaretti, who boasted in late February that that it was “business as usual” for the central area around Rome, now has the virus himself.

As in Italy, our careful calculations of potential compliance and potential economic loss seem rooted in disbelief that there could be an existential threat to our comfortable way of life.

This came home to me in a pointed way when I travelled to Africa on a research trip a few days after my daughter’s return from Italy. Ironically, my arm was like a pin cushion from all the jabs I got to protect myself from diseases present in Africa when in truth the Africans should have been protected from me.

My daughter could still have developed Covid-19 and I had been in close contact with her. I should not have travelled at all. 

Not only did I travel in close confinement with some 200 other passengers on the plane I was also visiting a country much less developed than our own which has far fewer resources with which to battle any epidemic.

I had some stashed-away hand sanitiser in my pocket and was still quite relaxed.

I got my wake-up all when a themometer was thrust into my face as soon as I entered the African airport. All the airport staff with which I dealt wore masks over which their eyes peered at me with a certain amount of fear and loathing.

On exiting the airport I prepared to throw my arms around my hosts but they retreated cautiously. From now on, said one, we tap feet.

There had as yet been no confirmed case in Ireland and I was stupidly clinging to that fact.

Inevitably, there would be one and the cases started to be confirmed as I travelled.

My hosts knew this. Because they are African, it seems they weren’t prey to the same delusions of invulnerability as I was. They are used to dangerous infections and they are terrified of them.

    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

THE ebola virus — which was also originally transmitted from bats but unlike Covid-19, has a fatality rate of 50% — raged through Senegal’s neighbours, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia between 2014 and 2016 while Congo’s most recent outbreak is currently being brought under control.

Senegal’s infant mortality rate is fully 10 times that of Ireland. The photographer with whom I was working was his mother’s eighth child and the first to survive infancy.

He joked the Covid-19 was “racist” because so far Africa had recorded relatively few cases; the truth is, of course, that Africa is just less globalised. We have exactly the same human vulnerability as him, his mother and her seven dead babies.

We need to imagine her pain and temporarily lock down this country before pain like hers is ours.

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