Clodagh Finn: Crisis exposes many inequalities within our society

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted our good side but it also shows up some other sides to our character as a society, warts and all, writes Clodagh Finn.
Clodagh Finn: Crisis exposes many inequalities within our society
GOOD SIDE: Lucy Nagle from Enniskeane, Co Cork, who took four hours to put together her banner in support of the frontline staff. Picture: Dan Linehan
GOOD SIDE: Lucy Nagle from Enniskeane, Co Cork, who took four hours to put together her banner in support of the frontline staff. Picture: Dan Linehan

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted our good side but it also shows up some other sides to our character as a society, warts and all, writes Clodagh Finn.

THEY say that Covid-19 is a great equaliser but it is not. A point which was made forcibly by BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis this week.

The virus might sweep through borders, but it is far from being an equal-opportunity illness. As we have seen, certain groups are more at risk.

Medical workers, of course. The doctors, nurses, paramedics, and pharmacists — let’s not forget them — in the frontline are exposed to risk every single day.

We have, to our credit, gone out of our way to salute them. Long may it continue.

To be fair, we have also acknowledged the army of lower-paid workers who are keeping the country going — the supermarket cashiers, the shelf-stackers, the hauliers, the postal workers, the bus drivers, and the hospital cleaners, to give an incomplete list.

They, too, are in the frontline and maybe now, for the first time, we can see in sharp relief the faces of the people who make such a valuable, though underappreciated, contribution to our society.

That has been an unexpected feature of this pandemic; it has directed a bright light into pockets of our daily life that often remain obscured.

We’ve seen camaraderie, kindness, solidarity, humanity, and humour in places where you don’t always expect it.

Indeed, life in this time of Covid-19 has been such an emotional rollercoaster that I welled up at an official announcement earlier this week that the Easter Bunny had been deemed an essential worker.

In a tweet on Tuesday, Health Minister Simon Harris reassured children that the bunny would be working this weekend despite the restrictions.

Rest assured, though, he (the Easter Bunny is male, apparently) has been reminded to wash his hands and keep his distance.

I wanted to send the minister a socially distanced hug for giving children a little bit of welcome light relief.

Now if only politicians would come together to pull a rabbit out of the hat to form a government to tackle all the issues that have been so cruelly exposed at this time of crisis.

This weekend, for instance, much has been said about new garda powers designed to prevent unnecessary travel and a feared holiday exodus to second homes.

Second homes? What is now crystal clear is the uncomfortable truth that we are living in a country where many will never be able to afford to buy a first home, not to mind a second.

And if people have homes, they are not always safe homes.

My blood ran cold earlier this week when this message popped into one of the many newly formed WhatsApp groups that are keeping us connected. It read:

Serious matter. Anyone know of a room to rent short term… for women living in car? She was beaten up last night.

We don’t need to rely on anecdotal evidence to see that the coronavirus lockdown is ramping up the tension and increasing domestic violence. We might not yet have official figures, but Irish charities have already signalled a worrying jump.

An Garda Síochána has promised to respond “very quickly and robustly”, yet Safe Ireland, which works with 38 domestic violence organisations across the country, expressed “growing concern” that the needs of domestic abuse victims were being overlooked in the national response to Covid-19.

In England and Scotland, domestic violence services were allocated emergency funding but here the Government has yet to respond to an appeal for extra resources to make up for the 20% decrease in emergency accommodation due to social distancing.

Safe Ireland co-CEO Sharon O’Halloran has called for creative thinking which, she suggested, might mean identifying Airbnb accommodation or other housing stock in the community.

That’s an idea that could start to work straight away with a little bit of the same generosity shown so readily elsewhere.

Given the tensions brought about by lockdown, it makes the decision to allow off-licences remain open all the more astounding.

Nobody will deny a stressed parent or a tired teleworker a tipple at so-called wine o’clock, but what does it say about us that we have deemed off-licences an essential service?

While they say they are behaving responsibly — and there is no reason to doubt that — shutting off-licences would free up extra ICU beds, according to professor of public health at Trinity College Joe Barry.

He said cutting the supply of alcohol has been shown to reduce the level of liver failure in heavy drinkers which, in turn, frees up space in intensive care.

As we note the daily death rate from Covid-19, it is worth reminding ourselves that alcohol is responsible for 88 deaths every month in Ireland. That’s more than 1,000 deaths a year.

And still the off-licences remain open for business.

This crisis will also force us to review the nursing home sector, which is now struggling to get access to nursing staff, testing, and personal protective equipment.

The number of nursing homes affected by Covid-19 clusters jumped from 40 to 86 in just three days.

It is heart-breaking enough to see relatives press their noses up to the windows of care homes to greet their loved ones without having to worry whether they are also at increased risk of contracting coronavirus.

At a time when we should be doing all we can to keep elderly people in their own homes, the HSE has announced that it will temporarily withdraw assistance from some ‘low-dependency’ households.

It continues to bother me that most of us still use the term ‘home help’ to describe the work done by qualified care assistants who deserve a special place in heaven, but that is perhaps another symptom of our general tendency to underpay and underrate so many vital workers.

The cracks in our society have been laid bare by the challenges of these last few surreal weeks but so too has a new-found appreciation of the hidden work that so many people do.

Let’s hope the latter will help us to tackle the former when we emerge, blinking, into the harsh new realities of the post-Covid.

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