Fergus Finlay: Until we find a vaccine we can only hope to live in a truce with virus

The battle against the coronavirus is still to be won and we will have to accept that we will have to do our part in this battle for some time to come, writes Fergus Finlay
Fergus Finlay: Until we find a vaccine we can only hope to live in a truce with virus

The battle against the coronavirus is still to be won and we will have to accept that we will have to do our part in this battle for some time to come, writes Fergus Finlay

A Stay Home message on the famoust Naas Ball on the N7/M7 Motorway in County Kildare, as Ireland faces another three weeks of its population in Lockdown, as the country tries to combat the Covid-19 Virus. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie
A Stay Home message on the famoust Naas Ball on the N7/M7 Motorway in County Kildare, as Ireland faces another three weeks of its population in Lockdown, as the country tries to combat the Covid-19 Virus. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

I’M a member of the board of the HSE. I applied for it, and was appointed. Its’s a small board, and we’re all an awful lot busier than we thought we’d be.

We work to a chairman, Ciaran Devane, who works even harder than the rest of us to ensure that proper accountability and leadership applies.

And we work alongside a CEO and a senior management team that has got to be the most impressive group of people I’ve ever seen in the midst of a crisis.

We had rows with them before this started, and no doubt we’ll have rows again, but I would trust this team with my life. They have really, truly, mistakes and all, warts and all, risen to the biggest challenge our health system has ever seen, and one of the biggest crises our country has seen.

I haven’t asked their permission to say what I want to say here. I don’t want you to think that I’m just spreading a message on behalf of the HSE. It’s never been an organisation above criticism, and it’s not above criticism now.

The State, in all its different ways, is trying to do its best. But it’s not perfect, and needs to be always challenged to get it right. Sometimes, for example, communication is clear and simple. Sometimes — and it has happened a couple of times recently — there has been far too much confusion about what we’re trying to say.

But here’s what I believe to be absolutely true. I think I know the future. It’s scary, but doesn’t have to be that scary. It’s economically serious, but doesn’t have to be devastating. It doesn’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, have to mean the end of the world.

It is all summed up in one key sentence. It’s the core of the future. The core of the problem. And the core of the solution. The sentence is this. And right now, it is the absolute truth. The complete bottom line.

We are living every day alongside a highly contagious virus which is really dangerous for a lot of the people we love and value, and for which there is no vaccine and no immunity.

The sentence as a whole is almost a cliché now, isn’t it? But every single word of that sentence is equally important, and equally true. No vaccine. No immunity. Really dangerous. Highly contagious. And it can kill the people we love most.

Because that sentence is the core of the problem, it means that all the guff about this being no worse than the flu, or the cure being worse than the disease, or the important thing being the economy, is all poisonous rubbish. At least, right now it is. We cannot re-imagine that sentence right now.

It is here now. It is killing people now. We are all potential victims and carriers and spreaders. The virus gives us all the potential to kill the people we love.

We’ve been asked to do sensible things — to protect the people we love. Wash our hands. Keep our distance. Stay indoors. Avoid unnecessary travel. Every day I talk to people who are chafing in the face of these restrictions. And I am too. But when you think that every time you wash your hands you improve someone’s chances of staying alive, it’s not a lot to ask. Give up your Easter weekend — even if it means missing your grandkids for the first time since they were born — and all you’re doing is your duty.

And that sentence also means that it’s too soon to start speculating about how we end the war against the virus.

We’re the foot soldiers in the war, those of us who stay at home and wash our hands. The people on the front line — the nurses and doctors, the cleaners and ward orderlies, the paramedics and drivers — are every one of them a hero.

The generals are the managers, the policy makers, and the politicians. They’re the ones we look to win this war.

And then there are the armchair generals, the ones who really know best. I read one of them in one of Sunday’s newspapers — I won’t name him in case he was misquoted, but he was fairly typical — who said there were only two choices — eliminate the virus like China or New Zealand, or try to flatten the curve like Boris Johnson. How anyone gets taken seriously when they say things like that baffles me.

Because we can’t beat the virus. Only a proper vaccine can do that. We have only one choice ultimately, and that’s to manage life alongside the virus.

And we’re not there yet, not by a long shot. Think back for a second. If our government was led by Boris Johnson, we’d have gone ahead with the St Patrick’s Day Festival, because that’s exactly the sort of feckless thing he was doing. A fortnight later, on March 31, our intensive care capacity, and our hospital system, would have been entirely overrun. A fortnight after that — which is where were are right now — the deaths from the virus would have been far in excess of where they are, as bad as that is.

But there would have been a lot more death on top of that. Because when your hospitals and intensive care capacity are overrun, people die from all sorts of things they shouldn’t die from — things that have nothing to do with the virus at all. By closing down when we did public policy decisions saved an awful lot of lives, because no hospital was overrun.

SO how do we get beyond the virus if we can’t beat it? By accepting that there are some preconditions we have to meet before we can call a truce in the war.

The first is to acknowledge that the virus will continue to make people sick until a vaccine is ready. So it remains absolutely essential to maintain and improve the capacity of our hospital system.

The second precondition is testing and tracing. If we’re going to get “back to business” alongside a virus that has no vaccine or immunity yet, we will each need to know if and when we’re infected, and who we might have infected.

That means real-time testing, and open and intrusive tracing. Technology is emerging now that will enable the tracing, but it will take weeks more for testing to be at the level it needs to be. When we get the testing right, we’ll know the rate at which the virus spreads each day – or not.

Until those preconditions are met, we remain at war with a virus that can kill our loved ones. When the preconditions are met, we can move into an uneasy truce with the virus. We can, and we will, rebuild the strength of the economy then.

But until then, let’s stop the talk of moving on. We’re at war — and you never win a war by deciding to walk off the battlefield. We can’t beat the virus without a vaccine — but we can win the war against the virus by sticking together and by fighting for each other.

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