Fergus Finlay: The people will have the final word on pandemic

We were content to obey instructions, now we need a much more grown up conversation, writes Fergus Finlay
Fergus Finlay: The people will have the final word on pandemic
US President Donald Trump speaks during a Fox News virtual town hall from the Lincoln Memorial Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

We were content to obey instructions, now we need a much more grown up conversation, writes Fergus Finlay

No reputable historian will ever mention Donald Trump in the same breath as Abraham Lincoln. Not now, not ever.

So when my daughters Emma and Vicky sent me pictures of Trump sitting under the statue of Lincoln, it gave me a horrible jolt.

That wasn’t their purpose of course. They know I’ve visited that monument many times. I’ve read the phrases written by Lincoln and carved on its walls. “Government of the people by the people for the people.” “With malice toward none; with charity for all … bind up the nation’s wounds …” I’ve stood looking at that solemn face, the compassion clearly visible even in the marble from which it was carved.

To have to look at Trump, a man made of malice, a man incapable of thinking about the nation’s wounds let alone binding them up, sitting under that great statue and whining that the media has been harder on him than it was on Lincoln made me feel ill.

But at least it made me forgive some of the whingeing and whining that passes for commentary on politics and public affairs here at home.

Lockdown, it appears, goes hand in hand with having to read and listen to a lot of horse manure.

I’ve seldom seen or heard as much of it as I did last weekend when the Taoiseach committed an unpardonable sin. He did the unforgiveable. He read from notes.

There was palpable shock among some of the commentariat when Leo Varadkar was asked a question on the Late Late Show and, rather than chancing his arm with an answer, fished for his notes in order to get the answer right.

Because the question was an important and sensitive one, about when funerals for loved ones might be possible, it deserved to be got right. And because the planned phasing out of the lockdown is complicated, conditional, and multi-faceted, you could easily get it wrong.

Especially if, like a lot of members of the government and a lot of the senior people who work alongside them, you’ve been desperately trying to manage and think and plan and hoping to respond appropriately.

So double-checking an answer was exactly the right thing to do. But the heavens then opened on the Taoiseach’s head.

One newspaper ran a headline about Leo forgetting his homework.

Twitter, of course, the land of the free and the home of the brave (though not always brave enough to use their own names), had a field day, piling abuse on a Taoiseach who was keen to get his facts right.

Then, to add insult to injury, some of the more esteemed commentators went to town in the Sunday papers, with Eoghan Harris for example accusing the Taoiseach of having a vested interest in a long lockdown.

Harris said this as a matter of bald fact: “Addicted to endless exposure on RTÉ, Varadkar has a vested political interest in locking us down for as long as possible.” He asserted no argument, put forward no reasoning, just said it. It was a juvenile remark.

I’ll forgive him too though. In the opening paragraphs of his column, he referred, without self-pity, to the fact that the prostate cancer from which he suffered in the past has recurred and apparently spread.

Eoghan Harris’s self-aggrandisement might drive me nuts at times, but contrary as he is, his would be a voice that we would all miss if it was forced to be quiet for too long. I hope he recovers soon.

But it’s always the people who have the last word, and not the commentators, thank goodness.

While the so-called experts were heaping muck and derision on the Taoiseach’s head, the people were reporting themselves as having a fair measure of confidence in him.

Leo Vardkar will have mentions in Irish history for all sorts of reasons.

This weekend he qualified as the first caretaker Taoiseach whose party, having got a terrible drubbing in the recent general election, is now, in the latest opinion poll, recording one of the highest levels of support in the party’s history – two and half times the level of support garnered by Fianna Fáil and twelve times the support of the Labour Party.

What does that mean? Is it just about the visibility engendered by the crisis, or could it just possible be that people want him and his team in charge, and that we trust them?

I’ve never been a Fine Gael voter or supporter – you know that. But in common with a great many Irish people, I believe this government has done as good a job as possible in the middle of an unprecedented and inexplicable crisis.

They’ve had to go where no government has ever had to go before, and for the most part they’ve been surefooted and trustworthy. Can you ask for more than that?

Well, maybe a bit.

There’s a market research company called Behaviour and Attitudes, highly reputable and experienced, and skilled in measuring attitudes and moods.

Their speciality, alongside the polling we all recognise, is qualitative research, which involves talking to small groups of people for a long time and interpreting what they’re being told.

They are currently publishing insights into how we’re doing during the crisis, and even in summary the results are fascinating.

Here’s the bottom line. We still trust the government and the public health experts, but we’re really chafing.

The novelty of the lockdown is wearing thin, and while at the start we were content to obey instructions, we’re getting to the point where we need a much more grown-up conversation about how this impossible situation will be managed and made better.

Government needs to listen to this mood, and to the more thoughtful commentators who have talked about the need for more transparency in taking us behind the scenes of how policy decisions are being made.

As Behaviour and Attitudes puts it, there is the potential for a much worse “us and them” dynamic to emerge. The worst manifestation of this would be a sense of “why does my life have to suffer just to protect the older generation?”

Nothing could be more dangerous to all of us in the middle of a pandemic we don’t properly understand yet. A disease that has no cure, no treatment, and no vaccine is a disease that is dangerous for every generation.

The treatment and the vaccine that we all hope are on the way are not here yet and may not be any time soon.

But we’re a lot closer to the real-time testing and tracing we need to enable the economy to open up again to a reasonable degree.

We need to tough it out – and stick together – for another few weeks, while relaxation starts to happen.

We know it will be slow, but slow and steady progress will do.

We don’t need miracles, just that little glimmer of light that tells us the end of the tunnel isn’t too far away.

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