Daniel McConnell: Have we got it all wrong when it comes to Covid?

There is a case to be made that we as a country have been led by a conversation about the virus which has been unbalanced and disproportionate, writes Daniel McConnell
Daniel McConnell: Have we got it all wrong when it comes to Covid?

Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

IT HAS been a long year.

A tough year, like no other in living memory.

We have lost people, missed people.

Sacrificed so much. Family gatherings, birthdays, foreign holidays.

Important milestones in our children’s lives have been canceled.

Businesses have been mothballed; others sadly have failed.

The road here has been long, arduous and grossly unfair to many.

Unfair because of poor public policy.

The rise of the medics in 2020 is akin to the rise of the economists in 2008 to 2012, where the nation hung on their every prediction, advice and verdict as to how the country would combat and overcome Covid-19.

Halfway through our second “lockdown”, while the dominance of medical voices over all others on the airwaves is an issue, they advise and governments govern. Blame for the failures must lie at the door of government.

Think back to the initial outbreak of the pandemic in March.

We had Professor Sam McConkey, the expert epidemiologist who predicted there could be between 80,000 and 120,000 deaths in Ireland from coronavirus. The Government at the time said they were taking such warnings seriously.

Prof McConkey predicted that in the worst-case scenario, 80% of the population, or 4m people in the Republic, could get the disease, with a death rate of between 2% and 3% (80,000 to 120,000).

Eight months on, Ireland has seen fewer than 2,000 deaths from Covid-19 since it arrived here.

Sixty times less than the toll predicted by Prof McConkey.

Professor Sam McConkey predicted in March that in the worst-case scenario, 80 per cent of the population, or four million people in the Republic, could get Covid.
Professor Sam McConkey predicted in March that in the worst-case scenario, 80 per cent of the population, or four million people in the Republic, could get Covid.

The total number of cases so far is about 66,000, again lower even than Prof McConkey’s lower estimate of deaths.

Understandably, during the summer when the instances of the disease rose again, the medics raised the alarm, as is their job.

Dire prediction after dire prediction was fed to the nation daily by the State-appointed health experts and the medics.

The constant barrage of worrying commentary fed an unreal narrative that the virus was running out of control.

More importantly, those who railed against the highly arbitrary nature of the lockdown measures were targeted.

What do I mean?

We were told that children were “super spreaders” of the virus as a reason for every school in the country being closed. It turns out the opposite was true.

Transmission rates in children are much lower than adults and, thankfully, schools re-opened in September to considerable success and credit to all involved in making it happen.

In the early stages of the first “lockdown”, questions were being raised as to why foreign travel was not fully stopped when it clearly was a means of transmission.

Why were planes full of US travellers allowed to arrive here with dubious levels of checking and follow-up as to their movements?

Why were nursing homes so woefully neglected in the early stages when clearly they were a major source of infection and transmission?

Why were counties like Kildare, Laois, and Offaly subject to lockdown entirely as opposed to shutting down the meat plants, with questionable working conditions and pay for their workers, which were the cause of major clusters?

By not stopping foreign travel, by not tackling the nursing homes and the meat plants properly and by not addressing the testing capacity, the overall strategy was fundamentally undermined.

As a result of those flaws in public policy and medical oversight, an undue price was being paid by the wider community, and certain sectors in particular.

We have been told of the nightmare scenario of our already vulnerable health system being swamped in the wintertime as a reason for this endless cycle of infringing on our personal liberties.

Since March, Ireland has remained under some of the tightest restrictions in all of Europe and its transmission rates even before the move to level 5 remained well below the peak here.

But for some reason, that progress was still not enough and the move back into “lockdown” became a fait accompli.

That move into level 5 three weeks ago was a punch in the stomach and the basis of the restrictions on sectors were even by the Government’s own admission “arbitrary”.

At that stage, fears and concerns being articulated by business owners as to the damage likely to their lives were dismissed.

On radio, RTÉ’s science correspondent George Lee asked if such people who raised those concerns “living on the moon”.

Today, countless sectors and businesses which did everything right and which could operate their businesses in full compliance with social distancing rules are shut down unfairly.

All of this in order to get the rate of transmission down to a more manageable level before Christmas.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), led by the chief medical officer, Tony Holohan, sought level 5 two weeks before the Government finally bent the knee to them.

But while the Government’s desire was to get the reproductive rate of the virus down to below 1, Nphet wanted it down to 0.5 and called for a more restrictive regime to apply.

 Dr Tony Holohan. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Dr Tony Holohan. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

The doctors have also made clear they cannot guarantee that a third lockdown won’t be required.

THIS week, the debate about how we exit the level 5 regime came centre-stage politically.

On Tuesday, Prof McConkey was on RTÉ radio and made an extraordinary claim which went unchallenged that “life is never going to back to 2019. It’s just a different world we are in.” Given his previous prediction, it was a bold claim to make and caused a lot of consternation in political circles.

The next day, another medic, Dr Tomás Ryan, associate professor at the school of biochemistry and immunology at Trinity, called for Christmas to be delayed until January and for level 5 to be extended by “at least a few weeks”.

If we don’t, he said, the country could find itself back at 1,000 cases a day by January if we reopen as planned in December.

This led to a swathe of comments from TDs at the various parliamentary party meetings on Wednesday.

A succession of Fianna Fáil TDs including Cormac Devlin, Jim O’Callaghan, John Lahart and Marc MacSharry called on Taoiseach Micheál Martin to move to level 2, not level 3, when the current lockdown ends.

Mr Lahart claimed that a move to level 3 after six weeks of lockdown would be “demoralising”.

Mr MacSharry echoed Mr Lahart’s calls, saying that level 3 “wouldn’t cut it”. He voiced concern that retailers must be supported as people are “panic buying online” for fear of chaos in December. Significant business is being lost to the country, he said.

Dún Laoghaire TD Cormac Devlin said people have made “tremendous sacrifices” and the Government should be “at level 2 with tweaks to allow people have some sort of Christmas”.

At the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, a motion tabled by former minister Eoghan Murphy, calling for a Dáil and Seanad debate on managing the pandemic after the lockdown ends, was approved.

Thankfully, that suggestion has been accepted and a broader discussion than merely a solely medical one will take place at the highest levels.

But then, we had Leo Varadkar and Dr Holohan dismissing the desire, and frankly need, of people who want to come home for Christmas.

Dr Holohan characterised such travel as “not essential”, a hammer blow to the thousands of people who have for eight months not seen parents, siblings, friends and other loved ones.

No one is dismissing the challenge Covid-19 poses for our country but there is a case to be made that we as a country have been led by a conversation about the virus which has been unbalanced and disproportionate.

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