Fergus Finlay: We can all be armchair critics, or we can all join the battle

Even as it looks right now that the numbers are turning in the right direction, there is enormous danger still
Fergus Finlay: We can all be armchair critics, or we can all join the battle

An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar will know the Government made a serious mistake at Christmas - but every single one of us wanted to ease up. Picture: Julien Behal Photography

I hate snow. I’m the only member of my family who does — WhatsApp pictures on Sunday morning demonstrated great excitement among grandchildren at the prospect of getting out into it. But for me, snow means cold and sludge and bad things.

Years ago I slipped on snow and fell into a bank of it, only to discover a broken bottle buried deep within. It ripped my forearm open and I spent days picking shards of broken glass out of my skin. Years after that my sister and I were trapped in a car on the M3. A motorway no less, with cars slipping and sliding all over the place. We were agonisingly close to the point where it meets the city, but it took seven hours to navigate the last couple of miles.

And later still we lost a beloved dog during a spell of bitterly cold weather — ice, sleet, snow, the lot. We had always promised ourselves that Doglet would be buried under an apple tree in the back garden, but we couldn’t, because there was permafrost, and no shovel would go into the ground.

So when I woke on Sunday morning, to find the entire place covered in a blanket of the ghastly white stuff, my only thought was “what’s going to go wrong now”? Luckily, I got through the day without shedding blood or losing anything. And it didn’t last too long anyway.

But actually, on reflection, I think my real thought was “what else can go wrong now?” We’re locked down, unable to go anywhere, to see anyone, to be with family and friends. We’re all in the same boat, desperately trying to prevent a deadly virus from affecting our families. Life can be boring beyond belief. But I’ve been ok with that, like most people I guess. Until the snow bothered me. And suddenly I became one of those “where is the plan?” people. “Awful bloody government, with no solution up their sleeves”. You know the kind of thing — the newspapers and tv and radio are full of it.

As bad as things look to us right now, they are a lot worse in other places

And I was joining them, about to become another of the no-hopers, until I gave myself a sharp kick in the behind. What the hell am I whinging about? Plan? How do you have a plan in the face of something like this? You do the best you can, don’t you? You adapt to circumstances. You try to move fast, knowing that you’re always — you’re bound to be — two weeks behind the virus.

Don’t get me wrong. We all know in our heart of hearts — Micheál and Leo know it too, even if they won’t admit it — that the government made a serious mistake at Christmas. We all desperately wanted what Micheál kept referring to as a “meaningful Christmas”, and they relaxed the rules, just as the English mutation landed on our shores.

The virus, strengthened as it was by the mutation (why are we all calling it the variant?) rubbed its hands in glee when it heard that Christmas announcement and case numbers have soared ever since. Overnight, it seems, we went from being one of the best countries in the world when it came to managing the pandemic to one of the worst.

We thought we might avoid the third surge altogether. In fact, the third surge has taken more lives and hurt more families profoundly, than the first two put together. And it’s not over yet by any means.

So did we fail? Did our government and our systems let us down?

To be honest — and anyone who knows me knows I carry no torches for a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael government — I think that would be a very harsh judgement. The public health advice was clear, but in the run-up to Christmas individuals and families had had enough. The pressure on the government and on every single one of us wanted to ease up a bit. I have no doubt whatever that if Micheál and Leo could relive that moment, there’d have been no relaxation at Christmas.

So, as one of my more sardonic friends texted me the other day, the meaningful Christmas came home to roost. But I guess if we’d kept numbers under control then, the pressure to reopen now would be even more intense.

But look. The world is about to reach 100 million cases very soon — perhaps today — and has already passed two million deaths. Covid-19 has more than earned its bleak and indelible chapter in world history. And, unlike in the Spanish flu, those lives have been lost in an era of unsurpassed global wealth and immense technological and medical advances.

A complete massacre, a horror film”: Inside Brazil’s Covid disaster

Variants threaten to undo progress as world nears 100 million cases

Biden warns US Covid-19 death toll could top 600,000

Calls for lockdown of French elders rise amid worsening Covid-19 situation

Covid-19 death toll tops 50,000 in Germany as Merkel mulls border checks

That’s just a small selection of weekend headlines from around Europe and the world — five minutes browsing on the internet. As bad as things look to us right now, they are a lot worse in other places.

But here’s the thing. We are at the most dangerous moment of the crisis right now.

Since this started, our health system has performed a minor miracle every day of the week. A year ago — before the pandemic hit us but when the current government was being formed — I wrote here that that “the occupancy rate of Irish hospital beds is the highest by far in the OECD, at 95% — the OECD average is just over 75%. What that means is that there are always going to be waiting lists for treatment, and that lack of access to in-hospital beds is always going to be the reason emergency departments are overcrowded”.

The pandemic was waiting around the corner when I wrote that. We were the most poorly-equipped health system in the OECD — by a long way — to deal with it. And that was complicated further by the fact that hundreds of our most likely to be affected citizens lived in widely dispersed privately-owned residential facilities with no preparation for a raging virus and no capacity to manage the consequences.

Right now, as we know, the system is groaning under the strain. At every level — doctors, nurses, paramedics, orderlies, porters, cleaners, catering staff, administrators, managers — acts of heroism are demanded and delivered all the time. And that’s just to keep going.

I said earlier that we’re always, by definition, two weeks behind the virus. So even as it looks right now that the numbers are turning in the right direction, there is enormous danger still.

Everyone is arguing now for quarantines and closed borders. I get it. But the bottom line is still exactly the same as it was at the start. For months to come, we have only one choice. To protect ourselves and each other by getting the basics right.

Social distancing, hand washing, masking. Whatever changes are made to public policy, it’s still the simple things that matter most. We can all be armchair critics, or we can all join the battle.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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