Vicky Phelan: We shall overcome ... if we work together

It may not be the government we voted for recently, but we need to trust those leading our country's response to Covid-19. And we all have a role to play, says Vicky Phelan
Vicky Phelan: We shall overcome ... if we work together

It may not be the government we voted for recently, but we need to trust those leading our country's response to Covid-19. And we all have a role to play, says Vicky Phelan

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris (right) during a visit to the UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory, University College Dublin, in Belfield, Dublin. (Aidan Crawley/PA Wire)
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris (right) during a visit to the UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory, University College Dublin, in Belfield, Dublin. (Aidan Crawley/PA Wire)

I am no stranger to impossible challenges. I have had to face many of them in my life: a life-threatening car accident in early adulthood, multiple battles with depression, a cancer diagnosis which is now terminal, my daughter Amelia’s diagnosis with a rare congenital disorder and the worst thing, of everything, Amelia’s accident at the age of seven in which she suffered severe burns to her upper body and spent months recovering from.

I have overcome all of these challenges that life has thrown at me. It has not been easy but then life is not easy. Indeed, life is difficult as Scott Peck wrote in his wonderful book The Road Less Travelled.

Life has become infinitely more difficult for all of us since the arrival of the coronavirus on Irish soil. As our Taoiseach put it, in a televised address to the nation on St Patrick’s Day: “We are in the midst of a global and national emergency — a pandemic — the likes of which none of us has seen before.”

People are understandably scared. It feels like we are ‘living in a science fiction movie and nobody knows how it will end’ wrote Roisin Ingle, in her column for the Irish Times. I agree!

I have sat down and watched movies such as Contagion and Pandemic with my kids to try to help them understand how serious coronavirus is and to teach them about the danger of panicking and misinformation and the importance of trusted sources of information.

The Taoiseach highlighted this last point in his St Patrick’s Day address and asked people to rely only on trusted sources of information for updates on Covid-19 — the disease caused by the transmission of the coronavirus. These trusted sources include the Government, the HSE, the Department of Health, WHO and national media.

I understand that there are many people who do not trust our Government and who feel let down and may even be afraid. Believe me, I completely understand how you feel. I have been there. I have been let down by our Government and by our health service.

My cancer was missed and I am terminally ill and yet I managed to channel the anger that I felt about what happened to me and use it for good to work alongside our Government and those working in the health service to build a better cervical screening programme, one that women can put their trust in. And I am doing this again now, to do what I can in the fight against Covid-19 because I am in a high-risk category and would be likely to develop severe disease, and possibly die. I am 45, with two young children.

Like many of you, I voted for change in the elections last February because I am not happy with this Government’s performance in key areas such as health, housing and homelessness and their prioritisation of the economy over people.

This may not be the Government that we voted for only a few short weeks ago, but it is the only one we have right now. I am asking you to trust the people who are leading our country and to park any notion of forming a new Government until we get through the worst of what is to come over the next few months. We need to show solidarity at this time and work together.

We are already trying to cope with massive changes to the way we live, the way we work, the way we interact with our loved ones as a result of Covid-19. Now is not the time to jump ship. We need to batten down the hatches and allow Leo and his Cabinet to steer us through these unchartered waters. We need only look east and west of the island of Ireland to know that our leaders are responding correctly and appropriately to the threat posed by Covid-19, and are fully focused on what’s important to us in Ireland, our people.

The measures that we have taken have been backed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and leading epidemiologists such as Dr Gabriel Scally. Some decisions, such as shutting down pubs and clubs, may have taken longer than some of us would have liked but, overall, the Government’s management of this crisis has been consistently good with no mixed messages, unlike its handling of the CervicalCheck débacle, which the Taoiseach himself admitted was his low point in 2018

There is a marked difference between the Government’s response to both crises because, in the case of Covid-19, the Government needs to get buy-in from every citizen in the country. According to the ESRI, the Government’s response has to be “unavoidably collective since each person’s chance of contracting the virus depends not only on their own behaviour, but also on the behaviour of their fellow citizens”.

This means that it is not just up to our Government and the HSE and Department of Health to try to contain the outbreak of the coronavirus. It is up to every citizen on the island of Ireland to stand up and be counted and do our bit to slow the spread of this virus in order to protect as many people as possible from catching it and becoming ill and to give our health service time to prepare between the surge of cases that will require hospitalisation.

The WHO has been providing us with daily briefings since the outbreak of Covid-19. It is being expertly led by an Irishman, Dr Mike Ryan, a public health specialist, who has been excellent in his leadership and in steering affected countries in the right direction. The WHO has been steadfast in their insistence that the answer to this virus is an ALL of Government, ALL of society approach. That means you and me and everyone in Ireland.

This crisis affects every single one of us and so we must ALL be involved in the fight. We must all show leadership and do what we can to help the collective effort.

We can do this by washing our hands with soap for at least 20 seconds, covering our mouths if we are coughing or sneezing and avoiding touching our faces; by volunteering to do grocery shopping and checking in on elderly friends and neighbours who are most vulnerable to this disease or volunteering at a homeless shelter or with Women’s Aid or Safe Ireland since this virus has put many families, who are already vulnerable, further at risk; by practicing social distancing even when some of our family or friends are not.

Some of what we are being asked to do may be difficult but leadership is often difficult. By practising social distancing, we are helping to reduce transmission of the virus. We all need to work together to overcome this virus by staying apart from each other.

Social distancing measures are so important when the virus has spread into the community and the chains of transmission of the virus are no longer visible.

The Government needs to separate everybody because they don’t know who is infected and who is not. So while our Government is focussing their efforts on chasing down the virus by contact tracing and quarantining contacts, we must help them by staying physically apart from our friends and extended family.

The more social distancing we practice, the less contact tracing our public health experts will have to do. The importance of this was underlined by South Korea and ‘Patient 31’. Confirmed cases in South Korea stood at 30. Then, one month after the first case had been identified, Patient 31 came along.

The patient, a woman, continued to go about her normal routine and did not practice any social distancing. By the time officials in South Korea had completed their contact tracing for Patient 31, identifying two large clusters, cases in South Korea exploded and the number of confirmed cases rose to more than 8,000. Patient 31 was responsible for infecting 80% of the cases in the entire country.

And so, as someone who has overcome many difficult challenges, I ask you to join me in facing possibly the greatest challenge of our time and help to slow the spread of the coronavirus in order to give our health care workers, who are making far bigger sacrifices than we are, time to breathe between the surges of patients presenting with Covid-19 so that they will be able to save as many lives as possible.

This challenge will require a lot of sacrifices — many of you have already had to sacrifice money, your job, your freedom. Now, we are asking you to keep your distance from your family, your friends, your childrens’ friends. There will be some of us who will lose people close to us to this virus but we shall overcome because what is the alternative?

Giving up is not an option. This virus takes no prisoners. We must work together to do what we can to prevent as many lives as possible from being lost to this disease. We do not want to become another Italy.

I will finish up with a quote from the great Dr Martin Luther King who said that “when people get caught up with that which is right, and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory”.

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