Covid-19 crisis: Some of us are shouldering a heavier burden than others

The decision-making on how we respond to the Covid-19 crisis needs to be scrutinised, writes Professor Pat O'Connor. 
Covid-19 crisis: Some of us are shouldering a heavier burden than others

The tenor of recent comments from the 11 men who make the decisions suggests that cocooning 70 years olds in their own homes is yet again not far from their minds. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

We are facing a crisis with the huge escalation in Covid-19 cases and the rising numbers in hospitals and intensive care units. 

The gravity of the situation was reflected in the Chief Medical Officer’s request for everyone, but particularly the elderly, not to leave their houses, and in the deferral of school openings from January 4 to 11. Yet, horse racing went ahead at Fairyhouse. 

This typifies a key problem and one that has persisted since the first lockdown in March: we are not all in this together.

The 11 men who make the decisions (including key members of Nphet and the Government) do not seem to understand that even now, most childcare in most families is done by women. Most women workers have responsibilities for children. 

Women workers in creches or food shops, although they may not be seen as ‘essential’ workers, cannot work from home. If schools are closed, the question of who is going to mind the children needs to be faced.

In contrast to March, when the childcare needs of frontline workers in the health services and those with special needs were completely ignored, creches are being encouraged to prioritise the needs of these workers. 

But this sets women against each other: is a nurse more essential than a creche worker, or those involved in the selling of food? 

The problem, which the 11 men need to own and solve, is continuing childcare for those who need it if and when schools are closed. Even the UK, which has failed dismally at most Covid challenges has managed that, but it has not been done here.

The New Years Festival at Fairyhouse on Sunday. Horse racing may provide fun and distraction for elite men, but on any criterion it cannot be seen as essential. Photo: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

The New Years Festival at Fairyhouse on Sunday. Horse racing may provide fun and distraction for elite men, but on any criterion it cannot be seen as essential. Photo: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

This gender blindness is also reflected in the prioritisation by the 11 men of the continuance of elite sports, such as horse racing. It may provide fun and distraction for elite men, but on any criterion it cannot be seen as essential. 

The same applies to greyhound racing. This failure to see that men’s fun is not essential in a pandemic meant that two weeks ago the GAA finals went ahead.

This was despite the evidence that celebrations occur after matches and were related to increases in Covid cases in Cavan, Meath and other areas.

The elderly

The 11 men making the decisions are not only gender-blind, they also have stereotypical views about the ‘elderly’. 

We all appreciate that Covid can be particularly dangerous for this age group, but the stereotyping is clear once we realise that Michel Barnier, who negotiated Brexit, is 70 years old.

The 11 men have resisted the temptation so far to ‘cocoon’ (i.e. imprison) the 70 years olds in their own homes. The tenor of recent comments suggests that this option is yet again not far from their minds. 

The underlying mindset is part of a disquieting tradition involving ‘locking up’ those who are devalued - ‘for their own good’.

The prohibition in the first lockdown of the ‘elderly’ even taking exercise went against all current medical knowledge. Fresh air and exercise are essential for physical and mental health regardless of age. 

They are particularly important for the ‘elderly’, whose likelihood of falls is increased if they are not active. 

Tracking and tracing

One of the most extraordinary failures of the HSE to date has been its inability to utilise the 70,000 people who offered to work for nothing back in the Spring.

The HSE treated them like potential permanent employees and asked them to send on proof of qualifications, including degrees. There was no follow-up. 

A runner gets outdoor exercise at The Lee Fields in Cork City over the weekend. Fresh air and exercise are essential for physical and mental health regardless of age. Photo: Larry Cummins

A runner gets outdoor exercise at The Lee Fields in Cork City over the weekend. Fresh air and exercise are essential for physical and mental health regardless of age. Photo: Larry Cummins

If it had kept a record of their names and mobile numbers, and provided limited training in tracking and tracing over the summer, they could be used as a ‘reserve army’ now that the system is under pressure. Does this reflect an underlying negative attitude to those outside the arena of paid employment?

The lack of any sense of urgency by either the 11 men or the HSE around the delivery of the vaccines is terrifying. Nine days after the first consignment, there is still limited information on how many people have been vaccinated and how many will be vaccinated in the coming days and weeks.

Vaccinations in nursing homes were initially not to occur at the weekends, while paperwork relating to procedures had not been received by some at the beginning of January. The ‘speeded up’ programme announced by the Minister for Health of 40,000 vaccinations per week would mean that it would take two-and-a-half years to vaccinate the population.

As we face the huge challenge of the third wave of Covid-19, the lack of diversity among the 11 middle class, middle-aged men remains a problem.

Medical experts are not immune from biases and stereotyping when they stray from their own specialist area - especially when their views are reinforced by politicians of similar gender, age and class background.

The myopic prioritisation of men’s fun and the ignoring of women’s needs cannot continue in this third lockdown if we really are all in this together.

Pat O’Connor, Professor Emeritus Sociology and Social Policy and Visiting Professor Geary Institute, University College Dublin.

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