The all-too-obvious antipathy between one of America's infectious diseases experts, Anthony Fauci, and his former boss was unnerving. It showed how ignorance and contempt for science had moved centre stage. That antipathy showed how politics could be hijacked and provoke terrible consequences. Those consequences include a Covid-19 toll that has passed the 410,000 mark. That figure, if current rates persist, will surpass America's total combatant deaths in Viet Nam - 47,424 - by a factor of ten long before the July 4 Independence Day.
It is, therefore, more than cheering to hear Dr Fauci, speak of the “liberating feeling” of being able to speak scientific truth without fear of “repercussions” from what was a presidential bully pulpit. He returned to the White House on Thursday after President Joe Biden published a national strategy and signed 10 executive orders to combat the plague. Ingesting bleach was not suggested.
That restored equilibrium is reassuring but it is also symbolic. It shows that sanity can eventually prevail; that recovery from weak positions is possible. As it seems increasingly likely that this country could be in lockdown for another six weeks that lesson is invaluable. The suggestion that ministers may extend the highest level of Covid-19 regulations until just before St Patrick’s Day comes as Dr Tony Holohan warned that the UK strain accounts for 60% of Irish cases. Infections have surged in nursing homes and other long-term care centres in the last three weeks to levels not seen since March or April. That concern was echoed by the HSE’s chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry who said transmission levels are too high to allow schools reopen. Adding heft, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and control, reported that the 14-day incidence rate per 100,000 population in Ireland ranged from 30.5 on September 1 to 85.5 on September 30. The current rate, reported by Nphet on Thursday, hit a chastening 1140.7. The WHO continued that theme and warned that the new more transmissible variants - hardly the last - will mean even more stringency around reducing contacts, mask-wearing, distancing, hand washing - and tracking the virus.
This poses huge logistical challenges for any government, maybe even more for the government of a small, low-population island with a hospital community reeling from unrelenting exhaustion. However, the constantly changing situation also requires stability. It also requires that the public can maintain faith in what is being asked of them. That faith, and a widespread willingness to play a part, is not as solid as it needs to be. Delays in imposing travel bans; ineffective trace and trace, especially of those who arrive in airports all challenge solidarity. Stupid, reckless behaviour is disconcerting too. Two out-of-step regimes on the island and the pace that vaccinations are filtering through society is also unsettling. That process needs to accelerate dramatically in the immediate future.
On Thursday Dr Fauci offered valuable advice: “One of the things that we’re going to do is to be completely transparent, open and honest. If things go wrong, not point fingers, but to correct them. And to make everything we do be based on science and evidence."
Government must lead efforts to contain the pandemic. To do that solidary and a resolute sense of common purpose are necessary. We are, unfortunately, approaching a point where those energies may need renewal.