Irish Examiner view: Urgent need to invest in public health

Government must learn the lessons of the last year and develop robust strategies against long lockdowns, among other pressing issues
Irish Examiner view: Urgent need to invest in public health

For “public health to operate effectively, it has to be locally-based, it has to be well connected with communities… with county councils, or city or town councils”, the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group has said. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos Dublin

Those who warned that we would see more cyberattacks were proven correct all too quickly with news yesterday that the Department of Health was hit by a ransomware attack similar to the one that struck the HSE last Friday.

The department, like the HSE last week, shut down its systems as the National Cyber Security Centre teamed with gardaí, the Defence Forces, and Europol to investigate the kind of breach that is increasingly common in our interconnected world. Indeed, it is telling that the language of cybercrime takes inspiration from the oil industry because the ‘mining’ and ‘extracting’ of data has become as lucrative, if not more, than that valuable resource.

Access to treatment

Both attacks underline the need to take cybercrime more seriously. There is no doubt about that. What is of more concern right now, however, is the welfare of the thousands of patients who have been left without access to treatment
because patient management systems are down.

While the HSE has done well to keep vaccinations and Covid-testing going, those awaiting X-rays, MRIs, and radiology are seriously affected. Many of those forced to put appointments on hold as the health system grappled with the pandemic will now, once again, be forced to wait.

This week, efforts will be focused on dealing with the immediate cyber threat but that should not distract from the urgency of the need to invest in our public health system. This pandemic, as pandemics have done down through history, has exposed the cracks in our society and that is nowhere more apparent than in health.

That point was made forcibly at the weekend by the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group which urges the government to learn the lessons of the last year and invest in robust public health strategies to guard, among other things, against the need for long lockdowns.

The countries that successfully managed the pandemic, saving lives and livelihoods, all had active public-health-led responses, it says.

And, in the words of Dr Gabriel Scally, for “public health to operate effectively, it has to be locally-based, it has to be well connected with communities… with county councils, or city or town councils”.

Women's needs

We must also add the need to include women to that list. Their needs have been systematically under-resourced, unmet, or ignored during the recent pandemic; the ad hoc restrictions at maternity hospitals is just one example.

Another was the extraordinary outpouring by women on the national airwaves last week as they told RTÉ's Liveline host Joe Duffy of feeling isolated in menopause and unheard or misdiagnosed by GPs.

What does it say about female healthcare in Ireland that women revealed their pain and frustration to a radio broadcaster?

So many issues have been exposed in recent months, in particular in housing and in health. We should not need a public outcry to prompt policy but now that it has come, it’s time to respond.

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