Taking Stock

By Sean Farrell

How has Ireland done in dealing with COVID-19? A dedicated team of health officials have earned the respect and admiration of the public for providing transparent and comprehensive information on the situation at daily press briefings and have advised the government on how to proceed, advice that the politicians have followed: all standing in favourable contrast to what has happened across the water in Britain. It did no harm that the Taoiseach is a doctor who grasped early on the potential seriousness of the situation.

The public, well informed, have responded, taking to heart what was said and asked of them in terms of altering behaviour, social distancing and the lockdown. The compliance rate has been extremely high and the net effect after several weeks has been cautious optimism at official level that the curve has been flattened and that the situation is now stabilised. The lockdown is set for review on 5 May and though few expect it to be lifted, provided the situation holds or improves there is some optimism that it may be loosened or tweaked.

There have been issues, including the shared international ones. Like all other Western countries we were caught unawares and, in the main, unprepared – prosperous societies with health systems predicated and resourced on the assumption that most of the population was healthy. Any emergency planning, here and elsewhere, had been to cater for a localised disaster rather than a national pandemic. And like others, we were and are bedevilled by basic shortages in essential equipment of all sorts including protective gear for front line health workers and the ingredients to process testing – the recognised key component for combatting the virus. This initially hampered the official response and made for insufficient testing early on; indeed, as I write, we have only recently disposed of a backlog of tests.

But testing has been ramped up and has become focused on where problems have been identified, particularly now on the staff in all Ireland’s nursing and care homes including those where clusters of infected have been identified and where many residents have died. This will not bring back those who have died but it should protect the large majority of untouched homes and residents. And the numbers hospitalised requiring intensive care seem to be declining.

The good and bad in the Irish health system are well known: excellent care once in the system but delays and long waits for those relying on the underfunded, under resourced public health system which has been under continual pressure with a steadily rising and aging population, the whole bedevilled by a two-tier system under which those with private insurance jumped the queue. There were fears that the system would be overwhelmed and buckle over the virus. This has not happened, with public self-discipline helping greatly.

Arguably there were a couple of Irish ‘own goals’ early on. There was a failure to impose an early ban on flights and visitors from outside and especially Italy as the extent of the crisis there became known; an international rugby match with Italy was cancelled but the supporters came anyway. Thousands of Irish on vacation in Italy and Spain flew home. The Common Travel Area with Britain remains, with ferries still operating – and there is the open border with the North. There was also the usual heavy attendance of the Irish at the Cheltenham horse racing festival and also the usual weekly attendance by Irish fans at soccer matches in England, all before St Patrick’s Day. Ireland has many contacts at all levels with Britain and does not have the luxury of Australia’s and New Zealand’s remoteness and ability to seal their borders.

There are now questions being asked about the slowness of reactions on this and to the developing horror story in retirement and care homes. Here there is another factor to bear in mind. Ireland had a general election on 8 February, with a surprising outcome (Sinn Fein getting the most votes) and an ensuing and ongoing political stalemate. The current government is the former one continuing in a caretaker capacity. Few would question its performance and measures taken to combat the virus – indeed a refrain heard often is that it’s a pity it hadn’t governed the country as well before the election and virus crisis.

Measured internationally Ireland is not doing too badly. Looking at the mortality rate, Ireland is currently placed eighth in terms of deaths per million of population, with 276. We are well behind Belgium (701), Spain (548) and Italy (485). The UK figure, currently 443 per million, is too low by a margin since it includes only hospital deaths. We are, however, higher than the USA, which is currently averaging 217 per million.

The situation is still very uncertain. Ireland has not dodged the bullet but we seem to have dodged the artillery shell.

Editor’s note: readers may wish to contrast the figures quoted above, updated for May 6, with the number of deaths per million in Australia, at present less than 4.

Sean Farrell is a retired Irish diplomat.