EUROPE IRELAND CORONA AND POLITICS
A cynic could point out that much of the Corona virus angst currently gripping Europe and North America is essentially First World Angst. The Virus has taken a swipe at the World’s wealthiest countries and their comfortable living standards. Deaths from the Virus have mainly been among the elderly and those with “existing medical conditions” some of which at least, like Diabetes II, are predominantly down to First World diet and lifestyle. Elsewhere, where the Virus is now taking hold, most in those categories would probably have died sooner, one way or another, with the lower life expectancies and inferior health care systems in developing countries.
The restrictions on travel, on holidays, on bars, restaurants, hotels and nightlife, have in practice curbed the lifestyle and spending of disposable income by those fortunate enough to have some, again mainly in the affluent North. The economic “hit” Europeans have taken has been considerably ameliorated by governments in Ireland and elsewhere throwing borrowed money at and to subsidise their populations, something poorer countries cannot afford. What has happened has been horrible but for many worldwide it is worse. These simple facts seem to have passed over the heads of those affected here. And if indeed the Virus is a case of God tapping humanity on the shoulder, then it is but a small foretaste of what lies ahead for us all very soon over Global Warming.
The Corona Virus has now got its second wind in Ireland as elsewhere, with new cases rising in a flow that threatens to become a flood. We’re not yet in the basket case category of Israel, which now has 190,929 cases and 1273 dead – up sevenfold fold in cases and four fold in deaths since 1 July. In the same period Ireland, which was roughly on a par with Israel for cases then, has had 8,000 new cases (to 33, 121) and another 33 deaths (to 1792). Nor are we as bad as Romania, again roughly on a par with us on 1 July but which has seen new cases quadruple to 113,589 and deaths more than double to 4458.
All over Europe the Second Wave is under way, worse than in Ireland. Alarms are ringing, with some countries, including the UK, warning of an imminent second lockdown – unless! In Ireland as elsewhere, the only scene that matters is the domestic one and here the perception is often more potent that the reality. While we are still doing well, with new cases far below those of last April, the 3347 odd new cases and 15 deaths since 7 September, combined with the accelerating rate of infections, have been enough to frighten the horses of the NPHED . New restrictions have just been announced, particularly for Dublin, with threats of more to come. However ,after months of restrictions and regulations, a weariness is setting in and there seems little public enthusiasm for more of the same.
Currently there is still – just – public support for the new measures and trust in the medical experts, but if the measures are not seen to work quickly and definitively then this could change. The happy consensus is gone, with doubts now expressed about the efficacy and desirability of more lockdown, given the effects on the economy and public morale generally. There is a growing belief that even another total lockdown, while temporarily effective, will only flatter to deceive, and that the virus will remain, dormant but deadly, returning when restrictions are eased. Questions increasingly being heard are “to what end?” and “how often will this happen? and “when will it end?” The answer to the last is all too obvious – when a safe and effective vaccine is developed and readily available. Don’t hold your breath.
One of Ireland’s top political commentators wrote recently that the Coalition’s honeymoon period was over. And how! The Corona Virus is threatening to take from the one major success of Martin’s government to date – getting the schools back, which even opponents and critics have hailed. GolfGate was a spectacular own goal by the political Establishment, costing the Government its Agriculture Minister, Fianna Fail its deputy leader and Ireland its EU Commissioner. More importantly it did much to erode public trust and the belief that as a community we were “all in it together.“ The consequences of that loss of trust have implications not just for the struggle against the virus but for the fortunes of the Government itself.
Irish politics today has an eerie half-light feel. The Government is based on the results of last February’s election, an election dominated by health and housing and a general feeling of dissatisfaction with the outgoing government’s performance, including its failure finally to put to bed the legacy issues of the 2008 Crash. How remote that now feels. One inglorious remark on the doorstep was from a gentleman who reportedly said he had had all he could take! Has Covid woken him up? February’s stalemated result led to several months of interparty negotiations even as the Covid crisis unfolded, with the outgoing government functioning as a caretaker one, and perceived to have coped relatively well. The cheap shots that usually characterise Opposition attacks on the Government were largely absent, not through altruism, but because even the most blinkered ideologue realised that combatting the Virus was the major priority facing the country.
The new Government, cobbled together from Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Greens, took office on June 27. It has a safe enough majority – on paper – though there are already signs of strain with the Greens, something likely to exacerbate over the October budget and beyond as Green policies rub up against those of the two bigger parties. Emerging internal divisions within Fianna Fail are another factor. What may prove the glue holding it together is the Benjamin Franklin principle, and here the major imponderable is the Corona Virus. Can it be contained? How bad will it get, given Ireland’s chronically under resourced health care system with, at the cutting edge, the lowest number of ICU beds in Europe, and a front line work force that has already been under pressure since March? How to react to hundreds more dead? Currently there seems a general optimism throughout Europe that the Second Wave will kill fewer people, since those increasingly infected are younger, fitter, and less likely to succumb, and because countries have learned how better to treat patients as well as how to isolate and protect the most vulnerable. Only time will tell how well founded this optimism is.
The major consequence of excluding Sinn Fein, marginally the largest party, from government has been to gift them the status of Main Opposition, the balance being a rag bag of small left wing parties and independents. Given that all the election issues “haven’t gone away, you know,” but are on hold and may fester, Sinn Fein have an unparalleled opportunity to criticise “constructively” and assume the mantle of the Government-in-Waiting. With the Virus, with the plethora of issues to be handled, with interparty strains and internal problems among the Coalition partners, it will take some form of Houdini act by Martin and Varadkar to rescue this.