BEFORE THE VOTE: A SNAPSHOT 2010(II) CLVIII

The US Presidential Election takes place on 3 November 2020. In many ways it is the most important such election for decades, with only one issue – whether Donald Trump can be denied a second term as the 45th President of the USA. If he succeeds there is every chance he will continue his self-appointed task of wrecking what remains of the current international order in Politics, Economics and the Environment, to the world’s detriment. What follows is a snapshot of how things appeared to me on October 28, with an addendum added a day later.

As I write, less than one week out, all the indications are that Biden could, should and will win the Election. Let’s hope it stays that way. Perhaps this time next week we’ll be laughing at the outcome and wondering how did we ever have any doubts.

I don’t want to appear a Doomsayer; however, a few observations follow which give me personally some pause:

1. There are over fifty elections, one in each state in addition to the “National Poll” which is just a head count. No state has less than three electoral “votes “ in the Electoral College and a vote in a smaller state – say the Dakotas or Utah – is “worth” more than a vote in a populous state like California or New York. Most times most of the smaller states vote Republican, shoring up the Republican “Red Wall.” Roughly eighty per cent of the States do not change, except in a landslide year like Reagan in 1984, Nixon in 1972 and Johnson in 1964.

2. The current polls all say Biden, even in the critical swing states (a moveable feast of up to ten states with relatively small majorities which could change hands) where Trump has a lot of ground to make up. Indeed should the polls stay the same Biden could win in a virtual landslide in the Electoral College with perhaps 350 electoral votes (I have no doubt he will win the popular vote nationally and by a sizeable margin). RealClearPolitics, which called it last time, is showing Biden seven points ahead but down from double digits just over two weeks ago

3. Our TV coverage – and that of CNN – has pointed up the volume of early voting, which has broken all previous records. The case presented in most coverage this side of the Atlantic is that the early and postal voting will favour Biden (even though we know of at least of two early votes in Florida which will not!). The footage of the queues of those waiting to vote seems to me to be composed predominantly of people of colour, which again suggests more votes for Biden. Assuming the TV coverage we are getting is representative of what is happening in the swing states then again Biden would appear to have a significant edge. What’s not clear of course is how representative the footage we get to see is of the picture in all potential swing states. Also, most commentators agree that Trump supporters are more likely to vote in person on the day, and hence will not appear in queues to vote in advance. It is also unclear whether there is sizeable pro- Trump support out there which has never voted since they thought there was no point since nobody represented their view (some of this crew may have come out in Florida in 2016, where Trump outpolled Romney by 30,000 votes).

4. Trump and his supporters are doing all they can to outlaw or disqualify postal voting. A recent Supreme Court ruling that postal votes in Wisconsin received AFTER polling day would not be counted is regarded as a significant setback for the Democrats. A Pennsylvania Court ruling that ballots posted in envelopes franked up to and on the day of the election would be counted, provided they were received by Friday November 6, is now being challenged by Republicans. The situation in other close contests is unclear – to me at least – but given the vagaries of the US Postal system – even without Trump’s “man at the helm”- in a worst case scenario many votes could be lost to Biden. This quite apart from any attempts Trump may make to challenge the legitimacy of the whole vote in the Courts. ( A worrying development here was Judge Kavanaugh’s opinion in the Wisconsin case in which he wrote of the impropriety of thousands of absentee ballots flowing “in after election day and (sic)potentially flip the results of the Election.”)

5. I’ve referred separately to “Shattered” the book on Hillary’s 2016 defeat and in particular to the chapter covering the 2016 Democratic Primary in Michigan which Hillary lost narrowly to Bernie Saunders.To my mind at least the book and the chapter provide an excellent insight into the internal workings of a major US political party – in this case the Democrats – during a Presidential campaign, including the chief players and factors at play. Hillary’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, with his reliance on analytic data, is quite reminiscent of Dominic Cummings – except, unlike Cummings he eventually got it wrong. But essentially his modus operandi was devoted to getting the vote out at the macro rather than the micro level – and here arguably he “succeeded”, since Hillary won the popular vote. He didn’t see the shift away from Hillary by the alienated working class whites in the Rust Belt States, whose support had been all but taken for granted after their support for her in 2008 ( against of course, Obama, a black contender for the nomination). Bill Clinton, with his visceral feel for alienated working class whites – and indeed blacks – saw matters differently, as did Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, holder of the Dingle Seat in Michigan, both of whom saw what was happening but were unable to influence the campaign; both favoured old fashioned campaigning including canvassing on a door to door basis.

The mistake made in the Michigan Primary was repeated (incredibly) in the Presidential Campaign and compounded by the same approach – or lack of it – in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. All three states were virtually ignored/taken for granted and effort and resources poured into Florida and North Carolina, where Trump confounded the experts by adding thousands of new and unexpected blue collar and redneck votes. (In Milwaukee, also, one of the Koch brothers apparently financed up to 600 activists to campaign on Trump’s behalf in blue collar areas.)

6. The significance of Michigan in 2016 now is that it is far from clear – to me at any rate – that Joe Biden has done much to cultivate that lost group of alienated blue collar whites, whose lot has improved hardly if at all. If anything the financial circumstances of many have been further undermined by shutdowns to combat the Pandemic. There have been job losses, falls in income – not adequately compensated for – and in many instances the crucial issue of the loss of health insurance since March. While Trump loyalists have not blamed him for how the Virus has been handled, it is unclear how other Republican-leaning blue collars in the Rust belt states feel and that could be a crucial factor. Media coverage here, and what I have read from US sources, suggests that Biden has/will secure that blue collar vote, without providing much evidence to back this assertion up.

7. If Biden and his supporters have done their work, Joe should do considerably better than Hillary in the three Rust Belt states. If not, if there has been a presumption that blue collar support would default to Biden, then there could be trouble. And here the media coverage I have seen has not been too encouraging. The only people out campaigning until now have been Republicans, certainly in Pennsylvania. The Biden campaign apparently took the decision, in the interests of public health and safely in view of the Pandemic , to eschew door-to-door canvassing. There now seems to be some rethink here- could this be panic lest 2016 repeats? Biden appears to have a large war chest, far more than Trump’s, but will expensive TV ads work or could personal barnstorming and door to door canvassing by activists still swing it for Trump?

8. That last Debate. I think like many people I was pleased and relieved at Joe Biden’s performance. He came across as a decent, nice, old man, well versed in the issues and attentive. However, he definitely looked old and frail compared to Trump who looked very much younger and healthy as a butcher’s dog (and, moreover, a dog held on a leash, whose performance on the issues, while substantively rubbish, was more coherent than heretofore). Biden also made a serious tactical error towards the end on global warming and the phasing out of fossil fuels. His position was of course nuanced, but that will not necessarily be taken on board on the ground and could cost him dearly in Pennsylvania , where, e.g. fracking has created many jobs. Jennifer has already pointed out the damage that could have been done to the chances for an upset in Texas. She has also pointed to the visceral truth about many Americans’ attitude to climate change – with China now a bigger polluter and India catching up at a fair pace – why shoot yourself in the foot if they are doing nothing, in particular if your circumstances and expectations are already taking a battering?
In his ”Wake Up to Politics” column today Gabe Fleisher, while gung ho for Biden, sounds a note of caution pointing out that polls can be wrong!

28/10

Addendum: One aspect I have not seen covered or commented on in any detail is what happens after the Votes are counted, and, as appears likely, Biden is the victor.T here has been much speculation about Trump not accepting, resorting to the Courts, etc, but what if the result is clear enough to render any delaying-tactic obviously doomed to failure. Clearly if Trump tries to hang on and not leave there will be a Constitutional crisis. But what if he decides to go, however grudgingly. He is unlikely to “go gentle into…”We are unlikely to see any statesmanlike utterances about facilitating the transition or any practical steps to help or work with his successor. A wounded and vengeful Trump will have seventy (70) plus days left to wreak a good deal of havoc to the system. He can presumably continue to issue Executive Orders and going against them seems from a quick read to be extremely difficult. He remains the possessor of the Executive Power and CoC until 20 January. Not a very pleasant prospect.

29/10

HOSPITAL PASS CONTINUED: EUROPE, IRELAND, CORONA AND POLITICS 2010 CLVII

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.
24/9

JOHN HUME 2009 CLVI

JOHN HUME

John Hume was not the only person I know to die last month. Some days later one of my closest friends in Chicago, Pat Martin, wife of my BEST friend, Jim Martin, passed away after a stroke. She was a lovely woman, generous and hospitable and a loving companion of Jim, her husband of over half a century, she from England, he originally from Monaghan. I knew them from back in the Seventies, when Pat showed many kindnesses to my wife and me from the moment we first arrived in Chicago in 1973. She will be sorely missed by Jim, her three children and her grandchildren. May she rest in peace.

John Hume’s passing has been rightly commemorated and there is little I can add that has not already been written by people who worked with and knew John far better than I did. The tributes and assessment by former Irish Ambassador to the USA, Sean Donlon, and his fellow diplomat Michael Lillis, are particularly important since both worked extensively with him and became close personal friends, as did Sean O’Huiginn, another former Irish Ambassador to the USA. The Irish Times produced a comprehensive souvenir supplement summarising his life and career which is well worth reading.

“By their Fruits Ye shall know them,” applies very much to John Hume. His “Fruits,” his enduring monument, is the Peace which reigns in Northern Ireland which he did so much to bring about. (Regular readers may recall I used the same quote in my December 2014 column on Paisley – the very antithesis of John Hume. Enough said.)Two years ago at the celebrations to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which cemented the Peace he had striven for, the only major figure missing from the occasion was John Hume, by then sadly already in the dementia twilight. It is equally sad too that the Corona Virus restrictions recently robbed him in death of a fitting funeral.

On that anniversary I wrote of John’s role over the decades as a monumental and tireless worker for peace and reconciliation. He was there at the outset of the Civil Rights campaign in 1968. He was there through Sunningdale. He it was who conceived and worked at bringing in the benign involvement of Irish American politicians whose role and influence proved so important. He was there during the dark days in the aftermath of the Hunger Strikes and the relentless violence of the mid and late Eighties. He was the vital element in helping to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold when he undertook the dialogue with Gerry Adams, for which he was widely and unfairly criticised at the time. The Hume Adams Dialogue eventually found fruition in the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 with its crucial reference to Britain having “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland,” a declaration that led some months later to the IRA Ceasefire and all that subsequently flowed from it.

Throughout he was consistent. The Irish Times has reprinted an article a young Hume wrote in 1964 – well before the “Troubles”- in which he criticised existing traditional nationalist attitudes, called for more involvement in the political process and an acknowledgement that the Unionist tradition in the North was as strong and legitimate as the nationalist one, arguing that the only alternative to accepting the Constitutional position was that of Sinn Fein. He suggested also that for progress to be made Unionists had to accept and respond to olive branches the nationalist side might make. Failure to do so and end discrimination could only exacerbate and harden attitudes. Adherence to non-violence and to the recognition of the legitimacy of both traditions was and remained the central tenets of his approach. It was a short step to the concept of the Agreed Ireland that he saw begin to emerge as the violence ceased.

He was persistent; he never gave up, despite setbacks. After decades of peace, younger people have little concept of just how grim the situation in the North was during the Troubles era. Tribal loyalties were entrenched and strong, particularly on the Unionist side, which produced no major political figure for decades except Paisley, who wielded a wrecking ball through the various attempts at political settlement and compromise. And inevitably violence begat a steadily escalating violence. Marches generated counter demonstrations – and violence. Nationalist rioting provoked a weaponised RUC and drew in the British Army. Rioting intensified. The Provos emerged. The first Army casualty was in February 1971. The violence ground on reaching new heights after the Internment of Nationalists in August 1971.

The killings on Bloody Sunday during a peaceful Civil Rights March in Derry were a new low. Bloody Sunday galvanised Nationalists and further polarised the communities. Britain, now directly involved politically, sought, together with the Irish government, a political settlement along the principles advocated by John Hume. The result was the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement and the first attempt at power sharing. It was brought down by a Loyalist strike in 1974.
Violence, alienation and polarisation were now chronic and the next decade was to feature nothing beyond a continuing grisly cycle of violence, with landmark atrocities, ten IRA hunger strikers starving to death, and an effective military stalemate. It was not a period for optimism. Yet through all this John Hume campaigned on as a voice of moderation, by now the dominant Nationalist politician, an MEP and one continually exploring new possible initiatives to find a solution including international and specifically US involvement.

My limited direct contacts with John were at this stage. As First Secretary in the Irish Embassy in Washington D.C. from 1975 to 1977 I got to know John at the beginning of his odyssey to win over top Irish American politicians to influence official US policy on Northern Ireland towards the non-violent approach he was advocating. Indeed he and his wife Pat stayed with us during one of his first visits. He was from the start determined and focussed. He cut an impressive figure to all who met him. Yet it was a formidable task. The IRA had vocal supporters and advocates among the Irish American community and politicians were initially leery about getting involved. Official US policy was to avoid involvement in the internal affairs of their closest ally – the UK – and institutionally the USA was unsympathetic to Irish nationalism. Yet John persevered, working closely with the Irish Embassy and Irish diplomats. He was extraordinarily successful. Anyone interested should read Maurice Fitzpatrick’s book “John Hume in America.”

By the late 1980’s the Anglo-Irish Agreement had signalled a new departure and era of cooperation between London and Dublin. Yet the violence and polarisation persisted. So too John Hume’s quest for peace. Hence his dialogue with Gerry Adams. He was widely criticised, criticism which hurt. Yet as historian Ronan Fanning remarked to me at the time “Somebody has to talk to them.” Those talks contributed vitally to the hard won Peace in the North that eventually emerged. While it involved many people and elements for John Hume above all it was a signal and crowning success.

The debt we owe him is enormous.
22/8

HOSPITAL PASS; WHO WOULD WANT TO BE TAOISEACH? 2008 CLV

HOSPITAL PASS?

CORONA VIRUS CASES AS OF JULY 22 2020
ISRAEL IRELAND
15 April 12,762 (139) 12,136 (444)
31 May 17,192 (287) 24,990 (1649)
1 July 26,462 (325) 25,477 (1738)
22 July 56,085 (430) 25,819 (1754)

Who would want to be Taoiseach?

Micheal Martin for one, though just a month in he may be having second thoughts. He has already fired Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen, for a legacy DUI offence from 2016, has had to quell backbench resentment over appointments, has had to balance reopening the Economy against a possible resurgence in COVID 19 infections and has had to supervise the bedding down of Ireland’s unlikely Coalition Government. All this as the goodwill, consensus and solidarity generated in the public response to the Virus has ebbed, the perennial issues on which last February’s election was fought have re-surfaced and the slow simmering Brexit is beginning to come to the boil. Moreover the terms of the coalition agreement, by obliging him to step aside after thirty months, deprive him of the props which normally sustain a head of government – control of the timetable and expectation of sufficient time to get the job done.

Parking for a moment the possibility that “events dear boy” – Harold Macmillan’s phrase – may intervene to upset his now twenty nine month tenure, with the ever present threat that one of the his coalition partners may walk over policy or scandal, there is no doubt which should be Martin’s priority for his legacy – how he handles the Corona Virus, now a clear, immediate and present danger. We do not know how the Virus Crisis will evolve, but any perceived mishandling will be laid at Martin’s door. The Varadkar Government performance on the Virus met with wide approval and restored his – and Fine Gael’s – fortunes after an abysmal election campaign, fought primarily on how the Government handled Brexit, an issue still in the abstract for most and not high on the electorate’s priorities.

And, ironically, the Brexit example has analogous relevance for Martin also. If he gets it right on the Corona Virus, he won’t necessarily win any brownie points, but will then be judged on housing, the economy and whatever other issue surfaces in the meantime The Cowen affair was one that happens in politics, the message has now got through to his aggrieved backbenchers that this time around the plum appointments are of necessity few, and Cowen’s replacement, Fianna Fail deputy leader Dara Calleary, has righted the major omission from Martin’s original team. The new government appears to be settling down and while most of the aspirations in the Programme for Government are likely to remain just that, given the pressure on resources, it will have at least a brief honeymoon to advance some of its priorities on Housing, the Environment and Health. A hard Brexit at year’s end remains a looming danger.

But first there is the Corona Virus, which is not going, and will not go, away until a vaccine or some treatment magic bullet is both developed and readily available. Until then we are essentially at war, and, as during World War Two, we cannot ignore what is happening around us. And here currently Ireland is very much at a crossroads. As the economy was reopened, even cautiously, in recent weeks we have noticed, as elsewhere, that the number of new cases has begun to increase again. The numbers are still minute (350 since the beginning of July with 16 deaths), but so infectious is the Virus that the rate of spread can rapidly become geometric. Right now the nightmare scenario is Israel. Consider the figures (apologies) heading this article for Ireland and Israel on four dates; they are of reported cases with deaths in brackets; they make for chilling reading. Israel had been early into locking down and very successful in minimising the number of deaths. Then from mid- June the country began to relax….

Set against the unfolding disaster of the Virus’ progress in the USA, Ireland has been relatively successful in combatting it. The country was in the first epicentre, Western Europe, fortunately after Italy and Spain, but clearly by the end of May had a sizeable number of deaths, over half in retirement homes, and a rising number of cases. Then the effects of the lockdown began to be felt fully, with gratifying results, apparent during June. The curve was virtually flattened totally and some experts and commentators suggested that the Virus could be all but wiped out, taking a cue from New Zealand and some of the East Asian countries, were the lockdown to be continued. The dilemma was that every day of lockdown further damaged the economy, particularly in the seasonal tourist and hospitality sectors.

Ireland could have done better, certainly, like the Scandinavians, Sweden apart, or Austria, but it could also have done horribly worse, as in Britain, for several reasons. Ireland is an EU Member State with a small open society and economy. As an island it is heavily reliant on air and sea traffic for trade and contact; it has also a very much open border with Northern Ireland, which applies British Corona Virus regulations. Ireland has a significant Tourist industry with the largest numbers of tourists coming from Britain and the USA and has up to now applied a relaxed attitude to visitors at its borders. Moreover very high numbers of Irish residents holiday abroad with Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Britain and the USA the favourite destinations. The often made comparison with New Zealand does not really apply.

As Ireland saw other European countries begin to re-open, without apparently precipitating any cataclysmic second wave (cases surging in places but without any surge in deaths – yet), domestic pressure told and a cautious re-opening began. Which is where we are at. Already there have been problems mirroring happenings elsewhere in Europe and the USA – little social distancing, particularly among the young, who account for many of the new cases – and some expressions of resentment over regulations to control what is widely perceived to be an ailment easily shrugged off by younger people who are impatient to see “normality” restored. Again, the wartime analogy has relevance here; “Normality” is a long way away and indeed is likely to be superseded by a newer altered version as we learn to live with the disease.

The first critical issue to arise for the new government has been over Border Controls. Should we close our borders totally? Should we impose strict quarantine on those arriving – instead of just an unenforceable and largely unverifiable “honour” system of self-quarantine? What about visitors from and tourists arriving via Northern Ireland? How to cope with visitors, including some from the USA, who anecdotally thought the Virus crisis over exaggerated? And what about the two million or so who holiday abroad annually; how to treat them on return? The first attempts at constructing a list of “safe” countries have been ridiculed; the list of fifteen includes Monaco, San Marino, Gibraltar and Greenland, not to mention Italy. Hardly an auspicious start. The Taoiseach will have to do better; but can he win either way Who’d be a Taoiseach?
23/7

THE GOVERNMENT’S FIRST TEN DAYS 2007(II) CLIV

THE GOVERNMENT’S FIRST TEN DAYS

The new and different Irish Coalition Government has presided over the first significant relaxation of Lock down, but it will be a considerable time before the economy scrambles back to any semblance of normality. Indeed the pace of recovery will partly depend on whether or not the relaxation backfires and the virus re-surges. The jury is still out on that one, but judging by the first weekend of pub openings the omens, in Ireland as elsewhere, are not good.

Hopefully it was just pent-up demand and matters will settle down. Hopefully. Next up a major stimulus package has been promised for mid-July. It had better be ambitious and considerable, with unemployment over 20% and whole sectors like leisure and tourism barely functioning.

The Government is on a steep learning curve with time running out. The traditional dreary steeples of Housing and Homelessness have emerged once more and this time Health has the added kick of the Corona Virus. Currently there is pressure for relaxation of travel restrictions, but with many of the – admittedly few – new daily cases linked to foreign travel, for the moment the new Government is holding firm. Re-introducing a lock down could be difficult, would test public support and would certainly hold back attempts at economic recovery. Moreover, now that there IS a government, the public consensus that sustained the country during the Lockdown is fast disappearing, aggravated by the feeling of disgruntlement from that section of the electorate which did not support the Coalition. Sinn Fein, now spearheading the Opposition, has vowed to present the strongest opposition any Irish government has faced.

Already there has been trouble, The Coalition agreement provides for a “Rotating Taoiseach” with Martin scheduled to step aside for Varadkar in November 2022. Whether this will ever happen remains to be seen; whatever about a week, thirty months is a very long time in politics! The net effect was to leave no honeymoon period and the new Taoiseach was obliged to hit the ground running. Which he did. First up was picking the Cabinet, which provoked howls of disappointment from Fianna Fail back benchers – and a few front benchers – who failed to grasp that there were very few loaves and fishes to distribute as Fianna Fail’s share (five Cabinet posts plus seven junior Ministers). Most surprising was that Fianna Fail’s Deputy Leader, Dara Calleary, did not get a Cabinet post, becoming instead an unhappy Chief Whip.

As a sign that attitudinal change “comes dropping slow”, there was resentment across the board in the West, among politicians and the general public alike, that there was no cabinet post for anyone West of the Shannon and some surprise at the new Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, who only joined Fianna Fail in 2016. However Donnelly was Opposition Spokesman on Health, knows the brief thoroughly and Martin was taking no chances with the Corona Crisis far from over. Interestingly, three Cabinet members are from the one Cork constituency, while two more are from Wicklow. Interesting also is that little dissatisfaction was heard from Fine Gael ranks though they suffered the greatest hemorrhage of former senior and junior Ministers. The Greens, who did best in terms of posts, have been quietest.

Most commentators consider that Sinn Fein, though excluded, stand to gain most. Not only will their un-costed populist election manifesto not be put to the test, but their exclusion has absolved them of any responsibility for what are likely to be difficult decisions for the Government. Circumstances would appear to have gifted them an unparalleled opportunity. Since it became clear the Government would be formed without them, they have been parroting two themes. The first was that the country had “voted for change” and this was being denied them. The second was that their vote (535,595) was greater than any other party and that those who voted for them were entitled to have their voices heard –i.e. to be in government. This was of course straight out of the old Sinn Fein play book in the North a generation ago when Gerry Adams spoke of the “mandate “Sinn Fein had from those who voted for them. And, in the particular circumstances of the North, where there was no political consensus and every election a zero-sum game over national identity, it had validity. The Good Friday Agreement and all that has flowed from it, inter alia acknowledged that “mandate” by enshrining cross-community power sharing as central to devolved government (by then Sinn Fein had in any event muscled its Nationalist rival the SDLP out of the way).

The argument has little validity in the South, where there is no tribal division in politics. Last February Sinn Fein got 24.5% of the vote – hardly a mandate for inclusion in government. The three party Coalition has 50.2%, without the Greens 43.1%. When Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald complained in a radio interview on 28 June that the other parties had conspired to exclude Sinn Fein ,she had no answer when the interviewer pointed out that every coalition government in the State without Fianna Fail had effectively shut out Fianna Fail, the largest party and poll getter by far.

For the record, Fianna Fail were shut out after five elections in which they secured by far the largest percentages of votes and seats: in 1948, 41.9% and 77 seats; in 1954 43.4% and 65 seats; in 1973 46.2% and 74 seats; in 1981 45.3% and 78 seats and in 1982 46.2% and 75 seats.

Well, did the Electorate “vote for change”? The call for “change” underpinned Sinn Fein’s election campaign, one which saw their support hold up over the final months leading into last February, in contrast to previous elections where it had fallen away as polling day approached. It’s a powerful argument, particularly given the size of the actual Sinn Fein vote. The theme that “the people voted for change” and that the popular will has been frustrated by the other main parties, is a new page in the playbook, one which Sinn Fein are likely to push at every opportunity. This has become a popular refrain, trotted out regularly by all those dissatisfied with the election result for whatever reason (it was relayed to me just last week by a cab driver) and one that is likely to be heard more and more if the new Government fails to deliver.

There has of course, as one columnist pointed out last week, been one very major “change” in that the two old Civil War parties are now in government together, something unthinkable only a few years ago. But this was hardly what those voting “for change” had in mind. However, it’s not quite the vote for change yet. As I mentioned last time, the votes for the two traditional parties and the aggregate identifiable Leftist vote, are virtually identical at 43% each, with the balance made up of the Greens and the various Independents, many of whom can hardly be described as radical.

Right now the future is uncertain; indeed who could have predicted 2020 thus far? So. Will Sinn Fein exploit their good fortune? Or will this unique Coalition actually succeed?
8/7/2020

WHAT A YEAR! 2007 CLIII

WHAT A YEAR.

2020 – What a Year! And we’re only half way through.

In January we had – finally – Brexit, with the finale to come at year’s end. February saw that General Election with the inconclusive result, of which more below. March to June 2020 will be forever identified with the Virus – still very much with us and something which has coloured every aspect of our lives. Even as it rages through the Americas, the Middle East and the Sub- Continent, for the moment here in Ireland, as elsewhere in those Western European countries first attacked, the Corona Virus is held in check and the cautious opening up of the countrywide lockdown is now well under way. Ireland’s all-island death toll is nudging 2,300 and the magic R figure is well below one. We are no longer in the world top twenty for deaths ( now 27th) but remain ninth in terms of deaths per million, behind the USA and seven of our EU partners. And, as elsewhere, Irish deaths are overwhelmingly among the old (many in retirement homes), the sick and the infirm.

Any sense of relief is tempered by awareness of the bereavements suffered and those voices predicting a second more vicious wave of infection. This may well happen, but at all levels the general opinion seems to be that this time we will not be caught unawares, that we know more about the virus now and that importantly we know how to contain it. Indeed renewed limited infections of a disease where the mortality rate hovers around two per cent may prove to be a lesser task than economic recovery. Getting the toothpaste back in the tube in terms of undoing the economic and social havoc wrought by the Virus will be a monumental task and one for the long haul; there was full employment and a booming economy before the Virus struck, whatever about deficiencies in housing and health.

But first off we need a government. We now have one – a historic three party coalition, just agreed after months of negotiation, not helped by the stultifying omnipresent Virus, with the hatchet buried between the two old Civil War parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael as they enter coalition with the Greens. Agreement was a close run thing with the two thirds majority required by the Greens barely achieved and some sceptics convinced therefore that it will not last.

The February election had been historic. Not only had Sinn Fein broken through big time but it actually garnered more votes than either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. In terms of seats Fianna Fail just edged it with 38, Sinn Fein got 37 and Fine Gael 35, out of 160. With eighty plus seats required to form a government what was clear was that the process was going to be long and arduous, matching if not exceeding that of 2016, with the Greens, (12 seats) and a slew of small parties and Independents featuring also in the mix.

Sinn Fein had campaigned on a shamelessly populist and dubiously costed platform tailored to public demands for action on housing and health (overwhelmingly identified in polls as the two issues most of public concern), packaged and presented as a “mandate for change.” Was its result a flash In the pan, just a temporary surge born of dissatisfaction with the other parties and therefore part of the periodical “throw the bums out” rushes of blood to the head which grips the Irish electorate at intervals? Or did it represent the start of a seismic shift to the Left in Irish politics as Sinn Fein and others proclaimed? And was it a “mandate for change?” Sinn Fein and the other identifiable Leftist parties clocked up around 36% of the votes with the Greens winning another 7%, the 43% total matching almost exactly the combined vote for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. With many of the Independents carrying FF or FG sentiments “in their DNA” the jury remains out on that one.

What WAS abundantly clear was that no two parties could together form a government. The necessary numbers could be achieved only by coalition with a third party or a significant number of Independents. After Sinn Fein’s Initial attempt to form a left of centre government failed, the options for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were clear – either involve Sinn Fein or shut them out.

Right away the decision was to shut them out even though a three party grand coalition would easily have the numbers. This before the Virus struck. Clearly Sinn Fein were seen as having too much historical baggage for both the other parties and were potentially also an existential threat to Fianna Fail in particular. The major argument in favour of inclusion – that Sinn Fein would thus have to get off the fence, participate in and share responsibility for some tough decisions – was discounted. Shutting them out narrowed the possibilities down to opting for a second election – for which there was no enthusiasm – or for the two parties to agree to form a historic coalition, suspending, however temporarily, traditional enmities and then court the Greens and/ or others to get the necessary numbers. There had been informal arrangements in the past – after 1987 and again in the “Confidence and Supply “arrangement after 2016, but formal coalition would be something else. For better or worse this was the option chosen.

Would the two parties have decided similarly only weeks later when the extent of the economic and social carnage wrought by the Virus became known? And, a rhetorical question, how much does Leo Varadkar, now riding high in the polls for his government’s handling of the Virus emergency, regret calling the election in February and not waiting? Whatever, the pressing need to form a government by bringing in the Greens (vastly preferable to handling a gaggle of independents) gave them enormous leverage, something the Greens have not been slow to exploit. The result has been a wordy, lengthy (137 pages) Programme for Government with the imprint of the Greens all over it, despite the low priority the public have given to fighting climate change. Whether it will survive the first months’ brush with reality remains to be seen.

The Programme is largely aspirational and not costed – but what aspirations! It commits the Government, inter alia, to an average 7% annual reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030 (51% over the decade) – the Red Line issue for Green participation. Moreover a 2050 target for net zero emissions will be included in a Climate Action Bill to be introduced in the government’s first 100 days. This, and the other measures to combat global warming, if implemented, would put Ireland among the global leaders in saving the planet. There’s plenty of waffle on housing targets and just about everything else with nothing stated on where the money will come from.

The new government will see Micheal Martin as Taoiseach swop with Leo Varadkar after 30 months. The Greens (twelve seats) will have three Cabinet Minsters (out of fifteen) and four Junior Ministers ( out of twenty) . Not a bad haul. More next time.
25/6

HOW WAS IT FOR YOU? 2006 CLII

HOW WAS IT FOR YOU?

How was it for you? The Lockdown I mean.

Depending on your point of view we are now at a watershed moment in the struggle with the Virus. The Emergency is not over yet by a long chalk. People are continuing to die and in large numbers. The total number infected is nudging five million, the deaths well over 300,000, 90,000 plus in the USA alone. Both these figures are almost certainly underestimates. More testing throws up more cases and there is no agreed uniform way of counting and categorising the dead, with some stark differences in how individual countries report. (Here Ireland, with 1561 dead to date is among those most transparent and upfront.)

Yet there are signs of falling numbers for infections and new deaths in the countries of the Virus’ second Epicentre, with the figures falling or flattening in those countries most affected – Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Benelux, Ireland and Portugal, with Britain and Sweden  just behind. The falling figures have prompted the first cautious moves towards relaxing countries’ individual Lockdowns, with shops and businesses beginning to reopen. There are similarities to what is underway in the USA, though the Europeans appear to have more concrete evidence to back up the growing belief that the worst is over. “Festina Lente” is very much the order of the day lest relaxation too soon generates a second wave of infection, as happened a century ago, undoing all the good work, for it is abundantly clear that social isolation and lockdown  was fundamental in halting the progress of the Virus. Ireland’s cautious and  carefully calibrated recovery plan will stretch over several months.

With the cranking up comes the New Reality – Life with the Virus. Whether temporarily, for a year or two, pending a vaccine or some suitable treatment, or far more long term as the Jeremiahs would have it, with wave after wave of Corona 19 and its mutated successors. But in any event a significantly altered lifestyle.  Queues, social distancing, new rules ,regulations, and restrictions in  shops,  restaurants,  bars and pubs when they are once again open, and a new code of conduct with colleagues, neighbours and other people. There’s no doubt we will adjust; we’ve already had a foretaste with the weeks of the Lockdowns; and inconvenient as the experience was, it wasn’t a war, and there were few privations or hardship for those not personally affected.

Now, as we pick ourselves up it is to grasp that many everyday assumptions have been upended. Holidays this year look unachievable and certainly air travel on vacation can be largely written off for 2020. We have not yet grasped fully the economic cost from earnings and jobs lost in whole swathes of our economy (what future for the hospitality sector, for example?), nor how we approach leisure pursuits like spectator sports. Remote working and transition to a cashless economy have been given a huge boost and overall we wait and watch to see whether and how swiftly our economies and lifestyles will/can rebound.

The above predicated of course on the assumption that the worst is over. Certainly if wishes and hopes could come true then a vaccine or suitable treatment must be near. The optimists shout about three to six months, the more cautious somewhat longer, though all are agreed that the likely demand for a vaccine – in billions – when proven,  will outstrip supply for some considerable time. 2020 can be written off; probably also much of 2021 – and that’s taking the optimistic view.

Whatever happens, expect a slew of memoirs and journals of the Corona Year(s). I won’t be writing one but a few brief personal observation. As someone in his seventies, and a Diabetic to boot, I have at least one hefty strike against me faced with a virus that overwhelmingly targets the old and infirm ( even granting that “seventy is the new fifty”). So, together with my wife, we embraced the Lockdown totally and the “cocooning” the Irish doctors recommended. “No going out” did not of course apply to our modest but ample gardens front and rear. This provided some relief and our hearts went out to those less fortunate in cramped city apartments. With Portmarnock’s Velvet Strand a mere 200  metres away, the temptation to  defy advice and venture out was strong but we stuck with it. It was all the more sweet when that first relaxation came and since then we have fulfilled our vows to walk on the beach daily. We talked to the neighbours, but the lack of contact with other family members  proved annoying and upsetting –  the phone, Zoom and Skype no substitute.

Our sons shopped for us , a task they performed heroically, always conscious of the risk of bringing the virus back and taking extreme care accordingly. Thank you boys! Shopping now involves queueing to get access; the supermarkets limit numbers to ensure social distancing, tedious for everybody,  but where up to now bonhomie and good nature has reigned; a factor in this has been the absence of rain itself as April and May here have been unusually dry and sunny.  A twenty or thirty minute wait in damp cold and wet weather might chill that cosy feeling. At least by the autumn appropriate covered waiting areas should be in place.

To minimise risks further we confined shopping to once, perhaps twice, per week. For the moment the luxury of the casual visit daily to the shop for one or two items has gone. Initially there was panic buying and consequent hoarding before restrictions were imposed. Toilet paper and paper towels were early targets for the hoarders (and online comedians), then eggs and flour supplies ran out. .The supply lines kinks have now been sorted though eggs disappear from time to time, less down to the virus and panic buying than to an epidemic of bird flu which has led to the slaughter of around half a million egg producing birds. Some days random items can be unavailable and if this is on the shopping day then….. tant pis for a week! Choice and opportunity are somewhat restricted though it’s a far cry from something akin to the old Soviet “perhaps bag” experience.

The Virus has also changed my reading and writing habits. I’ve rediscovered or caught up with authors after years away ( John Le Carre, Donna Leon, William Boyd  and Martin Cruz Smith among them).  My columns have also been affected: the Virus can hardly be ignored, but how to make writing about it at least readable and relevant?

And finally, personally, the reality of the Virus has stopped my fictional work-in-progress in its tracks. I had a theme, I had a plot, I had good characters and I had 50,000 words written. It was a novel about Ireland in a post- apocalyptic world devastated after a global catastrophe. It promised to be a sure fire success – in my mind anyway. Then came the Corona virus, probably, like the plot in my novel, a cock-up rather than a conspiracy. Clearly reality trumped fiction. I may change and adapt the novel. I hope the Virus does not do likewise!

22/5

IRELAND TODAY: 10 MAY 2020 2005 CLI

IRELAND “TODAY”

The Virus is still with us. The numbers of dead have doubled since 21 April with 1446 dead in the Republic and 430 odd in the North as of 9 May, while worldwide the Virus has infected more than four million and killed 280, 000 plus, including a staggering 80,000 in the USA.

Yet the spread of the Virus here does seem to have peaked or be peaking, albeit at a high level. The R0 Contagion Rate has dropped to 0.5, which portents well. The number of new cases has been decreasing; the daily number of deaths is also dropping. Already the talk is of the next phase, with noises heard criticizing the Government’s slow timetable for easing restrictions (three months plus from 18 May, on top of the restrictions since March), with special pleas being made by interests representing pubs, restaurants and ladies hairdressers, and more no doubt to follow. Particularly good weather for early May prompted more people to venture out, further adding to the pressure on the authorities to lift restrictions on movement.

This is likely to reach a crescendo if other countries are seen to have transited from lockdown quicker than Ireland without generating a fresh wave of infections. Given the fortnight or so incubation period what happens elsewhere over the coming weeks will be studied closely. Should that second wave happen, of course, our cautious approach will have proved itself. But then what? Either way it won’t be too long before the recriminations begin about what should have but wasn’t done. There is likely to be a particular focus on the appalling rate of deaths in retirement and care homes, which account for over 60% of Ireland’s deaths .Already also there are attempts to quantify the economic damage caused. It is bad – undoubtedly – but, as some commentators have pointed out, even a hefty bill of €35 billion or so would be far less than the €64 billion borrowed to bail out the banks a decade ago. And the Economy is not bust like then, interest rates are far lower, and the ECB should ( and had better) be more sympathetic than under the previous regime.

“Normal Politics” seem set to resume with substantive talks on a new government underway (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Greens with Sinn Fein side-lined) and the Dreary Steeples of Irish Politics, Housing, Health and Homelessness emerging once again. This time with a difference. The chorus from the Left is that the Crisis emergency measures to house the homeless safely, to merge public and private health systems, and the payments to those temporarily unemployed (well in excess of the usual “jobseeker’s benefit”) should be made permanent, sanctioned in part  by circumstance, in part by the lurch left shown by the recent Election results. Well… we shall see.

The optimistic economic forecasts and assumptions on which February’s election promises (and results) were made, have vanished into history, The name of the game now and for the foreseeable future is survival The tortuously slow pavane around forming a new government reflects this; Parties – and Independents- who rallied to the country’s cause in the decade after 2008 got their comeuppance from the electorate next time around; who now would wish to volunteer? And what are the prospects for any  Government lasting the term, with no loaves, no fishes and a “Green” agenda on issues such as cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, all this in a post – Virus world where money is tight? The Greens have initially been playing extreme hardball, citing a red line issue of a 7% annual cut in emissions, but how rigid this will be come crunch time in the negotiations  is unclear. What IS clear is that Ireland now needs a Government. The current caretaker arrangement can no longer pass new legislation as the new Senate cannot be finalised without the eleven Taoiseach’s nominees.

The final worldwide economic reconstruction required post-Virus may be like that after World War Two on a larger, global scale. Then, some enlightened statesmanship, by enlightened statesmen (!), produced a set of international institutions and a new economic order which, though far from perfect, functioned reasonably well for half a century or so, generating unprecedented global economic prosperity. It would be a supreme optimist indeed who would hope or expect something similar from a world dominated by the likes of Trump, Putin, Ji,  Johnson, Modi Erdogan, Bolsonaro and others of that ilk and with the threat of catastrophic climate change now imminent. Whether the EU, spearheaded by Germany and Merkel, and assisted by France and Macron can achieve very much, even by example, remains to be seen. We are in the Age of the Gung–Ho Populist, who has replaced the Gung-Ho Nationalists and Imperialists who set the world aflame just a century ago.

But first we have to contain and corral the Corona Virus. In the critical area that matters – deaths per million – Ireland, with 293, is the eighth worst worldwide and twelfth worst in deaths among OECD member states. Though spreading worldwide the virus’ major impact up to now has been concentrated in North West Europe and North America.  While Ireland’s record is hardly one on which to take a bow, and while very high compared to Australia, New Zealand (both 4 per million) and several Asian countries, it compares favourably with most of our major trading partners in Europe, Germany and several of the Nordics excepted.

The Irish economy is one of the most open in the world, has a Common Travel Area ( and land border) with Europe’s worst virus- hit country (the UK) and up to now has had less than stringent health and other controls to monitor arrivals by air and sea. This last is currently under review, not before time. The blame game, here and elsewhere is likely to go on for quite some time and to include here important elements such as the creaking health system battered by years of austerity and how to approach health issues and care of the elderly in the future.

Hindsight is easy. Ireland, like the UK, the Benelux, Italy France and Spain – most of the prosperous core of Europe – were too casual, too slow off the mark and too relaxed as the virus was spreading rapidly, lethally and invisibly through their populations. (How the USA, world leader, and most affected country, effectively abdicated that role is not for comment here.) Germany, Austria and the Nordics were quicker to react and it shows, though Sweden is an “outlier”, having doggedly pursued a policy of herd immunity which has so far left it with 3000 plus deaths and a rate (319) above Ireland.

Some grim facts about the dead have been confirmed here in recent days and apparently mirror those in other countries. The elderly and the infirm have borne the brunt.  93% of deaths have been over 65, 67% (956) over 80; less than 1% (15) under 50. 50% had chronic heart conditions, 22% chronic respiratory ailments, 22% had Diabetes, 16% were obese and 10% asthmatic.

The Virus is giving us no end of a lesson. It has shaken our society to the core. Hopefully some good will emerge.

10/5

TAKING STOCK 2004 (3) CL

Taking Stock April 21

What are we to make of it, less than six weeks after the first Irish death on 11 March, particularly as the first tentative moves to re-open Europe’s economies are beginning?

We now have 687 dead in the Republic and 207 in the North – almost 900 dead on the island in forty days, the real total certainly higher since the Northern figure, as in England and Wales, includes only deaths in hospitals. 900 is more than have died on the Republic’s roads since December 2015, more than the worst year of the Troubles; indeed, 1972 excepted, worse than any two years of Conflict deaths combined. All in under six weeks.

The dead were people, who did not ask to be taken so cruelly and precipitately from their lives and from their families and loved ones, very often without a chance for a last goodbye. Each death a tragedy and they should not be forgotten. Think how we respond to terrorist atrocities, like Nine Eleven, or Bataclan,  or  air atrocities, like Teheran or the Western Ukraine, or domestically a disastrous fire, like the Stardust. The virus deaths are not dissimilar, sudden – when the virus takes hold there is isolation, and  death comes in a matter of days – and cataclysmic. The anger, the indignation, the frustration, the loss, of the bereaved expressed eloquently in a poem “My Sister is Not a Statistic,” written by Mayo born Dorothy Duffy about her sister, Rose Mitchell, and broadcast on RTE during the last week; it is impossible to listen to it without being moved.

Yet even as the first hints are appearing that we in Ireland are starting to get on top of the Virus (the “good news” is that the number of new cases appears to be stabilising), a sense of fatalism and acceptance seems to be creeping in. The victims are being categorised and compartmentalised:  90% of those who died were over sixty five; the daily median age of the dead has been over eighty; most suffered “an underlying medical condition;” over half the dead (54%) have been in nursing or retirement homes. And we measure daily whether the death totals have changed over previous days, and compare Ireland’s “deaths per million” ratio with those of other countries. All understandable – we are, after all, caught up in this and anxious for a solution that will bring normality back rapidly (some hope!); plus the information is useful and helpful. Still, the net effect is to reduce the immediate dead to mere statistics.

The magical concept now is the R0 symbol– the measure of how contagious a disease is; less than one is good, indicating that each person will infect less than one other, so eventually the infection will peter out. For Ireland the RO now appears to be below one; last month’s dire forecasts of  thousands dead and tens of thousands hospitalised were based on models using a much higher R0. It may well be that when the major ravaging effects of the Virus have subsided the dead will be much less than feared, perhaps 2000 or 2500 tops; and we will count ourselves lucky. Lucky?  That is a monstrous figure, not one to rejoice but rather to mourn over.

How has Ireland done? 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 now disposed of a backlog of tests.

But testing HAS been ramped up and has become focussed 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, again as I write, 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 the Ferries still operating – and there is the open Border with the North. There was also the usual heavy attendance (thousands) 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 New Zealand’s remoteness and ability to seal its 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 a 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 ninth (the feast is very moveable) in terms of deaths per million, with 139, and behind all the major Western European nations except Germany (56) Austria (52) and Portugal (72). We are well behind Belgium (503) Spain (446), Italy (399) France (310), the Netherlands (219) and Switzerland (165) The UK figure, currently 16,509 dead, or  243 per million, is too low by a margin since it includes only hospital deaths.  We are, however, ahead of the USA, which already has over 780,000 cases and 42,000 dead and rising but which is averaging currently  127 per million  because of its enormous population.

We are ahead also of most of the Nordics, several of which have roughly similar populations, Norway at 33, Denmark at 63 and Finland at 18. Sweden however has 1580 deaths, or 156 per million, having postponed effective action and now paying the price.  The key here, and for Germany and Austria was to take effective measures very early on. The Central Europeans have currently significantly fewer cases and very much fewer deaths. Is it too simplistic to link the heaviest incidences of European cases, deaths and locations to the more prosperous populations of the pre-Enlargement EU countries, who can afford winter holidays and their preferred destinations?

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

21/4

YEAR OF THE VIRUS: AN EASTER SNAPSHOT 2004 (2) CXLIX

Year of the Virus: An Easter Snapshot

What follows is not my regular column, but a snapshot on Easter Monday 2020.

Three months into the new decade and all bets are off. Perhaps the Doomsayers are satisfied at getting it right. Most of us are just hoping not to get it wrong! To borrow a phrase – our societies are in a medically induced coma, with no indication of when we will wake up or to what. This is the Year of the Virus; hopefully it will not turn out to be the “Decade of…” The most prosperous economies in the world are stalled, marking time as they combat a major health threat. Even after the pandemic subsides, the prospects for the world economy look bleak. We could be heading for Great Depression territory and the current crop of international politicians will be judged not only on  how they handled the virus, but also how they picked up the pieces afterwards.

Ireland’s first case of the Corona Virus was confirmed on February 29; the first death was on March 11.  Today, Easter Monday, 104 years after the Rising, the current count in Ireland is 10,647 confirmed cases  with 3365 deaths, already well over the combined total of road deaths for 2018 and 2019 (290). In the North there have been 1882 confirmed cases with 124 deaths. On St Patrick’s Day, when the Taoiseach addressed the nation, Ireland had 292 cases and two deaths. Since then Ireland has ramped up efforts to contain the virus, culminating in effectively a lockdown introduced from March 28, which is set to continue until May 5 at the earliest. Few expect more than a modest “tweaking” then and that’s only if the signs are favourable – a situation mirrored to a greater or lesser extent throughout most of Europe and North America.

The current (shifting) count worldwide is 1,929,633 reported cases (the true figure is almost certainly a multiple given the inadequate and inconsistent national monitoring and testing mechanisms) and 119,785 deaths. In the USA, the country worst hit, reported cases are 587,173 and deaths 23,644. The UK today saw the number infected rise to 88,621 and the death toll reach 11,239.  The death toll in Italy is now 19,468, in Spain 17,489 and in France 14,393. Of the major states only Germany, with 127, 916 cases has a significantly lower figure for deaths of 3022. Japan, has 7370 cases but only 123 deaths. While research for a vaccine or suitable treatment is ongoing at a frantic pace in a number of countries, there is no cure in sight.

It’s difficult to find silver linings but there are some grounds for optimism. First, as a reality check, for perspective consider the great Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19, which killed up to 50 million worldwide including 22,000 in Ireland, 228,000 in Britain and 675,000 in the USA , and these from significantly lower populations! The fatality rate among those infected was estimated as at least 10%. The fatality rate among confirmed cases for the Corona virus is panning out at roughly two per cent. The Corona virus is also assuredly not as lethal as the Black Death, which may have wiped out over a third of the world’s population in the Fourteenth Century. Compared to 1918, the First World generally is more prosperous, developed and educated with vastly improved medical, societal and hygienic conditions and a more sophisticated and holistic awareness of human health.  Many of the diseases which a century ago might have seriously weakened or even killed significant elements of the population have been controlled or even eliminated by antibiotics and advances in medical knowledge and treatment.

What we face now is a nasty virus, highly contagious and serious to a minority of those infected, particularly the elderly and those with existing medical conditions. How those infected react does not appear predictable, with a low percentage becoming seriously ill – Boris Johnson being the textbook example – but most people recover swiftly after just a light dose. This last should be incentive enough for people to take the recommended precautions. Prolonged exposure to the infected increases the chances of catching it considerably and one particularly disturbing development has been the high number of health workers who have contracted the virus and died in Italy, Spain, the USA and the UK; in Ireland roughly a quarter of the confirmed cases  are among health workers.

Given the urgency, the state of research already into the virus, and the track record of scientists and researchers in tackling previous viruses, including the far more deadly SARS (plus the money being thrown at it),  some form of vaccine or treatment should be developed sooner rather than later. The expectation is that a vaccine could be available in about a year. This is of no consolation to those struck down in the meantime, of course, but, properly applied there IS a Roadmap for dealing with the Virus and hunkering down until a vaccine arrives.

The Roadmap for successfully containing, neutralising and then conquering the Virus (in so far as it can) seems quite clear and has worked in several Asian countries. The measures aim at “flattening the curve” in the exponential rise in the numbers infected, eventually achieving a plateau and then a reduction in new cases.  On the micro level,  washing hands frequently, practicing social distancing ( two meters away from other people), avoiding contacts with strangers , however defined, venturing out from home only to buy necessities, watching  for symptoms, and practicing personal quarantine where necessary  – in short acting  as if you already have the virus. On the macro level the authorities should test ,test, and test – to quote the WTO – to ascertain who has the virus and mount  exhaustive contact work to identify and screen their third party contacts. Movements in and out of the country should be monitored and controlled, travel to and from countries or areas of high infection prohibited, and, where hospitalisation is necessary for the seriously infected, provision made for adequate hospital accommodation, including properly equipped intensive care units, with ventilators as necessary.

A crucial element is the protection of the front line health care workers, through adequate and high quality protective clothing and equipment.

That’s the theory. The reality has proved somewhat different. It worked in China, but China is a dictatorship which can order its citizens as necessary and which has a command and controlled economy which could bring its vast resources rapidly to bear to control the virus geographically. The separate democracies of Europe and North America have no such luxury and are struggling to cope. The vital “hardware” – everything from protective masks, clothing and equipment for the front line health workers to ventilators and adequate hospital accommodation – is in limited supply, or not immediately available, such has been the speed with which the virus has spread.

Our societies are still grappling with the situation. Yet what HAS been evident so far has been the high degree of cooperation and compliance from ordinary people who have rallied and made sacrifices that should bring about the desired results. The health workers are the heroes; ordinary people’s role should not be overlooked.

12/4/2020