POTPOURRI 2102 CLXII

POTPOURRI

Advice and a Reality Check!  Don’t make any plans for 2021. “Normality” is at least another year away, the Covid Virus so embedded and pernicious that ridding humanity of it will require a major global effort. I write in late January as the Corona Virus saga continues but now with vaccines emerging to combat it.  One grisly way of viewing the situation, in Ireland, In Britain, in the USA and elsewhere is whether enough of the population can be vaccinated in time to achieve if not “herd immunity” then to keep the death toll below that from last Century’s Spanish Flu (Ireland 22,000, Britain 220,000 and the USA 600,000).  The sombre targets are not strictly comparable (given population growth, medical advances and better living standards) but nevertheless offer grim yardsticks. As I write the Virus’ third wave is in full spate with at least twenty countries recording over 1000 deaths per million. By the time you read this the toll in the USA will be well beyond 400,000 deaths (President Biden has suggested 500,000 by the end of February), and Britain (where the Brexiteer clowns now in government have rivalled Trump’s ineptitude in combatting Covid) will be nudging six figures.

 Ireland, meanwhile, having long dodged the third wave bullet, is now awash, having moved in the space of a few weeks from the least infected per head to one with among the most rapid growth of new cases worldwide. With cases climbing towards 200,000 – a doubling since the New Year – and deaths now at 578 per million, we have a way still to go – we remain  among the best  in the EU, with only  the Nordics ( Sweden emphatically excepted) and Estonia doing better, but the public mood now is one tinged with anxiety.  Deaths are still relatively low (below 3000), with our island status continuing to protect us, but with an open border to the North, no strict quarantine and visitors still arriving in considerable numbers, bringing with them newer, more infectious mutations of the virus, this could change. The sombre lesson since we “opened up” is that, as elsewhere, we are as vulnerable as elsewhere, with no sign of the self-discipline or political will to hunker down and defeat the virus. And, as elsewhere, we blunder on, fixated on some vaccine saving us. It probably will eventually but it doesn’t take rocket science to work out how long vaccinating a whole population will take. So – write off 2021.

If there is any collateral good news out of this it is that the Virus almost certainly cost Trump a second term – though a more accurate interpretation would be that even before the election, his total ineptness and unsuitability for political leadership was exposed by his record in failing to grapple with the Virus, a record that probably contributed significantly to the death toll.  While it’s difficult to assess what damage Trump could have inflicted domestically or worldwide with another four years, his behaviour since November suggests the USA and the world have had a narrow escape. America’s democratic structures survived – just about – but have taken quite a battering. His term now seems just a seedy episode yet the events in the Capitol on 6 January – with repercussions ongoing – should be a wake- up call. And the spectacle of the determined assault on the election result has shredded the US’ image around the world, to the manifest glee of the crew of motley dictators worldwide who would never have tolerated an unrigged election like last November’s.

 The question now is whether Trumpism, with its appeal to the “inner swine in human beings” and its success in “ceaselessly mobilising human stupidity”- to quote Kurt Schumacher’s brilliant characterisation of Nazism, will prove an enduring national movement. We should not forget that last November over seventy four million Americans voted for Trump; not all were hillbillies or racists or people disposed to join lynch mobs. There is worry and alienation out there as well as sincerely held conservative views and Joe Biden will have quite a task in healing the country and in combatting deliberate falsehoods in the era of Social Media. Some may see the whole period following Trump’s defeat as a form, ceteris paribus, of the Trump equivalent of the Beer Hall Putsch, with his Arnie-style hints of a return hanging over the future. Yet bear in mind that Hitler was in his mid-thirties when he ran after his coup collapsed. Trump is now seventy four and four years on will be seventy eight. As for his pod-people family – they simply lack his caveman charisma (with apologies to our ancestors).

An ill wind also, arguably, for the Brexiteers. Virtually lost sight of has been another New Year “milestone” – Britain’s final exit from the EU. Few anywhere are sounding trumpets though expect a growing fiction emerging, albeit slowly, about how the Corona Virus did fatal damage to the Brave New World for Britannia (more accurately Albion) envisaged, promised, and lied about by Britain’s Brave Brexiteers.  Britain is now formally – and informally – a “third country” now removed (apart from the north east of Ireland) from the European Union. The divorce would have been accompanied by Brexiteer celebrations worthy of the Rapture and the Second Coming combined, had they not been muted by the reality of the rampant Virus, where Britain’s inept handling has now seen more per capita deaths per million than in the USA.

Once the initial cock-a-hoop tabloid headlines and predictable inanities by the likes of Gove about negotiating the mothers of all trade deals with (other) third countries, like the USA, had subsided there was a hiatus. January is a normally a quiet month financially and in trading terms and there was much speculation – and trepidation – about what the effects of Britain leaving would have short term on its trade in terms of ruptured supply lines, food and other shortages both in Britain and in Ireland – the country most at risk  economically over Brexit. The Covid restrictions as hastily intensified in the UK provided a handy get-out-of-jail card for the Brexiteers, a card they will probably use until it disintegrates.  Those delays and hiccups that did occur could be passed off as “teething troubles” or on Covid.

The counter-intuitive dimension of Brexit, involving as it did Britain removing itself from a solid, bedded-in, paperless free trade regime with its EU trading partners, accounting for 40% of its trade, to take its chance in future negotiations , was simply dodged. Indeed to read the British tabloid press the agreement negotiated at Christmas represented Britain putting one over on its former partners. It was not, of course – merely “Fake News” Brexit style. The agreement as negotiated represented a marriage of less-than true-minds aimed at minimising disruption on both sides to important existing trade and laying some foundation for a future relationship, all made necessary by the contrary, illogical and irrational espousal of Brexit  – for the UK a policy switch worthy of Jonathan Swift’s imagination.

Finally, an anniversary. On 6 February 6 1971,  in the course of rioting on Belfast’s New Lodge Road, Gunner Robert Curtis (20) became the first British soldier shot dead in the North .

24/01/21

DIEGO MARADONA 1960-2020 2101 CLXI

DIEGO MARADONA 1960-2020

 Diego Maradona, arguably the finest soccer player of the Twentieth Century, perhaps of all time, is dead.  Maradona’s years of greatness – in the 1980s – preceded today’s saturation TV and Cable coverage of soccer, and while we have certainly the films of his greatest goals and exploits, these are all too few.  Memories fade quickly and there is also the sad flawed spectacle of the man in his declining years to blur his memory. Like most admirers, I never saw him play in person, only on film.

How good was he? He inspired passion for and against. He was subversive; underdogs rooted for him. He was transformative. Other great players played in great teams; Maradona foraged alone, elevating those around him. His exploits were unique. Off the field he had major flaws. He should have been better protected; too late now. Yet read what his footballing peers wrote about him. And watch, please, those films of him in action.

2021 will mark thirty five years since Maradona  in 1986 almost singlehandedly delivered a World Cup to Argentina, scoring in the process the “Goal of the Century,”  and linking his name forever with that World Cup. He very nearly won another World Cup four years later with a far inferior team when by then his greatness was fading. Yet by 1986 his star had been in the ascendant for nearly a decade after he burst on the Argentine scene as a teenager, a mop-headed undersized kid from the Buenos Aires slums. He was omitted inexplicably from the 1978 Argentine World Cup squad, a squad that was strong enough, with the assistance of good luck and home advantage, to capture the trophy. In a fascinating documentary last year Maradona revealed his hurt at being left out and denied the chance to raise the Cup before his countrymen. (Pele, after all, at the same age in 1958, HAD been given his chance.)

By 1982 the world soccer scene had reconfigured. Maradona was now acknowledged as the world’s best player and was already signed up for Barcelona for a record fee. He was also, as befitted his status in the cruder and crueller environment of 1980’s soccer, a marked man, with opponents committed to stopping him by fair means or foul, usually by kicking him around and off the field. Such tactics would not be tolerated today, when some protection at least is provided for creative players, but then it was open season, a time moreover of heavier pitches and balls and more license for the tackler. And given that Maradona did not hide but was proactive, and once in possession of the ball had only one aim, to get forward and score or assist his teammates to score, there were ample opportunities to “get” him in every match.

So it was in World Cup 82, where additionally the opposing teams were gunning for Argentina as the holders. Maradona was harried, hacked and pursued in every match, most memorably in the match against the eventual winners, Italy, where he was shadowed closely and neutralised by the inappropriately named Italian defender Gentile. In the next match, against traditional Latin American rivals Brazil, Maradona, who usually took the fouling and punishment stoically, finally snapped, retaliated after a succession of fouls, and was sent off, Argentina’s chances disappearing with him. With eerie prescience, given the shelf life of football superstars, Sean Connery, narrating the official FIFA world Cup film shortly after, commented that Maradona would have to await another occasion to fulfil his potential.

By 1986 Maradona was playing in Italy where he was in process of transforming perpetual losers Napoli  into a championship winning side and instilling pride and self- belief to Naples and the Neapolitans, long looked down upon by much of the rest of Italy. His time in La Liga had not been happy. Frequently fouled, the target for every defender, in 1983 he suffered a savage and potentially career- ending ankle injury at the feet of Goikoetxea, the “Butcher of Bilbao,” which side-lined him for several months. In Naples he was welcomed as a Hero, his impact immediate. What he was to do with an ordinary squad at Napoli over the next six years mirrored what he did for his national team on the world stage.

World Cup 1986 will be remembered, certainly in the English-speaking world, for Maradona’s performance in the quarter final against England, featuring his “Goal of the Century” and the “Hand of God” goal. The latter continues to rankle with sections of the British tabloid media; indeed not too long ago one pundit declared that Maradona had not scored twice, since the first was not a goal! There was history of course, both off and on the field.  In 1982 the UK and Argentina had been at war, over the Falklands, a war won resoundingly by Britain, a humiliation which left the Argentines smarting. Those with memories of 1966 could recall another World Cup quarter final, a nasty foul ridden contest (typical of the tournament itself) where England, on home soil, triumphed 1-0 in a match that saw the Argentine captain sent off and the England manager Alf Ramsey, categorise the Argentines as “Animals.” It was hardly surprising that, after the “Hand of God” goal stood, and was followed by what is generally regarded as the greatest goal of all time, and England were out, the Argentines celebrated. It wasn’t the first, it won’t be the last, controversial moment in a World Cup match.

The difference between the teams, as throughout the competition, was Maradona. There were six roughly equal teams competing, but only one had Maradona. He led a good, but certainly not great, Argentina team to overall victory, scoring, in addition to those against England, a superb  often overlooked goal against Italy, and two against Belgium in a virtuoso semi-final performance where he created, and teammates squandered, several gilt-edged chances.  In the final against Germany, man marked, but fairly, he was subdued but still produced flashes of brilliance including the sublime through pass for the winning goal. Unsurprisingly the official World Cup film was entitled “Hero.”

By 1990 he was clearly past his peak. He had led Napoli to dominate the cauldron of Italian soccer, was lionised in Naples, had logged breath-taking goals and performances but off the field had succumbed to the temptations of drugs, high living and the claustrophobic embrace of local gangsters.  His last effective bow was the foul-ridden World Cup 90. Argentina’s team was mediocre, even compared to that in 1986, with only one other fine player – the striker Caniggia. Argentina’s opponents’ tactics were simple – kick or foul Maradona – something demonstrated initially by surprise packet Cameroon in the opening match. Yet incredibly Maradona dragged his side to the final, eliminating both Brazil and hosts Italy along the way. This time Germany were ready and won 1-0; perhaps the result might have been different had Caniggia not missed the match over a silly technical foul. His appearance at World Cup 94 was brief – he failed a recreational drug test early. From then on it was downhill all the way.

On the field he was sublime. We shall not see his like again.

20/12

A CLOSE RUN THING. A PERSONAL VIEW FROM ACROSS THE POND 2012 CLX

 A CLOSE RUN THING – A PERSONAL VIEW FROM ACROSS THE POND

I write as someone from Ireland with deep affection and admiration for the USA and its people. I have lived and worked enjoyably in the USA over the years. My daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren are US citizens (he with a pedigree going back to the early settlers) and I have many American friends. I am immensely proud of the great Irish American Community and the part the Irish have played in US history. My admiration is not uncritical, particularly regarding some of the obvious flaws and injustices in US society as well as some aspects of US foreign policy.  However, I am also acutely conscious of what we owe to the USA in terms of defence of freedom and human rights and to the gradual improvement in the condition of Mankind. The “American Century” was not perfect but the alternatives which were faced down were worse. The near future, particularly regarding the World’s climate and population looks bleak and, with xenophobia and nationalism rampant, probably never has there been a greater need for responsible and inspiring leadership from the USA. I don’t know how well Joe Biden or his successors will meet the challenge. But nothing could be as bad as Trump. With his defeat the USA has won back its dignity.

Anyone with access to Amazon and a taste for escapism could do worse than take a look at the “Man in the High Castle” TV series. It’s alternative history hokum set in the 1960s in which the USA had “lost” World War Two and is now occupied and partitioned between the Nazis and the Japanese. Nonsense? Of course. The plot gifts the Nazis the Atomic Bomb (shown detonating over Washington D.C.) while the Red Army and Churchill never get a mention.

In real history the seventy ninth anniversary of Pearl Harbour takes place this month. The months that followed were the grimmest of the war. The Japanese swiftly overran most of Asia, inflicting humiliating defeats on the USA and Britain. In Europe, despite being repulsed before Moscow, the Nazis consolidated their hold, launched major new offensives on the Eastern Front and in North Africa and, only weeks after Pearl Harbour, at Wannsee devised the Final Solution to murder all Europe’s Jews .

The USA, Europe, and the World, were fortunate that Roosevelt was the US President at the time. He gave leadership, galvanised and mobilised the US nation against the existential threat that the Axis powers represented in a war that saw 400,000 plus Americans die. What if someone else had been President, someone who had listened to the loud isolationist voices urging against US involvement in the War, or had listened to Ambassador Joe Kennedy in London, who was sure Britain would be defeated, or had listened to those cheering on the Nazi campaign against the Communist Soviet Union?  Or had even played footsie with the Dictators? What if the President in 1941 had been his inept predecessor Hoover, or somebody just as bad, incapable of giving national leadership, strengthening morale and inspiring the country to organise and win?

I was reflecting on this as the 2020 Presidential Results saga unfolded. Trump is now gone – for the moment at least – but the movement that gave him, warts and all, over seventy million votes has not gone away and is likely to be a factor in future US politics. As an aside I note that the division in US society – more or less fifty-fifty – is eerily similar to the divide in Britain over Brexit, with the difference that in Brexit the Bad Guys are still triumphant! The lesson there, btw, is that a fractured society does not mend easily; and President –Elect Biden takes office with two strikes against him – the Virus running rampant and the Economy in tatters.

Moreover, it turns out that “the Economy, stupid” very nearly won Trump a second term. Exit polls identified the Economy rather than the Corona Virus as the dominant issue for voters. Here Trump had been on a winner, inheriting an economy in good condition, which he pump- primed energetically through tax cuts breaks for the wealthy and the removal of restraints, including environmental restraints, on US business. With most of the economic indicators positive, on paper at least, as 2020 dawned Trump stood a reasonable chance of being re-elected on economic grounds alone, despite many having to hold their noses to vote for him.

This also despite Trump’s foreign “policy.” To the outside observer it has seemed that since 2017 US foreign policy has careened without coherence, subject to Trump’s whims.  Hiis apologists will argue that it was about time other NATO countries stumped up more of the Alliance’s costs, and that it was time also  a (metaphorical) warning shot was fired across China’s economic bows  before the entire North American and European manufacturing base was damaged beyond repair by the tightly controlled and regimented  Chinese behemoth. “Bringing the troops home” was also popular with the isolationist lobby. Yet against this who cannot have cringed at Trump’s antics over North Korea, his infatuated pursuit of friendships with the leading gangster autocrats of the world like Putin, Bolsonaro, Erdogan and others (Xi Jinping would be there also were it not for the Corona Virus) and his insulting treatment of his North American neighbours and his traditional Western European (democratic) allies, Boris Johnson excepted?

There is a defining moment or circumstance for every US President, by which ultimately they will be judged. FDR had several. For Truman it was the Bomb and the Berlin Airlift, for JFK it was the Cuba Crisis, for LBJ it was Vietnam, for Nixon Watergate, for Jimmy Carter the Hostages, for Reagan victory in the Cold war, for Bush 41 the Gulf War, for Clinton Bosnia, for Bush 43 Nine Eleven and Iraq , for Obama, Bin Laden.

Last year I would have identified Trump’s defining issue as the brazen, indefensible, irrational and delusional decision to pull the USA out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The Paris Agreement is toothless, inadequate and already wrong footed by five years of continued global growth in emissions and population, but at least it has provided a framework and targets for action and a wakeup call that the world was in peril. The scientific evidence is overwhelming and there can be few outside those actually paid by the fossil fuel lobby who doubt the reality. Yet Trump, with a grisly Luddite consistency remains a denier and has abdicated on behalf of his country the leading position the USA should be taking. This while the growing numbers and seriousness of forest fires and the increased annual battering from hurricanes taking place before his eyes bear testimony to what is happening .

But then, in 2020 came the Corona Virus. Yes it came from China, yes it is global and has hit many countries hard. Yes everywhere people are dying. Deaths are currently over 1.3 million – that we know of – and identified cases well over 50 million and climbing. Some countries have worse mortality rates than the USA ( which is currently at 756 per million), Belgium and Spain among them, while a clutch of seven Latin American countries , together with Britain, have roughly similar rates. All true. Yet Canada’s rate is 287, Germany’s 150, the Nordics, even Sweden, very significantly lower; Ireland’s rate is 398 – roughly half that of Trump’s America. The bald unadulterated truth is that the USA, the world’s wealthiest, most advanced and developed  country, a leader in medicine and medical research, with 4.25% of the world’s population, has 20% of the dead (250,000) and  recorded cases,  with infections spreading exponentially.

The Virus has been Trump’s Pearl Harbour – and his Nemesis. From Woodward we know he knew early on how serious it was – indeed the swift and decisive actions of his erstwhile friend Xi offered proof if it were needed. He downplayed it; he denied it, fully in the knowledge of the mega consequences. He ignored and belittled a constant stream of medical advice. He provided no leadership. He ducked reality; he ducked responsibility. He is bequeathing a mess from which it will be difficult for the USA to emerge with casualty figures less than World War Two. America deserves better.

For Joe Biden the task of restoring the USA, internally and externally, to its rightful place in the world will not be easy.

END.

15/11/20

GOLDEN OCTOBER, SOMBER NOVEMBER, GRIM JANUARY 2011 CLIX

GOLDEN OCTOBER, SOMBER NOVEMBER, GRIM JANUARY

 “Since Golden October declined into Sombre November…”

The opening lines of Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” strike a particular chord this year.  Not that October has been particularly golden here, apart from a pleasant Indian summer. But there is little doubt that Sombre November is set to strike.  Big time, as Ireland like a number of other European countries, struggles to combat the Second Wave of the Virus. With cases rising at over 1000 per day (now 54,476, almost double that on September 1)) we are in (virtually) Total Lockdown – until November 30.  After that we revert to partial lockdown. And then: Who knows?  Even the experts seem to accept that six weeks will not be sufficient to “kill” the virus. Pent up demand, frustration, shopping for Christmas, all threaten to generate another spike in cases with further lockdowns to come, this to continue until a vaccine arrives.

 As if that were not enough, in the New Year “Destiny waits” ((Eliot again). There had been a pious hope that there would be a welcome start to 2021 when Ireland joins the UN Security Council. Any celebration of this is likely to be overshadowed by the situation on the ground as Britain finally severs its EU links. There are two possible scenarios,  an optimistic one should the EU and Britain successfully negotiate a Free Trade Exit Agreement, a pessimistic one should Britain crash out in a No Deal departure. It’s a serious situation for the EU, but particularly so for Ireland, the most exposed Member State by far to the effects of Brexit.

Even an optimistic outcome will pose serious logistical supply and bureaucratic problems for Irish exporters and importers alike. A No Deal outcome would be a nightmare with WTO tariffs and quotas suddenly falling due on a range of Irish agricultural and other exports. Where before there was a relatively seamless corridor for Irish exports into and through the UK (and vice versa) a new quasi-Luddite system of physical and financial barriers would be erected. Currently negotiations are proceeding with the inevitable posturing on both sides; so we shall have to see.

A No Deal crash out also has the potential for damage to the Good Friday Agreement settlement in the North.  By passing legislation to come into play should there be no FTA deal, Britain has already shown brazen disregard for the international agreement it had freely entered into to ensure there would be no hard border in Ireland. Currently British spokemen brush the issue aside as hypothetical and irrelevant should there be a deal. A negotiating tactic? Again, we shall see.

It’s worth reflecting  that Brexit, essentially an assertion of English nationalism against the wishes of clear majorities in Scotland and the North, by its very nature cast at the least a spanner in the smooth functioning of the Good Friday Agreement.   There was a clear tribal split in the vote in the North, as shown in the Constituency results, with the minority who voted for Brexit predominantly working class Unionist –  a stark reminder that the division between the Communities remained, despite almost two decades of peace and lowering of tension. As in every vote in the North, the Border was an issue, but it seems clear that the same impulse to vote “leave” evident in working class England applied to some in the North also – alienation, a feeling that they were losing out and an aspiration to “take back control,” a feeling perhaps given added spice by the evidently more comfortable and satisfied minority community.

That spanner will be exacerbated by the effects even a benign Brexit will have on the flourishing and growing economic and social links between the two parts of the island. The food industry especially has developed strong cross border links and integrated production while thousands commute to work daily in both directions.  Whatever happens in the negotiations, there will be a shake-up, the extent yet to be determined. And here dovetailing, not at all neatly, with the Brexit event, Covid 19 intrudes.

There is simply no getting away from the ubiquitous Covid 19. The history of the Virus in the North was for long very similar to that on the rest of the island. Indeed for quite a time the North seemed to be doing dramatically better than its counterpart. During the first wave, from March to the end of May 2020, the North (with roughly 40% of the population) reported 4716 cases and 523 deaths, compared to 24,990 cases and 1649 deaths in the Republic, a substantially lower figure proportionately, even allowing for differences in reporting and recording. Indeed Northern Ireland’s death rate from the virus, then and now, remains the lowest in the UK and below that in the Republic.  For the next three months the numbers of cases and deaths in both parts of the island grew only slightly, as it appeared that the measures taken were working. At the end of August Northern Ireland had 7245 reported cases and 560 deaths while the Republic reported 28,811 cases and 1777 deaths.

Then effectively the wheels came off, particularly in the North, as restrictions were eased and the second wave began to kick in – a pattern common to most other European countries (Nordics and Baltics and several others excepted).  On 24 September the North had 9950 cases; just over four weeks later that figure has trebled to 31,034, while the Republic has also recorded sharp increases, though less severe, from 33,444 ( 24 September) to 54,476 yesterday. The North’s rate of increase is now the highest in the UK and far outstrips that in the Republic. Thus far deaths have not kept pace – 634 and 1871 respectively – reflecting the trend elsewhere in Europe as the disease is now hitting younger and less vulnerable sectors of the population – though whether deaths will continue relatively low as the numbers infected grow remains to be seen.

The surge in the North has not developed asymmetrically. For whatever reason Derry and Strabane, closest to the Border ,have seen the highest rise in cases, followed by Belfast , Mid Ulster, Newry and Mourne, all, interestingly, predominantly Nationalist areas. Significantly also, and proof that the Virus does not recognise borders, the areas worst hit in the South include the three adjacent Ulster Border counties, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. Clearly there has been spill-over, a reflection of the  increased cross border contacts on the ground since 1998. This has led, naturally to calls for an all-island, all-Ireland approach to Covid control measures.

 While there is close cooperation there is no sign at present of a single integrated approach.  Indeed the DUP Agriculture Minister, Edwin Poots, has dragged Covid into the political arena by observing several days ago that infection rates in Nationalist areas were six times those in Unionist ones. Poots denied his remarks were sectarian citing “poor political leadership” by Sinn Fein, including attendance at the Bobby Storey funeral , had helped bring this about. Clearly community relations in the North have some distance still to travel. Poots, incidentally, is a “young earth creationist”, rejecting evolution and believing the world was created around 4000 B.C.

23/10/20

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

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

SAINT PATRICK’S DAY 2020: LETHAL GAME CHANGER 2004 CXLVIII

SAINT PATRICK’S DAY 2020: LETHAL GAME CHANGER

How strange and surreal it is to be writing this. Two weeks ago it would have been inconceivable. A week ago, hopefully, unlikely. That was then and this is now. The Corona Virus has struck with all the immediacy of an asteroid impacting. It’s not in China, like SARS, nor in Central Africa, like Ebola. It’s here in Ireland, in Europe, in North America, in the prosperous First World.

Again, pursuing the asteroid metaphor, the dust and debris have not yet settled so we have no idea, other than a pessimistic inkling of the damage wrought. It promises to be fearsome. Western Europe, now deemed to be the Epicentre, has five hundred million people, North America three hundred and sixty. If left unchecked up to seventy percent could be infected; repeat 70% or 600 million. For most, perhaps up to ninety per cent, it will be mild, for ten percent more serious, requiring hospitalisation, and for the unfortunate minority – fatal. Based on the evidence from China, the death rate could be 2% or higher; and 2 % of 600 million comes to 12 million deaths. For the island of Ireland, with 6.9 million, this works out at around 100,000 dead. For Britain, with ten times the population, the estimate is around one million. Even an infection rate of 10% would yield figures of  fifteen and one hundred and fifty thousand dead. Do the math for North American deaths.

These are wartime figures. For make no mistake. Our societies are at war. The casualties have begun to mount, the infection rate appears to be doubling perhaps every three or four days and if we do nothing will continue at that pace. The collateral damage will be colossal; already the Western economies are taking severe hits with a downturn and recession now a virtual certainly. But the societal damage is even worse, again akin to that in war. Italy, the country outside China worst hit so far has seen its health system buckle under the strain and has even begun to triage patients in need of the limited supply of respirators. That on the basis of casualties, as I write, of 31,000 infected, half of one percent of Italy’s population. And as the system buckles, as the earlier experience in Wuhan demonstrated, the mortality rate rises; in Italy with 2,500 deaths, it is already well over 5%, culling brutally and disproportionately the elderly and the already sick.

The first case was diagnosed in Italy on 21 February, less than four weeks ago, and it is the sheer speed with which the virus has spread which has thrown Western politicians and populations off balance. They – we – had watched with  fascination as the virus picked up tempo from its still murky origin in Wuhan, China last December. We watched as the Chinese government, authoritarian and therefore able to mobilise, control and direct its population had gradually fought against the virus, effectively locking down hundreds of millions of people for lengthy periods. We marvelled, but were complacent enough to think it could never strike in Europe, and, moreover, that it would be unthinkable to contemplate, yet alone introduce, similar curbs on personal freedoms into western democracies.  A comforting sub – text to this thinking was that by the time it DID strike, a vaccine would have been developed, and/or like SARS or some of the other flu like viruses that originate in China it would be self-limiting or would weaken and attenuate.

The vital lessons which the Asians had learned from combatting SARS and were relearning and applying to control the current virus, were noted but not applied in time, particularly the essential devices of adequate testing and then contacting and isolating the wider pool of those third parties potentially infected. Even as the horrific developments in Italy were played out on the European media, politicians and governments seemed content to concentrate what testing there was on people who had visited Northern Italy, completely underestimating the virulent contagion rate of the virus.

Now it’s a massive “Operation Stable Door” throughout Europe to emulate the Asian success in slowing down the rate of infection (“flattening the curve”) and it is clear that the reputations of the current crop of governing politicians will be determined by how they handle this crisis.  Sport has been cancelled, even not-so- large gatherings banned. Pubs and restaurants are being closed in more and more countries. People, the elderly especially, encouraged to stay home. Italy is in lockdown, as are Spain and France – Macron yesterday declaring that France was at war. Borders have been closed, States of Emergency have been declared throughout Europe as the figures for infections have rocketed – and will continue to increase dramatically as more people are tested.

The other grim lesson from Italy is that where a society is mainly healthy and prosperous, a country’s health system is likely to be tailored and resourced to reflect this, with an embedded assumption that it will never have to face a massive and immediate existential threat. Italy is running short of essential equipment to cater for the ever increasing numbers of seriously ill. It is doubtful whether any other European country is much better equipped. With catastrophe threatening and doctors facing the prospect of who to save or not, the avowed aim of the measures taken thus far is to try to slow down and flatten the rising curve of infection. Even some flattening would relieve pressure on Europe’s national health systems.

Ireland had its first confirmed case on 29 February. The current figure for the island is 354 (69 new today), including 62 in the North and is increasing sharply. According to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, a doctor, the daily figure is expected to increase by 30% and the total infected could reach 10-15,000 by the end of March, two weeks today. The vast majority will not require hospital treatment, but at 2%, 2-300 could die. The Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, has stressed that the next seven days will be vital in flattening the curve and partially heading off disaster. The economy is shattered and further emergency measures seem likely. No one can even speculate what the final outcome will be.

Thus far our nearest neighbour, Britain, has marched to a different drum, initially downplaying the threat (though not on the scale of Trump), while eschewing the more drastic measures taken by other major European countries. Perhaps there was an illusion that, as an island, Britain would be spared the worst (which may well turn out to be partially the case, and for Ireland also). Perhaps also through adherence to the notion of “herd immunity,” which might eventually prove valid, but which constitutes a hell of a risky policy bet. As the figures mount British policy is now changing, perhaps too late.

For us all this is a war. And even if we succeed in “flattening the curve” this will not constitute victory. It will not constitute a Stalingrad, a Midway, a Kursk, a D-Day. At best, to quote Churchill, a Johnson favourite, it will constitute an “end of the beginning.” And even that will require “Blood, Sweat, Toil and Tears.”

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

END

17/3/2020