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

THE CONSTANT SOLDIER by WILLIAM RYAN ; a review.

THE CONSTANT SOLDIER: WILLIAM RYAN

MANTLE 2016

The Second World War was not just another war. It was global, it was ferocious and it killed more than any other war in history. Yet what marks it out also is that during its course, and inextricably mixed with it, a determined attempt was made to wipe out the Jewish race. Roughly half the Jews in the world were murdered over a relatively short period. Some of the consequences remain with us today. This extermination attempt, refined and honed  to increase its effectiveness, went hand in hand with a with a military and political campaign of invasion, murder, ethnic cleansing and exploitation  directed at the peoples and countries of Central Europe on a virtually unprecedented scale.

The only possible rival in recorded history, in terms of scale and effectiveness, was probably the Mongol holocaust in Central Asia and the subsequent aborted but undefeated attack on Central Europe in the Thirteenth Century. Yet the Mongols were essentially a temporary phenomenon, a transient federation of nomadic tribes out of Central Asia, brutally welded together, brilliantly led by the mediaeval equivalent of Napoleon and supported by an officer corps chosen by meritocracy and as a fighting force far superior militarily to the moribund feudal armies which faced them. Twentieth Century Germany by contrast was one of the most advanced European societies with a long and enviable cultural history, embracing, inter alia, music, literature and philosophy, an advanced welfare state – for its time – and, Prussia apart, no particularly strong tradition of militarism. Then the country was hijacked by a madman and his supporters.

Nazi Germany continues to fascinate in all its manifestations. One subset of questions relates  less to the how and more to the why so many Germans  continued to lend support and legitimacy to the regime even though its nature and actions were demonstrably abhorrent and , certainly after Stalingrad,  though it was clear that the regime was driving the whole of Germany into disaster. Debate continues to rage about how much the “ordinary German” knew about the Death Camps, and the mass murders of the Jews and others. H.H. Kirst, author of the Gunner Asch novels and other satirical works about Nazi Germany and its aftermath, commented wryly on his Nazi party membership that he did not really know he “was in a club of murderers”.

An equally pertinent question is, even if they knew or suspected, what could they do about it? Nazi Germany was a brutal and efficient dictatorship, opponents had been liquidated in sequence (remember Niemoller’s poem “First They Came…..”) and the consequences of defiance were likely to prove drastic, not just for the individual but for relatives as well. Those who moralise or pontificate about following your conscience have very rarely had to come to grips with a modern totalitarian dictatorship. Those with loaded guns call the shots. Passive defiance was possible, but unlikely to derail the murder machine. (The same considerations apply, mutatis mutandis, to living in the Soviet Union under Stalin.) And even the 20 July Plot demonstrated how well dug in the regime was.

There was also the aspect of what Joachim Fest, in his memorable study of Hitler, referred to as “widening the circle of criminality.” The more people could be involved in the crimes, the more likely they were to acquiesce and eschew protest. Thus, in the aftermath of the invasion of Russia, as the special teams of murderers followed or accompanied the troops in, the Wermacht was pressurised and compromised to witness, sanction, support logistically and participate in the crimes of what Fest termed the “Third World War.”

These “Einsatzgruppen” were not necessarily just hardened Nazis and SS but included numbers of ordinary and retired police, drawn into the squads as police forces were reorganised and rationalised and as the scale of the mass murders demanded more staff at the killing end. In the stunning novel, “Ostland” (2013) David Thomas tells the true story of how Berlin’s top criminal detective – not a committed Nazi – Georg Heuzer, became the head of the Einsatzgrup operating in Minsk, where he personally supervised the murder of thirty thousand chiefly Austrian Jews, reverting to a police officer after the War and rising to become police chief in the Rhineland Palatinate before eventually being sentenced for war crimes in 1963. There were more like him, individuals led step-by-step into compromise and crime.

All this is by way of introduction to William Ryan’s new novel, “The Constant Soldier”. The novel was launched in Dublin on 1 September and has been garnering very favourable reviews in recent weeks, many containing “spoilers” about the plot, which, however, in no way diminishes enjoyment of the book. The author is already well established for his three crime novels with a difference. They are set in Stalinist Russia in the 1930s and feature Alexei Korolev, a Moscow CID Militia captain who is tasked to investigate some high profile murder cases with political connections. Against the background of the Great Terror, when one wrong move can result in a “holiday in Siberia” – Stalin’s jocular remark – or worse, Korolev must walk a moral and political tightrope to make progress. The Korolev books paint vividly and sympathetically the dilemma of the honourable man trying to cope in a totalitarian and mendacious society where values are reversed or non – existent. “The Constant Soldier” is a new departure in theme – a stand-alone novel set during the last year of the Second World War, yet the similarities with Korolev’s moral dilemmas are clear.

The novel’s first twenty pages are particularly memorable, recounting the gradual emergence of consciousness and awareness of a badly wounded soldier being transported by train back to his home. That home is a village in Silesia, in a mixed Polish –German rural community conquered and occupied by the Germans.  Here it is not just the matter of a murder. The whole setting is a crime scene. Most of the Poles have been driven out or murdered, their farms expropriated. Some are Partisans, watching, waiting in the woods as the Red Army advances.  A “work camp” and a mine are nearby – euphemisms for murder camps and a source of forced labour when required.  Could the camp be Auschwitz ? Or another? There were enough of them.  We are never told.  The camp remains in the wings throughout the novel, the horrors hinted at but never explicitly described.

Central to the story, rather, is the Hut, a rest and recreation lodge in the village for SS officers and personnel taking refuge or recuperation from their “toils” in the camp or stresses from the war. (Keeping up the morale of those tasked with mass murder was, apparently a priority for the Nazi leadership. I’ve come across several anecdotes of Himmler and others, and one of Ryan’s characters actually quotes Himmler, comforting those at the coal face of extermination and mass murder –  though at the right end of the gun-  acknowledging the “strain” but promising a better future once the task was complete! Thomas records that at Heuzer’s trial it was revealed that the Minsk murderers were partially anaesthetised with a bottle of vodka per head per day.) The Hut was staffed by SS foot soldiers until, as casualties at the front mounted, they were drafted into active service. Cleaning and cooking in the Hut was carried out by female slave prisoners.

The book’s central character, Paul Brandt, a Wermacht soldier, has returned home a hero, disfigured and mutilated from the Eastern Front. Not a Nazi, he had enlisted under threat. He returns wounded internally as well as externally, haunted by the murders he saw and was ordered to take part in. He knows the war is lost and longs for an opportunity to atone for his crimes. The opportunity comes when he is offered work as the supervisory steward at the SS Hut. Among the female prisoners working there is a girl from his past, Judith, who does not recognise his scarred and burned face and for whom he feels responsibility for her arrest and enslavement. He now has a mission – to protect and look out for Judith and her colleagues as well as doing what he can to protect his father and sister, neither of them Nazis and both well aware of what is happening in the camps.

To survive, let alone carry out his mission, involves living a lie in a fraught environment , where casual murder and brutality are commonplace and where, despite the slight leeway he is accorded as a decorated hero who has made visible sacrifices for “the Reich,” he must constantly be on guard. Ryan conveys very well the fin de siècle atmosphere which abounds, the doublethink and speak about ultimate victory when clearly nemesis is only a matter of time. The characters surrounding him include a committed Nazi, an amoral and foolish local mayor and several SS officers, as well as the Hut Commandant, Obersturmfuhrer Neumann, after Brandt the most interesting character in the story.

Intelligent and perceptive, Neumann from the start is clearly aware of some or most of Brandt’s feelings and demonstrates at several points that, though a Nazi and SS Officer, he has not bought in to the whole package. Indeed the subplot of the story is essentially the personal development and disintegration of Neumann, never quite total, and never fully revealed or even directly hinted at to Brandt. When another SS officer commits suicide Neumann confiscates his records of Mendelssohn, a Jewish, and therefore banned, composer, to play them himself. (And shockingly, Brandt discovers, among the dead man’s possessions, a box containing gold fillings ripped from Jewish victims at the camp.)

Neumann is not alone. There are other Nazis also less enamoured of what they have done, but for Neumann, his own crimes have put him beyond redemption and he remains haunted by images of his victims. A World War One veteran, he broods as to how these things could have happened.  A March Violet (the derisory name given by “old” Nazis to those who joined the Party after Hitler became Chancellor) he hadn’t planned on becoming a murderer. “It had just turned out that way.”  And of the Jews: ”mostly no one had ever imagined it would come to this. Until it had, of course.”

Brandt plots and schemes, finding allies among the Ukrainian SS guards, who know only too well what fate awaits them when the Soviets arrive. But ostensibly he must maintain the façade of normalcy, even as the Nazi world collapses. There are Christmas festivities, an incongruous New Year’s hunt, photographs to be taken, drunken SS to be humoured, while the news gets worse on an almost daily basis. Paris has fallen. Warsaw has fallen; and Krakow. The sound of Russian artillery can be heard. The exodus of German refugees begins. The final drama is about to be played out.

There is a counterpoint to all of this – Polya, a feisty young Russian, driver of a T34 tank for two years, a battle hardened veteran who has nevertheless retained her joie de vivre and femininity. She longs to get the job done and is enamoured of her tank commander Lapshin. At interludes in the main story her exploits intrude as her tank, and the Red Army, gets ever closer to Brandt’s village. There are some vivid and savage action scenes featuring Polya’s tank. There’s no doubt where the author’s sympathies lie. Polya, and the advance of the Red Army, crushing and obliterating their opponents, are very much a terrible swift sword, wreaking vengeance for what was done after 1941. The tension is built excellently as the reader wonders what will happen when Polya and her tanks encounter Brandt and a rag tag collection of boys, drafted as the last line of defence.

“The Constant Soldier” is a compelling read. I finished it in two days. Nor is it easily forgotten.  In an Afterword the author points to an album of photographs taken in 1944/5 by a senior SS officer at Auschwitz as providing inspiration for his book. The photos show members of the SS relaxing and chilling out in an R and R hut located several kilometres from the camp just weeks before the Red Army liberated it. If ever Arendt’s “banality of evil” categorisation of Eichmann seems appropriate it is here. Anyone interested in morality tales and looking also for a damn good story should read the novel, surely one of the year’s best. Highly recommended.

Reviewed for Writing.ie.

S.F.

8/9/16

 

VOTES CAST IN U.K. ELECTIONS SINCE 1945

VOTES CAST IN U.K. ELECTIONS SINCE 1945

 

See accompanying post for the table and apologies for the formatting  for 2010 and 2015.

Some fascinating material here. Something to pore over for hours, if not weeks with “what if?” musings. A more complete picture would  detail seats won and include also European election results.

Just a few points to whet the appetite:

  1. One central underlying fact to keep in mind is the growth in population, from fifty million in 1951 to sixty three million odd in 2011.

 

  1. This makes the second highest ever vote, 13,948, 605, secured by Labour in 1951, even more remarkable . It was an election in which, thanks to the quirks in the first-past-the-post system, they actually lost.

 

  1. The highest ever vote, 14,093,007, was for the Tories under John Major in 1992.

 

  1. No party since 1945 has polled more than 50%. The closest was in 1955, when the Tories, under Eden, actually received 49.7% of the votes cast. (Labour, in 1945, got 47.7%).

 

  1. The first-past-the-post system has severely inhibited the chances of a of a third party – any third party – from challenging the dominance of the Tories and Labour, even when the Liberals and later the LibDems, won twenty percent or more of the votes. The most dramatic example of the quirks were in last year’s election, where UKIP, with almost four million votes, won one seat, while the Scottish Nationalists (admittedly a special case) won 56 seats with less than one and a half million votes while the LibDems, with a million more votes got only 8 seats.

 

  1. Support for Thatcher was remarkably consistent across three elections, with 1983 actually the lowest, challenging the Falklands factor theory. Would she have won had Labour not been led by Michael Foot?

 

  1. Elections in the New Millennium have shown a marked drop in voter turnout, from above 70% to the mid-60s. Voter apathy, or disillusionment ? The BREXIT turnout was 72%.

S.F. 19/8/16