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Still time to do the right thing
The ban on athletes from SARS affected countries travelling to Ireland for the Special Olympics is discriminatory and wrong – and the minister for health Micheál Martin should reverse it
Niall Stokes, 23 May 2003
Let there be no doubt about it, in relation to SARS and the Special Olympics, the Minister for Health, Micheál Martin, is wrong. The decision to ask teams from countries affected by SARS not to travel to the event was a bad one, for a number of key reasons – but the most fundamental is that it is blatantly discriminatory.
The fact that a particularly vulnerable group of people are the victims of that discrimination further deepens the injustice of it.
It doesn’t matter who advised him. Nor at this stage does it matter what the basis for that advice may have been. Nor is it any excuse that the decision is merely another reflection of the complete absence of consistency that is too often the bane of public policy making in Ireland. What’s wrong is wrong – and discrimination of this kind is manifestly that.
It would be unfair not to acknowledge that the Minister may have felt that he was put somewhere between a rock and a hard place when the Department of Health’s Expert Group made the recommendation, on which the final decision to ask teams not to travel was based. But the fact is that the final decision was the Minister’s and the Governments to make.
It was a test of Micheal Martin’s political mettle. In general, public servants will err on the side of caution and any Minister worth his or her salt knows it. In effect this is what happened, with the Expert Group taking a far more stringent view than the guidelines laid down in relation to SARS by the World Health Organisation require.
As advisors on a single aspect of public health policy, you might argue that they are entitled to do this. But whereas they might be able to operate in a kind of political and moral vacuum, that is a luxury that is not open either to the Minister or to the country that he represents.
He could have rejected the advice of the Expert Group, and in doing so given priority to affirming the equal rights which those involved in the Special Olympics should properly be afforded. After all, if a paying student – or indeed an ordinary tourist – from the countries affected can come on in, without restrictions of any kind, then why not a Special Olympian?
To do so, however, would have required courage. It is a quality that is in depressingly short supply in Irish politics. Instead the Minister chose the expedient route, believing that he could hide behind the advice of the expert group.
Clearly, public policy in relation to SARS is in serious disarray here. Last week hotpress encountered one individual who had been in China for a period of five weeks. While there, she had been effectively in quarantine for much of the time.
On her return from the country most affected by the outbreak of the deadly virus, however, she found that there were no restrictions whatsoever on her movements. She was not questioned as to whether or not she had been in contact with anyone who had exhibited symptoms that might have made them a suspect case. Nor was she offered any instruction as to how she should react if she developed respiratory problems of any kind.
This is the way in which people arriving into Ireland from parts of the world affected by SARS are generally being treated. If this is the appropriate approach, then fine. But the same should then apply to Special Olympians. It is as simple as that.
If the Special Olympians are genuinely considered to represent an unacceptable level of risk, then why are Chinese students who come here to learn English not also being asked not to travel? Surely it cannot be that the Government is prepared to allow a high level of risk simply because it would represent too big a blow to the economy if, for example, Chinese students were asked to stay at home?
Other experts have offered the view that a group of athletes, who have been carefully monitored for months, and who could be checked for potential symptoms on a daily basis, represent a far lesser risk than tourists in general or returning students. Perhaps this seems far too logical for the boffins in Health. Or is it that their decision is really driven by the fact that they are in the middle of an industrial dispute with Public Health doctors, that it is all too much hassle, and that the athletes are easily told to piss off? That the decision represents a potential headache out of the way…
They may not have articulated it in quite those terms, but members of the Irish organising committee of the Special Olympics certainly seem to have come to that conclusion. So too do the Irish Medical Organisation. And most of the local organising committees in the host towns in which the athletes had been due to stay seem to agree.
The normally anodyne Rehab Group reflected the widespread anger at the decision, describing it as “at best a clear case of official ignorance and at worst discrimination against people with disabilities.”
Whatever way you look at it, the decision marks another low point in our descent into a new kind of boorish selfishness – a journey on which we are being sponsored by the Government itself.
If the Minister could dredge up the courage to reverse what is a bad and damaging decision, it would stand hugely to his credit. There is still time to do the right thing.