- 06 Mar 20
... And the conundrum is that the effects of the potential economic disruption brought on by the virus are as likely to be as damaging as the illness itself. So far, the response in Ireland has been effective. But among musicians, the hope is that big festivals and events will continue to get the green light.
It’s like stepping straight into a swamp.
We’ve all seen variations on the image in the movies. The foot goes down, assuming all is well. But the look of panic on the face on the unfortunate perambulator says it all. There is nothing solid below. Worse still, every fresh step you try to take makes it worse. A thick gloop starts to suck our subject down. The more he attempts to save himself, the worse it seems to get. Or it could be a she. Quicksand is an equal opportunities destroyer.
That’s the kind of terrain we’re in now.
For a brief moment, the hope was that somehow, miraculously, we might escape the ravages of the corona virus: what they are now calling Covid-19. We’re an island nation, after all. That might be enough to insulate us. But we are also frequent fliers. We like travelling: to China, to Italy, to Japan – with all of the associated, everyday risks. Usually these don’t amount to a hill of Mung beans. Now, suddenly, there’s no solid ground underneath and you’re left gasping for air. Do I stick or twist?
It was always a long-shot, a forlorn hope, that we could keep it out entirely – and so it was no real surprise, when word filtered through that the first case of Covid-19 on the island of Ireland had been identified.
I Heard It Through The Grapevine...
Initially, information on the confirmed case was hard to come by: a cloak of secrecy was maintained by the authorities. But it couldn’t last and it didn’t. We know it is a woman. We know that she had been in Northern Italy; that she landed in Dublin airport; and that she got the train to Belfast. There, she presented to medical authorities and a diagnosis was reached.
Confirmation that the virus had been detected on the island was followed soon by news of a second case. A young male, who had also been in North Italy, arrived back in Ireland. Again, he presented to the medical authorities and the illness was confirmed.
People’s hunger to find out more about individual cases has so far been officially frustrated. The policy of the Department of Health, and the HSE, is to give as little away as possible, in order to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. The media’s thirst for information – or for a good story that might sell newspapers – is understandable. But instinctively, the official approach seems to be the right one.
If you were the person involved, would you want your name and face splashed all over the papers? Or slung around social media with who knows what insults and threats attached? No thanks.
The rumour mill went into overdrive anyway. In a south-side swimming pool on Sunday afternoon, one woman had no doubt where he was from. Her best friend had told her that he had been in the shop where she works in Rathfarnham. The Gardaí had arrived in later, to look at CCTV footage, to see first-hand who the affected individual might have made contact with. It was said with such authority that you might well have believed it.
We now know that the second confirmed case involves a pupil in Scoil Caitriona in Glasnevin, on the Northside of Dublin. The entire school has been told to take a two-week holiday.
There is only so much that you can do. If the kids in a particular family suddenly stop coming to school, then lots of people will put one and one together. Similarly, if children are told to take two weeks off, they know that one of them, or indeed one of the staff, has been diagnosed.
But the greater the extent to which anonymity can be maintained, the better. The last thing we need is for people in an area, who in truth are not at risk at all, to be infected instead with a level of heightened paranoia.
The illness itself is one thing. Hopefully, the efforts of health authorities across the world will have the effect of containing it effectively sooner rather than later. We need to see the numbers of new cases dropping in Italy, as is now happening in China. In Ireland, over the past couple of days, there has been a sharp increase to 13 in all. At least one of these is being defined as a community-based infection. But, worrying as that might be, as of now at least, the Department of Health says that we are still in the containment stage.
There can be no let-up in vigilance. Anyone who travelled to China or North Italy should do the right thing without delay. The advice is still that if you have recently visited one of the affected areas, and you experience the most common initial symptoms – headaches, a dry cough and a sore throat – then you should self-isolate immediately. If shortness of breath is added to the cocktail, then you really need to get off the scene very sharply. Call your GP. From there, the relevant authorities will step in, depending on where you are based.
… And I’m Just About To Lose My Mind...
And then there is the flip-side: what will happen in terms of work, jobs, and the overall economic and social impact if the measures taken to control the virus become too restrictive? Government has to tread very carefully. Paranoia is such a huge factor in health scares.
There’s a language school next door to Hot Press’ offices on Capel Street. Outside it on an afternoon during the week, four people of Asian background – they might have been Chinese or South Korean – sat around chatting. At least two of them were wearing masks.
On the plus side, if someone has been infected with the Covid-19 virus, the mask might just help to protect other people from, in turn, being infected by them. However, the medical advice is that these masks do not have any significant protective effect for those wearing them. They are next to useless as a way of keeping an individual safe from infection by a third party. To all intents, they are a waste of money.
It is hardly surprising that people begin to behave irrationally. One perspective is that the media has created a level of fear around the Covid-19 outbreak which is scarcely warranted by the illness. Certainly, fear has been growing – and it is exacerbated by mis-information.
This over-reaction to what was been dubbed the “celebrity virus” is understandable. Clearly, every reasonable precaution must be taken to prevent the spread of the disease. But the word reasonable is key.
The mortality rate from Covid-19 is relatively low. It is not an especially deadly virus. Current estimates are that between 1% and 2% of cases turn out to be fatal. Those who have lost their lives to the virus have generally been in a higher ‘at risk’ category. Age is a major factor. From what we know, the effect on children is negligible, whereas 15% of those over 80 who contract the virus die.
Most of the people who have died as a result of Covid-19 had already been suffering from medical conditions which made them vulnerable. That does not make the loss of a parent or a loved one any easier to accept. But it would be far more serious if the percentages were reversed.
Honey Honey, Yeah...
Life must go on. In this respect, to date, the Irish authorities have played their cards well. The Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health, Dr. Tony Holohan, seems to appear on the 9 o’clock news on RTÉ every night. So far, he has been a rock of common sense, very effectively putting the latest information from at home and abroad in context and reassuring viewers. There isn’t a hint of unnecessary panic. We need, as far as we can, to keep on keeping on in that vein.
If countries allow the entire apparatus of normal life to grind to a halt, that is potentially far more damaging than any loss of life that might occur. So far, we have done a better job of managing this secondary threat than most. In Boris Johnson’s England, as the number of cases identified grew to 163, for a time, they seemed to be suffering from a kind of collective self-delusion; and in the U.S. Donald Trump and his science-denying crew were also flat-footed, leaving the prairie open for paranoia to grow.
The shifty approach of these two might be bad news for Ireland. As we look towards St. Patrick’s Day, in just over a week's time, the Government is well aware that widespread cancellation of events would have a potentially devastating impact on Irish businesses. It is, if at all possible and justifiable, to be avoided.
The U.S. has not been badly hit to date. Over 200 cases have been identified. Twelve people have died, four of them in Washington D.C. In a population of 350 million, those numbers are very small. But if they continue to accelerate, or if more cases emerge in Ireland, Americans may well decide that they are better off cancelling planned trips to Europe. And that would be a tough blow for people involved in the hospitality industry here, who see the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations as the start of the tourist season.
In music, entertainment and sport, the feeling – among promoters and artists alike – is that events should be allowed to proceed, unless there is a very good reason for deciding otherwise. In the case of the Ireland .v. Italy Six Nations rugby game, there was. Northern Italy is the new epicentre of the virus. But that is a unique one-off.
Meanwhile, the race against time to find a vaccine continues. For now, we have to hold our nerve as best we can and act smartly. No one wants to end up in the quicksand that widespread cancellation of festivals and major gigs would cause. No one wants to feel a different kind of gravity pulling them down into the muck and the mire. Neither do we want to see Covid-19 spread here under the radar.
Who’d want to be Minister for Health? Tough calls will have to be made on a daily basis. But you have to keep the entire picture in your sights. No one wants the quicksand to prevail.
• If you need more information or are concerned about having contracted Covid-19, you can call the HSE helpline on 1850 24 1850 for information and advice.