- 27 Jan 21
Was there anyone in the world who predicted just how bad things were going to get in 2020? No sireee. So the lesson for soothsayers is this: we may know what should be Hot for 2021 – but it’ll only happen if we get our shit together, for a change!
Still Above Ground, and That’ll Do For Now
The New Year dawns. Somewhere close at hand, perhaps right beside the bed, a faint ping sounds and a message arrives. Bleary, we check the time, then the screen and then, like Keith Richards, check ourselves. All there, still above ground.
But risks multiply and threats abound. At every crossroads is a guru of gloom, an anointed secular saint whose role is to freak the fuck out of you, to shred any possibility of joy or optimism or even assurance.
Knuckles white and breath held, we open the curtains. What dark sun rises, what foetid swamp awaits, what howling wolves, what slavering horde? What strange beasts are these, we ask, what dread visions? What apocalyptic horsemen ride, boldly ride?
In truth? There’s a posse of them…
In the Grip of Covid Yet
The first is the Covid-19 pandemic, which rages yet.
The blame game endures, the finger-pointing, the accusations. Well, let us get this straight: we didn’t all party. We’re not all to blame and it’s time that the public health hierarchy and their righteous curates changed their tune.
There are questions that haven’t been answered, and more questions again. For example, are these new variants actually much more virulent?
The honest answer is that we don’t know, because we didn’t measure the infectivity of the old ones. This much is true: we’re now identifying a higher proportion of cases through tracing and testing, many of them asymptomatic, and of course that’s good. But in turn it suggests gaps and flaws in the data.
As for hospitalisations and deaths, they’re certainly rising fast. But, and it’s a very big but, we have waves of respiratory infections every winter.
The Irish Thoracic Society’s review of The Respiratory Health of the Nation 2018 gives a snapshot of the pre-Covid era. We learn that “Respiratory disease led to 5,720 deaths and 14.3% of all inpatient hospitalisations in Ireland in 2016. Respiratory disease causes almost one in 5 deaths...”
Meanwhile, “Covid-19 related deaths” in Ireland have reached 2,536 so far. But we don’t yet know which of these victims died OF the virus or WITH the virus. There’s a big difference there too.
Influenza infections are down, which is good, but so too are appointments for scans, screening and medical procedures. There will be deaths from cancer arising from the one-eyed focus on Covid-19. There is a massive mental health crisis in the offing. And so on. Who’s counting these?
Here’s the nub of it: policies and their outcomes should be independently evaluated. In a genuinely scientific and citizen-driven public health approach, the data should be comprehensive and transparent. Such is not the case in Ireland. That has to change, and soon. NPHET are supposed to serve us, not us them.
A closely related Covid issue is spin. It’s pretty threadbare at this stage. Why don’t they just tell it like it is, no butter, no sugar and no saintly musing? Explain, for example, why we lock ourselves down but don’t lock others out; why our officials eschew antigen tests despite their speed and cheapness; and why our vaccination programme is going slow, slow, quick, quick, slow.
As the weeks go by, we’re likely to see growing frustration and unrest at the impositions, in particular when it is in tandem with slow progress. Hope isn’t a policy. We need to have confidence that the Government knows where we’re headed and that the HSE – and whatever other agencies might be involved – can get us there. Actions speak louder than words. It is an old adage, but a vital one in the context of a pandemic.
And Then There’s Climate Change
You wouldn’t know it from the media coverage right now, but global climate change represents an even greater existential threat than the pandemic. Its impact was felt everywhere last year and already things are shaping up badly for 2021, with extreme weather events and wildfires happening as we speak.
Last week we heard from a panel of 17 top global scientists, who warned that the outlook for our planet is “dire and dangerous” and that loss of biodiversity and accelerating climate change in coming decades, coupled with ignorance and inaction, threatens the survival “of all species, including our own.” If that isn’t a ‘wake=up call’ then I don’t know what is.
The pandemic brought a glimpse of what concerted global action can achieve, not least in the speed at which vaccines were developed – but generating such cohesion on climate change has proven a far harder nut to crack than Covid-19.
Pressure will build this year, but as well as the headline stuff we’ll see more focus on small adaptations with the potential to make a big impact – like banning car idling; and on positive interventions and innovation, that is, on mobilising science and engineering and redesign. If planes flew on hydrogen and sunlight, we could go anywhere!
The Brexit Dividend, Eh!
As we know, Brexit has moved from negotiation to implementation – and what we are seeing isn’t pretty.
Of course anyone with a functioning intelligence knew where it was heading once Teresa May – remember her? – decided that the UK was leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union. And so it has come to pass: this most unwelcome disruption of trade and travel is now real rather than imagined. And it is a right, royal, pain in the arse.
Some aspects have been laced with a grim sort of humour: like the Dutch customs openly confiscating ham sandwiches from UK drivers with the comment ‘Welcome to Brexit’. But the whinging on the UK side is a bit hard to take. If you’re apart of the Single Market, you sail through. If you’re not, you form an orderly queue and wait as long as it takes.
Yes, in Irish terms, there are some headline good things happening. Those who prepared are more ready and congestion has largely been on the UK side. Also, the flexibility shown by ferry companies in switching vessels to better serve the needs of hauliers has been impressive. Very quickly, it looks like we’ll see a more robust and stable set of direct connections to the EU. But as the pace of trade picks up, bigger problems will arise – and it’s going to hurt.
As 2021 unfolds, we’ll be hearing a lot more about it.
Looking Back Will Cause Trouble…
There’s a popular narrative in Ireland that if it weren’t for the Brits all would have been well. But the sad truth is that we’ve proven pretty adept at making a hames of things ourselves, especially in the related fields of health, social care and education – areas where the State, for reasons that are still being debated, cravenly surrendered operational control to religious powers for over half a century.
The latest thread in this discussion relates to the wretched history of the mother and baby homes in Ireland. It is another appalling story of shocking mistreatment of entirely innocent people – and in particular children of whom 9,000 died in dreadful circumstances. It was all vicious, brutal, and disgracefully venal. The State has apologised. There will be reparations. The State will pay. But we’re all wondering what will be the contribution from the religious orders and the still enormously wealthy – if in doubt, look at all the enormous land-banks they are sitting on – Catholic Church in Ireland.
In the past, they were let off the hook in relation to paying proper reparation for their role in the child sex abuse scandal by the dreadful Minister for Education at the time Michael Woods of Fianna Fáil – with the Church (and the orders) contributing a mere €128million of an estimated €1.35billion, when a 50/50 split would have been appropriate. This time, they should pay their proper share. Nothing less.
Upcoming anniversaries will also be fractious. We’ve just passed the centenaries of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which set up Northern Ireland and the start of the War of Independence – and the cracks have already appeared (though the pandemic may have succeeded in putting these things in slightly more realistic perspective).
Next December will bring the centenary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which established the Irish Free State. We can, I think, look forward – with dread – to increasingly bitter debates. Some of the sourest contributions will likely come from Sinn Féin. In return, you may also hear some very pointed reflections on the 50th anniversary of brutal events in Northern Ireland in 1971.
But Finally, Some Good News.
Well, at least there’s a shaft of light from across the Atlantic. The Biden era begins and the Trump family exit Washington in very bad grace. The smell will linger long. But the portents are better.
In essence, the recent insurrection was a rabble action rather than a revolution. That said, it wouldn’t have taken much for it to have been far worse. It’ll go down as the last and most visible sign of the degradation Trump himself brought on American politics.
Now it’s Joe’s turn and the signs are positive. His intent is genuine. And it is good. We wish him the very best.
Noe final, thing as we struggle with the latest extended lockdown.
Hopefully mass vaccination will herald the start of the New Roaring 20s, full of sustainable craic, creativity and innovation. But of course, this time last year none of us had any real inkling of what was to unfold in 2020, did we?
So in 2021, we should also expect the unexpected! Hey ho, let’s go!