- 27 May 20
With so much gone wrong, how can things ever be made right? It is a challenge that any new government is going to have to take on, with the objective of fully realising the aspirational call that we are all in this together. Illustration by David Rooney.
“No man is an island,” John Donne wrote, “Entire of itself/ Each is a piece of the Continent/ A part of the main…. Any man’s death diminishes me/ For I am involved in mankind/ Therefore, send not to know/ For whom the bell tolls/ It tolls for thee.”
This is a long dark tunnel. Longer than the cucumber that Derek Smalls stuffs down his trousers in Spinal Tap. Longer even than the queue on the motorway on the M7, on a particularly busy bank holiday Friday when the sun is shining. Or than the queue used to be, back in the good old days, when people were allowed to hightail it to the country for the weekend.
In fact the tunnel is so long you have no idea how long it might really be. That’s where we are now. Squinting into the infinity of a vastly uncertain future. Longing that it will not be too fucking long. But knowing that there is no knowing.
What is at the other end? No one rightly knows that either. Not Boris Johnson’s sunny uplands: on that we can all agree. But there is no point in turning back. We are all in this together. In a manner of speaking, that is. Kinda. But the only way to move is forward. And so we press on pressing on.
Sorry. That isn’t quite the way that was meant to come out.
But the only way to move is forward. And so we keep on keepin’ on.
Like a bird that flew. We are all, entirely and alarmingly, it seems, tangled up in blue. But hoping for light. Or even an echo of light.
SHOVELFULS OF CLAY
This much we can say for certain. No one was properly prepared for this. All of the great minds of the world doing their thing and working often around the clock, some being paid vast sums of money – and still, the bottom line is that we weren’t even remotely beginning to be ready.
More than anything this is a story of political failure. The video clips are out there. Of Barack Obama talking, in 2014, about the inevitability of a pandemic. You can find a speech too that he made to the same effect as far back as 2005. There’s even a clip of George ‘Dubya’ Bush saying something similar when he was President.
Over 100,000 dead in the United States alone now. A good result, in Donald Trump’s playbook. No more nasty questions. Next.
In his 2014 speech, Barack Obama emphasised the importance of countries being prepared. And not just America.
“We have to put in place an infrastructure,” he said, enunciating his words very carefully, “not just here at home, but globally, that will allow us to see it quickly, isolate it quickly and respond to it quickly.
“So that if and when,” he went on, “a new strain of flu, like the Spanish flu, crops up, five years from now or a decade from now, we’ve made the investment.”
But we didn’t and we haven’t.
“The funding we are asking for,” he told the American people five and a bit years ago, “is required to keep strengthening our capacity here at home… (and) it is needed to help us partner with other countries to prevent and deal with future outbreaks and threats before they become epidemics. We were lucky with H1N1 (swine flu) that it did not prove to be more deadly. We cannot say that we were lucky with Ebola because it is having a devastating impact in West Africa, but it is not airborne in its transmission.”
For whom the bell tolls. I can hear it resounding into the surrounding darkness: boing, boing, boing.
What is the key difference between Ebola and Covid-19? One of the two deadly diseases is not airborne. The other is.
In a horribly perverse way, you might say that we have been lucky with Covid-19. It is not anything like as deadly as Ebola. Some people can simply shrug-off this one.
If it had been as deadly as the Big E, where would that tunnel have taken us over the past five or six months? If the lethal nature of Ebola had, like Covid-19, been transmitted by coughs or sneezes or just plain breathing, how many of us would still be alive?
We’d be looking not so much at a tunnel, then, but at a funnel, a chute to take us down. Underground. Shovelfuls of clay ready to be piled on top of us. If we were lucky.
Of course this has happened with Covid-19. And is happening. Many unfortunates are dead. Just not nearly as many as might have been. But in Ireland and the UK, and in numerous other countries, we avoided what was perceived as the worst possible outcome: hospitals being swamped with cases, to the extent that they couldn’t even hope to cope.
In the UK, they achieved that particular miracle by simply ignoring the cases in nursing homes and care centres. Don’t bring the buggers to hospitals under any circumstances was the message.
It was Boris Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings who was quoted in The Sunday Times as nut-shelling the UK government’s policy thus: “Herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.”
For whom the bell tolls.
Here, it wasn’t that we didn’t give a damn. We just didn’t see it coming. At least we afforded the victims of Covid-19 the dignity of counting the daily death toll properly, even as the casualties piled up. We were – and still are – in a different league entirely in terms of honesty and transparency. But we should be clear about what we did not get right.
It was more convenient generally to allow people to die where they were rather than rushing them fruitlessly into hospital. The Brits did it and tried to hide it.
There’s an article on hotpress.com with the headline “Covid-19: The UK Is The Worst Hit In Europe and Boris Johnson’s Government Is Responsible”. It describes the deliberate under-counting by the UK authorities of fatalities as a result of Covid-19.
Six days ago, the official figure for deaths in the UK was hovering around the 32,000 mark. That made the UK the worst-hit country in Europe at the time – with the apparent exception of Belgium, whose self-declared death tally was higher on a per capita basis.
But the Belgian authorities are counting everything. If a death might relate to Covid-19, it goes into the ledger. The contrast with the UK could not be starker. That same day, The Financial Times calculated that over 50,000 more people than normal had died across the UK, in the period since Covid-19 had taken hold.
That is the real death toll in the Britain.
”The big discrepancy between the daily government announcements in deaths and those recorded by the ONS (Office of National Statistics) again came in care homes, where mortality during the Covid-19 epidemic has been far higher than normal,” The Financial Times said in its report, in language that is disarmingly understated.
The paper estimated that over 60,000 would have died of Covid-19 by May 11, in the UK. Which suggests that the figure will have reached 70,000 or thereabouts by the time you are reading this. It is an astonishing figure. I have many friends living in England. The stress, the worry and the ongoing psychological battering are a nightmare for all of them.
If the UK is undercounting, so is the US. But it is far harder to pin down by how much. Brazil is on fire now with Covid-19 cases. Russia is also in trouble.
Nonetheless, when you take into account that the population of the US is five times that of the UK, all the indications are that Boris Johnson’s Great Britain – with the world’s fifth largest economy – is actually the worst-hit country in the world with coronavirus deaths. And it will remain so for some time to come. Perhaps always.
THE REAL TEST
A WhatsApp message lands. It is from Ross, one of the young gunslingers who plays out wide for Hot Press Munchengladbach 1891. Works in James Hospital. Had lunch every day with a man by the name of Dorel Giurca from Romania. “Lovely guy,” our winger says. Had some great laughs. Taught him a bit of English. But now...
The bad news had hit the front pages of the tabloids. Dorel came to Ireland three years ago and loved it here. His wife Mirela followed. He got a job as a cleaner in the hospital. Dorel didn’t know that it would become the frontline in a battle for the nation’s health, but when it did, he worked extremely hard to do the right thing, every day. Dorel was tested for coronavirus on April 30. He was confirmed as positive on May 6. He was rushed to hospital on May 8 unable to breathe. Shortly afterwards, the cursed bell tolled for Dorel. He was just 53 years of age.
It is just one other harrowing and desperately sad Covid-19 story. There are more than enough of them to go around. Life is tough. But the campaign to contain the virus, here in Ireland, seems to be working. Shutters have started to go up.
A lot won’t ever rise again. For some businesses it is all over, bar the shouting. Even that may be a thing of the past.
There is an issue here. Difficult to address but all the more important for that. The mantra was, “We are all in this together.” It was a catchy chorus and people sang it. Now, however, we are coming to the real test. It should not be that people who work for Google and Twitter and the big Pharma companies are alright; and that those who work for the State are alright; and that everyone else, more or less, has to scrabble to survive or crawl through the mud to pick up the pieces.
Decisions taken by the State have put people out of business. Places that thrived have been rendered impossible to operate because we are all being told that we’ll have to socially distance for months to come. There is no natural justice in that.
Is there a way of squaring the circle? As Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party sift through their policies and try to get a new government off the ground here, this has to be accelerated to the top of any agreed Programme for Government. How to embody, wholeheartedly, the aspirational call on which the battle against Covid-19 was based, that we are all in this together.
Hope. It is in short supply, but we have to hang onto it. We may still be searching for the light now, but it will come. Let’s hope that it is not too late for too many. We do need resilience, strength, courage. Art, songs, celebration. Even tears.
We will dance again. Amen.
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