One year on from the start of the pandemic, and close to our national holiday, how's Ireland doing? Not good. We remain on course for the longest and potentially most fiscally and socially damaging lockdown in Europe - and we have some stiff competition there. A lot done; more to do.
Last autumn, to justify requesting our second lockdown, NPHET modellers predicted a rise in daily cases of over two thousand if we didn't move to level 5. They didn't get their level 5 that time, only level 3. Actual daily cases? 640. Prediction out by a factor of four. At the end of this January, the same modellers said that we'd be down to 200 to 400 cases per day by the end of February. Actual cases per day end of Feb was over 700. Out by a factor of 3. Now with cases remaining stubbornly level, they express "concern" seemingly confused that it's "unusually high".
With reliability and insight like that, is it any wonder more and more are turning off from listening to them, practicing civil disobedience, and supporting anti-lockdown rallies?
The modellers explain this new disparity from the model as "increased mobility". (Do you notice whenever there's a disparity between the predicted and actual figures it's always our failing, never them, or their models?) At least NPHET are showing some flexibility in their understanding of our behaviour, if not their own models. We're misbehaving.
What it demonstrates, yet again is that lockdowns don't work, mainly because people can't handle them for long. Some simply can't afford it anymore. Nor should they be expected to. There are those ignoring restrictions because they need to, to make a living. It's a shame people don't behave like models more ... but we're messy that way. They tried making us behave like the models, controlling our behaviour with full weight of law and enforcement, instead of simply requesting it from us, but guess what - after a year of it, it's starting to backfire. Who could have foreseen that, when they started down the path lockdowns? Only everyone with sense.
If their modelling is unreliable, what else might they be unreliable about? It could be a display - more worryingly - of NPHET being out of touch with the scientific of their policies for suppressing this virus. It remains to be seen whether all of this will backfire yet, not just for behavioural reasons, but for virological & scientific consequences also. If new variants that target the younger age groups, resistant to current vaccines, become dominant, what then? More blanket lockdown? A never-ending cycle of lockdown and inoculation until the uncontainable is finally vanquished? If the global mass-vaccination programme causes viral immune escape, if the year-long lockdown, suppressing natural human collective immunological response, proves responsible for the virus mutating into something more virulent and hazardous in order to survive, then all bets are off. If it slowly dawns on people that the Emperor had no clothes since we were first send down the dead end path of lockdown. If, in the final analysis, we would have been no better off without all the scientific interventions, we may loose trust in science as a guiding light for human society. If we lose trust in "the science" (or the evangelists of whichever faction of it we've been forced to follow), then where will people be forced to look for solutions?
For now, the majority public and political consensus remains firmly with rule-by-science. Or is it? Our government said the target of early May for lifting restrictions was dependent on numbers: case numbers, R number, etc. Up until now those kind of restriction-lifting decisions could only be made a week or two beforehand, when actual figures were known. So why then, when a delay in vaccine delivery arose, did the Taoiseach say it would push out the lifting of restrictions from the start, to the end, of May - over two months from now? He's no idea what the case figures will be by then. Our distraction-craving Tániste trumped that by suggesting July! It's been a long year but not so long that we can't all remember last summer. We were good to open with similar case figures then, did so successfully all summer, with just distancing, masks, and hand-washing - no rise in cases. So why aren't we trusted to do that this time? What's really going on here? The cat was let out of the bag this week - the lifting of restrictions this summer is being tied to vaccine rollout figures, not actual covid case figures. Our nation is paying dearly for their contingency lockdown policy, with every new vaccine delay.
Whatever happened to learning to "live with Covid"? The people of Ireland have been learning, through the school of hard knocks, to live with Covid for over a year now. It's time NPHET and government put their position and expertise where their mouth is and learned to live with Covid themselves. It's time to nuance the response to this virus, to allow people to live some sort of life again. Advise us, but accept that people have decided their own attitudes to the risk now.
Task us to repeat what we managed last summer, sure, but it's time to address every avenue to prevent and treat this. (No, I don't mean zero-covid!) There are more means to deal with this pandemic than we've been trying in Ireland. There are treatments to reduce hospital stay duration (or prevent admission in the first place). Instead of chasing supplies of vaccines that don't exist, where are the purchasing programmes for therapeutic drugs that do? Where is the reprioritisation of remaining, scarce, vaccines away from age cohorts and over to workers (with high number of contacts), to allow more get back to work and open the economy sooner? I would happily donate my jab to someone who needs it to make a living! I doubt I'm alone in that. Our government is never shy of forking out for outsourced solutions for intractable problems (such as the recent acquisition of conflict resolvers for Mother and Baby homes), so where then is the outsourced brainstorming of research into all possible strategies to deal with this pandemic situation? We are still relying on all the same parochial, embedded, factional, scientific evangelists who seem attracted to our national media platforms like moths to flames.
There's a clear lack of urgency - perhaps even willingness - displayed by the government toward lifting lockdown as soon as possible. They are happy to hide behind NPHET's policy - that they seem to be stuck with. The government couldn't do that without the on-going cover of an uncritical media, and continued high borrowing at exceptional (and temporary) negative interest rates offered by a complicit ECB. With a powerful troika like that reconfiguring this nation's future, is it any wonder the vulnerable are falling into the arms of conspiracy theorists or extreme political agendas?
There's a requisite level of risk any society has to accept for the greater well-being of everyone. No government or state institution can quench risk. In any free society, public structures are there to support those who fall foul of misfortune or their own bad attitudes to risk. A Free State supports those who seek to educate themselves and others in making healthy risk decisions. It also supports and encourages personal responsibility and autonomy. That's the model of the democratic system envisaged by ancient Greeks and Christians alike, not this communist dystopia we seem to have slipped into this last year.
In this season of great historical significance for Ireland, it's worth remembering that enslavement under authoritarian powers is something the Irish have always known, but have successfully resisted and overcome before. Our patron - St. Patrick - knew a thing or two about being enslaved in his own land, having freedoms removed, and yet he chose to return, on his own terms, in support of this land. Would either Collins or DeValera have fought to free this State, only to have its fortunes dictated to it by mathematical calculations, and bound not to the will of the people, but by the supply chain of Big Pharma?
It's time we demand our governors get real, and give us back our freedom to choose. They must expect that not all the population of Ireland will be willing to shoulder the burden of handling this public health problem at such great cost anymore. It's time for government and health services to shoulder their share of the burden properly too. That is, after all, what we put them there for. If they can show us they're willing to support and trust us, then they'll have earned greater cooperation - cooperation they've taken for granted lately. Politicians telling us that "we get it; it's hard" doesn't quite cut it anymore. Our politicians need to know we're all in this together, including them, and including those of us who aren't model citizens anymore.