Early on in his dramatic account of Ireland’s pandemic, A State of Emergency, Richard Chambers quotes the HSE’s chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry, who describes the public health assessment of the risks in January 2020 as “magical thinking”. It was an expression that came to define the pandemic, writes Chambers, who was an almost daily presence throughout the public health crisis through his dispatches for Virgin Media News.
Magical thinking led to a dogged refusal to accept that the virus, left to circulate unchecked, would come back as before. The government ignored its own advisory body NPHET’s counsel and allowed indoor dining in early December last year, just when the country had reversed the dangerous rise in cases from October, all in the hope of delivering to Irish people a “meaningful Christmas”, an expression that will have haunting connotations for many years to come.
The results were disastrous, and Chambers reports that many in the medical profession are embittered by the government’s perceived lack of contrition for facilitating what was an entirely foreseeable outcome, one that was foreseen by NPHET and many others besides. Some cabinet members and broadsheet columnists insist there was “no way of knowing” what would happen, but the truth is a layperson could model the basics of exponential growth on the back of an envelope. There was little reason to believe elevated case figures would behave any differently in the run-up to Christmas than they had nine months earlier, ahead of the first wave.
After an initial preamble that relates how Ireland, like most Western countries, was painfully slow to heed the warning signs from Asia, Chambers’ book proceeds at a breakneck pace. He covers the response of an interim government plunged into crisis, its often fractious relationship with the committee of public health experts advising it, and, in some of the best chapters, tells the often terrifying and heart-breaking human stories of the pandemic, from the point of view of hospital and nursing home staff, and people who lost loved ones to the virus.
Irish people were among the earliest in Europe to take Covid seriously, clearly alarmed by images from Italy, and no doubt having little faith in the health service’s capacity to deal with a surge in cases. Such scepticism was not unfounded–a number of medics interviewed by Chambers, including deputy-CMO Ronan Glynn, say the health service did indeed collapse last January when Ireland had the highest rate of transmission in the world.
The government’s failings at certain points, most notoriously with the failure to protect nursing homes during the first and third waves and with the December reopening, are undeniable. They are also likely to irrevocably overshadow the good work the government did at other times in the pandemic.
The institution that comes out of Chambers’s book with the most credit is NPHET, which, being so often the bearer of unwelcome news, attracted brickbats from the media and public alike. While the political strategy of chief medical officer Tony Holohan and other senior NPHET members sometimes left things to be desired, even members of the government acknowledge that the doom-mongers of the advisory committee were often right. Simon Harris, minister for health at the outset of the pandemic, puts it rather succinctly to Chambers: “We have done so well in this pandemic when we’ve listened to the experts. We haven’t done well when we haven’t listened.”
One such expert is Trinity College immunologist Luke O’Neill, also a familiar media presence, whose pandemic diary is published as Keep Calm and Trust the Science. Just as the 2008 economic crisis brought about an increase in economic literacy in Ireland, so the pandemic saw a rise in public health awareness among the general public. O’Neill and other scientists did much to bring this about.
With his enthusiastic bonhomie, you can see how O’Neill appeals to broadcasters. In a country where positivity can often serve to smooth the burrs of critical thinking, it’s easy to be cynical about such a sunny demeanour. But O’Neill’s was probably the bedside manner a troubled country needed. It also helped that he was often right about things.
He was among the first voices in Irish media to recommend people wear masks in public. He later warned of the dangers of infection in hotel quarantine and did a good job breaking down vaccine science for the uninitiated. None of this makes O’Neill a visionary outlier in terms of public health, but he did put his various pulpits to good use.
Keep Calm and Trust the Science is a fairly sedate book compared to the intensity of A State of Emergency. O’Neill is best when writing about science–his knack for synthesising and communicating complex information is another thing that has made him a media favourite. The book also features intriguing glimpses of his own family history and there is a pleasing lightness to his narration.
But the limitations of the diary format are clear elsewhere in the book. Significant events in O’Neill’s personal life may not be of interest to every reader and the published diary of a public figure will understandably lack candidness. O’Neill is diplomatic about the social distancing violations of the rich and powerful, such as Golfgate, and doesn’t directly criticise the government, though, neither, to his credit, is he ever a cheerleader.
Almost two years on from the start of the pandemic, Ireland, like the rest of the world, is not yet out of the woods, though vaccines have brought some hope. Case numbers in recent months have been among the highest of the pandemic while hospitalisations with Covid are now the highest since March. Deaths remain low, most likely thanks to high vaccine uptake, but death is not the only negative outcome of the disease, nor is Covid the only preoccupation of the health service. Tony Holohan and others in NPHET worry about these rising case numbers but the government says there is no return to restrictions planned. One can only hope this is not more magical thinking and that we won’t be forced to revisit either of these books in updated editions.
Originally published by The Irish Times