John Dolan: Could curfews be the key to dealing with Covid crisis?

I wonder if, in the ongoing battle to curb the spread of Covid-19, we will soon see curfews again imposed on the streets of Cork in 2020, so says John Dolan in his weekly column
John Dolan: Could curfews be the key to dealing with Covid crisis?

GHOST TOWN: How the streets may look in a curfew

THIS should have been a year of centenary commemorations in Cork — the deaths of two Lord Mayors, various ambushes and atrocities, and the infamous Burning of the city, to name just a few events in that age of living dangerously.

Many of the commemorations have had to be postponed or curtailed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, it could well be that in the months ahead, we get to actually relive one aspect of that dark and troubled year a century ago.

On July 18, 1920, the day after the newly-appointed RIC Divisional Commissioner for Munster, Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth, had been shot dead by an IRA unit in his South Mall country club, an order was handed down that had a huge impact on daily Cork life.

Major General E. P. Strickland, the Officer Commanding the 6th Division in Victoria Barracks, issued a curfew order requiring the citizens of Cork to remain indoors between 10pm and 3am.

This attempt at curbing trouble on the streets during the hours of darkness did not go down well with an already rebellious population.

In protest, Cork Corporation extinguished the street lights during the hours of curfew, while a few days later, a week-long series of gun attacks in Blackpool began targeting curfew patrols, who were now sitting ducks on the otherwise deserted streets.

The curfew system was adopted in other parts of Munster and was still in place in Cork when the city was razed to the ground five months later.

It was a new military tactic. The first formal curfew had been introduced just two years earlier, by the British Board of Trade, which ordered shops and entertainment establishments to extinguish their lights by 10.30pm in order to save fuel during World War I.

Nowadays, they are usually used — as they were in Cork in 1920 — as a curb on civil liberties and freedom of movement, and are mainly associated now with despotic, faraway regimes which are fearful of their citizens, often with good reason.

However, I wonder if, in the ongoing battle to curb the spread of Covid-19, we will soon see curfews again imposed on the streets of Cork in 2020.

It is the latest weapon that governments across the world are considering, as cases of the virus begin to rise, especially among young people, and the fear of a second wave of deaths and over-full hospitals increases.

I can already hear the Covid-deniers screaming about how a curfew would impinge on their human right to spread this potentially deadly illness to vulnerable people, but it is already happening, and in lots of places.

In England, restaurants and bars in the northern town of Bolton, which currently has the highest Covid-19 rates in the UK, were this week ordered to shut by 10pm.

The UK’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock has made clear that his government is ready to step up the restrictions elsewhere if necessary.

In doing this, he is following the lead of Belgium, where a 10pm curfew was imposed in parts of the country when cases began to rise during the summer.

The country suffered appalling mortality rates in the first wave of the pandemic and was clearly anxious to keep the lid on any threat of a second wave.

Its curfew had the desired effect, as it appeared to curb the habits of young people who had been socialising more and spreading the virus among themselves, and cases began to fall.

Younger people are generally not at risk of dying from the virus, but this means that fewer older and vulnerable people will catch the virus down the line, as it is not so prevalent in society.

In late July, the Belgian city of Antwerp barred residents from going out in public and all businesses had to shut between the hours of 11.30pm and 6am.

By August 12, just a few weeks later, the spike in cases had been stalled to such an extent that Antwerp Governor Cathy Berx shortened the curfew to the hours of 1.30am and 5am. She said: “The viral curve in the province is slowing down faster than anywhere else in the country.”

The basic reproduction number (R-number) of the virus had also slid back, from almost two to below one, as a result of the curfew and other measures, added Berx.

By August 26, she was able to declare the curfew over, as the R rate was hovering around 0.83, and the city fell into step with the rest of Belgium in terms of general measures on social distancing, masks and hygiene etiquette.

As UK Heath Secretary Mr Hancock acknowledged: “Some countries have got that second wave under control. If you look at what’s happened in Belgium they saw an increase and then they’ve brought it down, whereas in France and Spain (which haven’t introduced a curfew) that just hasn’t happened.”

Curfews have been used with success further afield. A month ago in Australia, a crackdown on Covid-19 cases included a nightly 8pm-5am curfew for Melbourne residents. At the same time, bars, restaurants and cafes in several regions across Greece were ordered to shut between midnight and 7am. Israel is currently weighing up plans for a 7pm to 5am curfew, while some counties in U.S. states have also used the restriction to good effect.

At a time when governments are groping for answers on how to halt this worrying new virus, compelling evidence like this of ways to curb the rising number of cases is surely already being weighed up by Micheál Martin and his Cabinet.

Ironic, really, that just as we reopen the pubs after six months, a curfew may be brought in forcing them to close early.

But it’s surely better that they are open and trading, that people can enjoy a pint, and that another step can be taken in living with this virus, while having to abide by a temporary curfew order, than to see the number of deaths soar so high that all pubs have to close again.

As I wrote here recently, the curfew approach could also be done on a county by county basis, ensuring that for regions with low rates of cases, life goes on as normally as possible.

What was most impressive about the curfew in Antwerp wasn’t just the swift introduction of the measure, but the equal speed with which it was lifted once cases began to fall.

This, I feel, is key to keeping people onside during these difficult times when our civil liberties are under attack — not from governments, but from a potentially lethal virus.

Berx acknowledged that the curfew had been “draconian” and given rise to feelings of frustration, but praised citizens for complying with the edict.

Another female politician showing commendable deftness, flexibility, and competence in the fight against Covid.

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