Opinion: We’ve played a blinder on Covid... let’s at least all agree on that

In his weekly column, John Dolan reflects on the past nine months, since Leo Varadkar made his famous speech on Covid
Opinion: We’ve played a blinder on Covid... let’s at least all agree on that

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Blair House, Washington DC, discussing the coronavirus crisis during a press conference. Picture: PA Niall Carson/PA Wire

HERE’S a fun trivia question to ask someone in a decade or two, when 2020 is but a distant dream (more like a nightmare, says you!)

What was the most watched TV programme of 2020?

The Late Late Toy Show, your quarry will swiftly shoot back. Peak era Ryan Tubridy, adored by the masses, has to be that?

Yes, you may reply, a record one and a half million people — many of them even children — did indeed tune into the Toy Show that year... but you’re wrong.

The most watched TV programme of 2020 was on St Patrick’s Day, when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar delivered a live address on RTÉ about a new coronavirus to 1.6 million worried citizens.

A lot can happen in nine months: Just ask any new parent. Even so, the nine months that have elapsed since Leo’s famous March 17 speech has felt like a lifetime to many of us.

Our lives, and the lives of our loved ones, have been turned upside down.

Since March, we as a nation have had to put our shoulder to the wheel, make huge sacrifices, and grind out our defiance of this virus, individually and collectively.

It’s been nine months when we just had to take each day as it came, try not to look too far ahead, try not to dwell on what we were missing. For many, Christmas will be like that too.

It’s been tough, and this is certainly not a time for self-congratulation and back-slapping, with cases again nudging up and more restrictions now almost inevitable.

Few of us will be in the mood for a party in the coming weeks, but there is a damn good reason for us all to be grateful to be living on this rock in the Atlantic.

I want to go back to something Leo said on March 17: “In years to come, let them say of us, when things were at their worst, we were at our best.”

I remember it struck a chord at the time, when lockdowns, social distancing and working from home had some novelty value, but in the long and difficult months since, the message has been forgotten.

And that’s a shame, because Ireland, individually and collectively, it has to be said, has played an absolute blinder on Covid-19.

People have sadly died, yes, that was unavoidable, and the way the virus entered the nursing homes containing our must vulnerable people in the spring was a national tragedy.

The measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 have also caused great grief, with people’s livelihoods lost or in the balance, while the impact on other health services is a tragedy that still has to be played out in the years ahead.

Former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, visiting the National Virus Reference Laboratory, University College Dublin, earlier this year. Picture: Aidan Crawley/PA Wire
Former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, visiting the National Virus Reference Laboratory, University College Dublin, earlier this year. Picture: Aidan Crawley/PA Wire

Yes, as I said, few of us are in the mood to slap ourselves on the back and play the Green Card. But that doesn’t mean what I’m about to say is wrong: Ireland’s response to the pandemic has been one of the best anywhere in the world.

We don’t say this enough, because some believe it will breed complacency; but I think we can be trusted to celebrate nine months when we “were at our best”, to quote Leo, without losing the run of ourselves.

Let’s analyse the figures.

A few days ago, a remarkable chart showed that, in terms of positive cases of Covid-19, and deaths, Ireland was rock bottom in a table of 26 European countries.

Think about that: When Ireland is No.1 in any league table, we usually crack open the Champers and sing our praises. OK, it’s not a time for bubbly, but at least let’s recognise that our hard work has saved many lives.

By any rational measure, our country has out-performed all our near neighbours, throughout the two waves of the virus.

The UK, rightly, has often been criticised for its Government’s Covid response, but France, Italy and Spain also have horrific death tolls and many more cases per head than Ireland.

The argument that we’re an island and should record lower numbers, like some type of European New Zealand, simply will not fly, when you consider the massive toll of cases and deaths in the North in recent months.

For a while, the North was among the worst performing countries in the world, and its death rate in the second wave was six times higher than ours; every single death an awful tragedy.

Lest we forget, too, the prevalence of Covid there spilled over into the border counties of the Republic, otherwise our already low numbers would be even lower.

This isn’t to play a blame game. Clearly, there are some unknown factors in the spread of Covid-19, but I think it’s safe to say that the Republic has, overall, played a brilliant team game on Covid thus far.

The public health team and Government have acted swiftly and decisively to keep the lid on cases. AND, the vast majority of people have complied with these tough restrictions to the letter.

Plus, we clearly kept up the basics. Washing our hands, social distancing, avoiding contagious scenarios. Not visiting friends and families. Depriving ourselves. Being, to use that phrase again, “at our best”. Every country delivered similar advice, but very, very few succeeded in largely keeping the virus at bay.

It’s also important to bear in mind that many countries that seemed to cope well with the first wave — Germany and Sweden for instance — have suffered terribly in the second wave. Again, the Republic has bucked the trend here.

It’s easy for us to point to our low numbers of cases, and hospital and ICU admissions and blithely declare the restrictions on us have been an over-reaction.

Not so. Looser restrictions, or a less compatible public, would have led to the horrific death tolls seen elsewhere — surely that much is obvious to everyone?

Of course, I’m writing from a nationwide perspective, but it’s worth pointing out that, considering we have a densely populated city and airport, Cork has done remarkably well in keeping Covid numbers down. One commentator even suggested we have the best performing city in Europe in keeping the virus at bay.

In recent days, many of our neighbours such as Germany and the UK have had to rein in extra freedoms for Christmas in a desperate attempt to quell the spread of the virus.

It’s now possible that we in the Republic will have the most freedom this Christmas of anywhere in the EU, a fact we should be thankful for — and a responsibility we must not abuse.

I repeat, Ireland’s response has not been perfect; the track and trace system could have been better for instance. But it has been among the best, and we, the public, have risen to the challenge.

We have a way to go, with probable stricter lockdowns in the New Year, before the vaccines finally end this awful blight.

But, as we approach Holy Week and prepare to see in a new year with optimism, it’s safe to say that when things were at their worst… we were at our best.

Merry Christmas to you all.

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