At the end of February last year, the first case of Covid was confirmed in Ireland. Within weeks, it was announced that schools, colleges and childcare facilities would close to slow the spread of the virus and such measures would remain in place until March 2nd.
Little did we know what was in store for us: that out of 215,000 people who have contracted the virus thus far, over 4,000 people would tragically die, let alone the effects that it has had on our economy, employment, and the education of our children and young adults.
For example, in May of 2020, Ireland’s unemployment rate was 26%. Who would have thought that by January of 2021 it would still be a staggering 25%?
Quite possibly, the full societal effects of the pandemic will be with us for years and will for ever change how we work, travel and live our lives. We have seen dramatic changes before and how long they can last. Over the last 20 years, a generation of people have grown up not knowing what traveling through airports was like before 9/11. In many ways the pandemic is a 9/11 for every aspect of our lives.
But there is hope. With the vaccination programme underway, people have started getting called for their vaccinations in Clonakilty, Bantry and other locations in West Cork. By all accounts, the speed that vaccinations have been developed and their subsequent rollout is unprecedented.
What is also unprecedented is our newfound relationship with the HSE. Before Covid, the HSE was on the nightly news, not as a place where frontline workers risked their lives saving others, but as an underfunded organisation run by middle managers.
Furthermore, over the last year we’ve become used to the evening HSE press conference where Covid data is delivered and discussed. Yet before Covid, the main HSE data we’d hear about was the amount of people who had spent the previous 24 hours on trolleys.
It’s fair to say that, despite anecdotal evidence of the great experiences while under the care of the HSE, the organisation is not one that inspires national pride, in a way that the UK’s NHS does for their citizens.
Instead, our two-tier system has been a historical source of frustration and unfairness. Yet, in another unprecedented twist, the notion of private and public healthcare has been temporally suspended, as the state took over private hospitals to ensure that people suffering from Covid were cared for.
Undoubtedly, we can all take pride in what the HSE has achieved. The bravery and sacrifice of HSE frontline workers will be remembered for decades to come, and as those who want a vaccination receive one, a unique bond will be created between the vast majority of us and the HSE.
Simply put, over a period of 18 – 20 months, the HSE will have saved the lives of thousands of people while vaccinating millions. It really is unprecedented.
And while doctors and nurses have always been respected, HSE middle management and non-medical staff have often been considered an unnecessary drain on resources. Yet the pandemic has created a household name out of Paul Reid, the head of the HSE, a person without a medical background and only in post since May 2019. With his unpretentious manner, he has become a reassuring figure throughout this pandemic.
So too has the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Tony Holohan. In the history of the state, how many CMOs have played such a prominent part in our lives?
As data comes in from other countries, Ireland’s Covid death rate of 83 people per 100,000 is lower than other European countries such as the UK, Italy, France, Netherlands and Switzerland. We have fared better, despite the perception that they have better healthcare services.
That the HSE and its management will lead us through the pandemic will become a source of national pride. Already, the respect and appreciation that the public now have for the HSE is extraordinary.
This appreciation is a double-edged sword. If the HSE can respond well in a way that is internationally benchmarked during a pandemic, what happens when life returns to normal?
It would be a great shame if this and future governments squanders the goodwill that the pandemic has created towards the HSE. If there was ever a time to fundamentally change the Irish healthcare system, to get rid of its two-tier nature, and to make it fair and equitable for all, now is that time.
We have seen what the HSE is really capable of. In the future, let’s hope that we won’t return to hearing about nightly trolley totals but of long-lasting reforms and fundamental changes to the HSE and healthcare in Ireland