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Balancing difficult decisions

March 15th, 2020 5:05 PM

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SINCE the coronavirus reached our shores and the cases have started to multiply exponentially, Ireland’s caretaker government is being forced to take some difficult decisions. Chief among these initially was whether or not the St Patrick’s Day parades in Dublin, Cork and other big centres should go ahead next Tuesday.

Acting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s reluctance to make an early call gave the impression that he was being put under pressure by business interests in Dublin to let the big parade go ahead if at all possible. There was a lot riding on it, financially, for the hospitality sector in particular, however public health needed to be the over-riding factor in making the final decision.

The risk to public health with tens of thousands of overseas visitors mixing in close proximity with locals at the big parades would have been greatly magnified and exacerbated later in the pubs when many people would lose their inhibitions and attention to infection control measures.

While prevaricating, the Taoiseach cleverly hid behind the National Public Health Emergency Team, who probably would have been willing to let the big parades go ahead while we were still in the initial containment phase. As Chief Medical Officer in the Department of Health, Dr Tony Holohan, said: ‘This virus knows no borders, or race. It is essential that any decisions regarding responses to COVID-19 are proportionate, necessary and based on specific public health advice. No other response is appropriate.’

However, once the first case in Cork University Hospital was diagnosed and it was found that the Covid-19 virus had been contracted by a man in his 40s somewhere in the community, the goalposts changed radically, increasing the risk of infection at large public gatherings. To the credit of the people of East Cork, in the absence of decisive political leadership, they led the way in civic responsibility by announcing the cancellation of their parades in Youghal, Midleton and Cobh.

Others followed – including Bandon first in West Cork – and, while it’s disappointing that these parades are not going ahead this year, the important thing is that their cancellation is forming part of the frontline action to try to keep the coronavirus at bay. Whilst acknowledging that there is a delicate balance to be struck between the disruption of people’s lives and controlling the spread of the virus, people – quite rightly – feel that public health concerns outweigh any economic losses caused by the cancellations.

There was anecdotal evidence that, if the big parades were going ahead, a lot of families would have been reluctant to attend them anyway and risk becoming infected with the coronavirus. Initially, it seemed people here were not taking the threat it posed seriously enough, but as the spread of the virus gathers pace, the situation is beginning to concentrate minds more.

Outside of parade cancellations, there are a lot bigger decisions to be taken yet, such as more widespread closures of schools and perhaps businesses too. Even without compulsory closures, some sectors are already feeling the pain, especially the hospitality and entertainment sectors.

The Restaurants Association of Ireland reported a massive 80% fall-off in business in Dublin in particular last week, driven primarily by cancellations of corporate bookings. This is clearly unsustainable and any lengthy continuation of this situation will inevitably lead to job losses and perhaps even closures in a sector that was struggling in places even before the Covid-19 virus came on the scene.

Other businesses could be badly disrupted too, especially where it is not possible for employees to work remotely. People on zero-hour or short term contracts could find themselves out of work through no fault of their own with smaller employers unable to pay them, especially if they are forced to self-isolate, meaning that it will probably fall back on the Irish taxpayer.

In the entertainment sector, cinemas and theatres will suffer because of audience members being in such close proximity to one another as people become more reluctant to take the  risk of contracting the virus. Sporting events could also be affected as we have already seen the sensible postponement of the Ireland versus Italy Six Nations rugby match, even though a few Italian fans selfishly came to Dublin anyway last weekend, increasing the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Cancellation of sporting events at local level could be on the cards if the situation gets worse. In the affected provinces of Italy, this ban even includes gyms, health centres and spas, so such an action here would be a real spoilsport in the literal sense.

Our incidence of Covid-19 is nowhere near as bad as the Italian scenario, but we cannot be complacent and taking individual responsibility as regards hand hygiene seriously and obeying other recommendations of the health authorities will go a long way towards mitigating the effects of the virus, which will inevitably spread, but hopefully not with as dire consequences that other places have suffered.

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