With Covid case numbers as they are, it seems further restrictions are highly likely.
We haven’t managed to develop any other real strategy for dealing with Covid here. We capped our test and trace system at a level that couldn’t contain the spread of the disease. We chronically under-resourced and failed to restructure our health service. The majority of us weren’t convinced to use the contact tracing app – although even if we had, our contact tracers wouldn’t have been able to keep up. And we’ve rejected repeatedly the idea that Covid guidelines should be laws or that fines should be issued to individuals for breaking them.
We managed to resist enforcing low-level restrictions to the point where high-level restrictions now seem inevitable.
An increased health spend, a few fines and a compulsory app on our phones seems like a small price to pay for keeping our lives intact, but that’s not the path we chose.
If we’re going with a strategy of long-term lockdowns – until either a vaccine is found or society as we know it collapses – we need to look more carefully at how those lockdowns are designed.
Level 4 and Level 5 restrictions are actually very similar. The only differences between them being: elite sport continues at Level 4, while all sport is gone at Level 5 – which I’m sure if you’re a GAA or a League of Ireland soccer fan will be a significant blow; and Level 5 also bans all outdoor dining and drinking and has the 5km limit on travel beyond your home, so in effect it is full lockdown with no ability to go anywhere or see almost anyone beyond your household.
But these restrictions are blunt instruments. There need to be exceptions to every rule, and three issues stand out for me.
No household visits, bar on compassionate or caring grounds. This is an attempt to stop casual socialising and the ‘house-party’ phenomenon. It’s true that gatherings in our homes in groups without social distancing, irrespective of whether that’s a holy communion or a 21st birthday, were spreading the virus – but what if you live alone? Four hundred thousand Irish people live on their own. And they aren’t all elderly with carers coming and going – many are in their thirties, forties and fifties. In fact 1.5 million people over the age of 15 are single. All of their previous social engagement was based on meeting people they didn’t live with. Are they to now see no one?
The impact of social isolation on someone who lives alone and isn’t allowed to visit family or friends, or be visited by them, can’t be overstated. Especially when we don’t know when this will all end. In other countries people who live alone are allowed to attach themselves to another household’s bubble so they can see one other group of people. To not allow this here is unnecessarily cruel and very damaging for people’s mental health.
No indoor gatherings, bar six people at a wedding or 25 at a funeral. I’m not sure who decided that weddings were less important in our lives than funerals. Personally I’ve buried both my parents, but being kept from my daughter’s wedding because it was in the next county would be just as distressing as missing my parents’ interments. We need to move away from the idea that weddings are somehow frivolous parties. They aren’t. Someone in your immediate family getting married is a hugely emotional, important event that you may have waited a lifetime to see.
Weddings should be allowed to have the same number of people as funerals. These are milestones in the lives of our families that no one should be forced to miss.
No public religious worship. We’ve become almost communist in our treatment of those who attend churches here, many of whom are elderly, vulnerable and deeply committed to their faith. Church services have remained open in almost all other countries throughout this pandemic and – let’s be honest – churchgoers are hardly an unruly bunch, opposed to social distancing.
As an atheist I can still respect the beliefs of other people and the solace they get from attending church. It’s something I suspect they need now more than ever. I can’t fathom that we think elite sport is more valuable to us than religion. And I suspect it’s more a reflection of what’s popular than what’s important.
Lastly, the list of essential retail needs to be looked at too. Suggesting we can go all winter without a DIY shop or a haircut isn’t true. Not everything can be done online. Lockdown isn’t a simple ‘health versus wealth’ debate. There are lots of people who’ll get left behind in this by social isolation, emotional loss and deteriorating mental health. And that’s apart from the other non-Covid-related health issues we’re missing. One undertaker told me recently he’d had eight Covid funerals – one under the age of 50, since March. He’d had four suicides under the age of 50 since August.
We live in fear-filled times despite the fact that total annual deaths here this year are the lowest they’ve been in five years. Yes, we’ve had almost 10,000 Covid cases in the first two weeks of October, but only 276 people or 2.8pc were hospitalised in that time. Twenty-one cases were admitted to ICU. It’s true that deaths and ICU admissions tend to lag three weeks behind case numbers but, even so, the current mortality rate of 0.14 pc remains a fraction of what it was in the first wave.
If we’re going to use repeated lockdowns as our Covid strategy despite the WHO saying we shouldn’t, we should at least make them sustainable rather than just punitive. To do otherwise will mean we are simply trading lives – saving one set of people at the expense of another.