MANAGING the virus is one thing. Managing the public mood is another. Maintaining morale is just as important as containing Covid. On no account – none – should the mood of the country be trivialised as an indulgence.
Loneliness, whether subjective or objective, kills. It is as significant a risk factor in mortality as other issues such as obesity, if not greater. Happiness and human connection should not become stigmatised as the aspirations of the selfish or reckless. Telling us to avoid other people is a health crisis in itself.
Nphet keeps telling us the waves are preventable. Perhaps it’s more realistic to accept waves are inevitable. If so, how do we deal with that in a sustainable way?
Admiral James Stockdale was an American pilot who was a prisoner of war for nearly eight years in Vietnam. The account of his treatment is grim – regular torture and solitary confinement in a tiny cell while held in leg irons.
He said afterwards that optimists died quickest in the prison. It’s called the Stockdale Paradox. They kept thinking they’d be going home by Christmas or Easter and died of broken hearts. He said: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
He’s not saying abandon hope, but that we must confront reality. If Covid is not a short-term crisis but a new normal, fine, let’s plan for that.
But the people who need to accept this most are in government. The understandable strategy was to put all our eggs in the vaccination basket. Vaccination has done a brilliant job in keeping thousands of people out of hospital, but we’ve known since July from Israel that we would need third shots. Why all the shock now that there are breakthrough infections?
The failure to understand this meant other tools were considered either temporary or unnecessary. We have to give up on that now.
So what should the Government do?
It should take the psychological management of Covid more seriously and put infrastructure and systems in place to cope with predictable waves. Why go into shock when restrictions are loosened, or winter arrives, and – surprise, surprise – infections increase?
So, first, stop putting all the burden on the community.
Social compliance with restrictions went wildly beyond what I would have expected and we rocked up for vaccinations in record numbers. But socialising is a basic human need. Once we did our bit with our extraordinary vaccination take-up, social restrictions can’t be Plan A.
Second, the daily release of case numbers has to end. It’s easy to blame the media for all-ills, but confront that reality too.
Yes, the media is a monster relying on a business model of perpetual click-bait hysteria, so stop feeding the monster.
A weekly update is sufficient and would give a clearer picture of trends as it irons out the weekend dips, midweek catch-ups and backlog clearance.
Then the Nphet briefings should stop. The HSE briefings are useful as they stick to operational issues such as vaccination rates, hospital status and details on outbreaks.
Nphet briefings are largely focused on public health policy operating in parallel with and sometimes in conflict with cabinet statements.
Fine, the journalists pick away at small discrepancies to make a headline, but that’s just another reason to cut them off.
Let’s be clear. We have an elected government that decides on policy. Fundamentally, we have to respect the democratic hierarchy of accountability.
Any communications adviser will tell you that crisis communications demands a single voice.
That voice should be the Taoiseach, not the chief medical officer running around every radio station doing doomsday interviews.
Tony Holohan did a brilliant job providing a trusted source of advice during the worst days of the crisis.
The faith people had in him was crucial to social coherence and compliance last year. But as we transition out of temporary crisis to new normal, it’s poor governance to have him still out there acting as the de facto leader of the country.
Indeed, from a political perspective, it would help the Taoiseach if he was seen to be leading the country rather than being constantly in the shadow of the good doctor.
No other part of the public service operates by going over the head of the Cabinet and straight to the public.
If the Cabinet ignores Holohan’s advice to our detriment, the public can deal with it at election time. That’s how it works.
But that’s only the communications part. We need substance too.
The Cabinet should stop providing cover for the obstructionism from the chief medical officer on antigen testing.
To ignore the usefulness of antigens, however marginal, is pure obstructionism at this stage.
But finally, we have to be very clear that what’s happening now is a hospital capacity crisis only.
The public fulfilled its part of the social contract by queuing up for vaccinations. I’ll happily encourage the hold-outs to think of their fellow citizens.
But it is unacceptable to crush the whole country for the want of ICU beds. We do this every year with flu and the failure to invest is no longer justifiable.
If we keep up the vaccinations, annual if necessary, and get the beds, then we can cope.
That’s our reality, and it’s not a bad one at all.
If the people get their shots and the Government gets the beds, we can prevail.