| 8.9°C Dublin

Politics of the-least-we-can-get-away-with

Gene Kerrigan

The politicians who have created a dysfunctional society can't be trusted to 'reshape' it, writes Gene Kerrigan


Last week, Leo Varadkar promised to "reshape" society, when we rebuild the economy that's been kicked into semi-consciousness by Covid-19.

And I've no doubt he means it.

The problem with that promise is that the same man helped shape the dysfunctional society that was ill-prepared for the crisis.

And he leads one of the two parties that intend to govern us until hell freezes over (or until Our Great Leader runs out of interesting backgrounds against which to have his photo taken).

When Covid-19 appeared it was just another scare story. We'd had Sars, bird flu, H1N1/09, Mers and Zika, not to mention Ebola.

This was yet another virus in the far distance, just another illness that afflicts mostly poor people in poor countries, far away.

Like the others, it might for a while look as though it might head toward Europe - but, like the others, it would surely peter out or be defeated somewhere along the way. In our experience, deadly viruses were scary things in movies that gave us a vicarious thrill before some Hollywood star came out of their luxury trailer long enough to kick its ass.

Then, in March, after weeks in which we told ourselves this wouldn't be any different, Covid-19 hit us.

And for the past two months we've experienced a little of the fear, uncertainty and random death that's the norm for those right around the world who live precarious lives in communities devastated by poverty, illness or war.

Our Great Leader already speaks of Covid-19 as being "in retreat". All we've got to do, it appears, is carefully phase ourselves back to normality.

And I'd settle for that - just a little break in the tension.

And a form of normality might eventually be on offer, but if we know one thing about Covid-19 it's that we don't know half enough about it.

Already, there are signs of some kind of off-shoot that afflicts children, that has killed several in other places. The doctors can only tentatively describe it, they cannot yet explain it.

We've yet little knowledge of long-term effects on those who are infected and survive.

A second wave is being spoken of as a distant possibility, when history tells us it's very much more than that.

Test, track and trace isn't just a slogan - it's a real strategy to isolate every last speck of the damn thing and kill it. Last week, when they found six people newly infected in Wuhan, the Chinese set about testing 11 million people within 10 days.

Here, we're not quite not sure how many of us died, and in which hospital.

Yes, I know all about the authoritarianism - but there's no law that says you can't have a functional medical system without despotic bullies.

Following WHO advice, led by a committee of scientists and doctors, the politicians have so far managed to avoid major disasters. So far, most of the problems stem from the nature of the dysfunctional society we started with.

Politicians now talk loosely of a vaccine in a few months, doctors talk hopefully of a vaccine in a year or two, or three or four. Some scientists dare only raise their eyebrows and cross their fingers, knowing there might never be a vaccine.

Unless we can produce a vaccine or effective anti-viral medicines we might never again know the joy of sitting in a theatre, along with hundreds of others, watching a play. Or the kick of singing along with thousands of fellow fans at a concert or festival.

Pubs and nightclubs may change into something far less intimate and enjoyable. Supermarkets, where people can pick up goods, sneeze and put them back on the shelf, are great for corporate profits, as their size and scale kill off smaller competition. Not so good for our health.

We might yet return to those things we used to call "shops". You come in, ask for something, and a worker behind the counter brings it to you.

When we reshape society, the future of retail might well look a lot like Argos.

The FG/FF coalition - already running things, if not yet formally given its seals of office - will make lots of noises about "reshaping" things and about "change", in an effort to make voters forget that there were reasons both parties got a hiding at the last election.

The "reshaping" they want, and the reshaping we need, are very different things.

The fragility and unpreparedness of the public health system didn't just happen - it was shaped deliberately by the policies of FG/FF.

It was designed as a safety net for those who can't afford the private hospitals the politicians promote.

It was the politics of the-least-we-can-get-away-with.

When they don't provide sufficient beds for patients, we shouldn't be surprised that they don't provide sufficient protective equipment for our medics.

One of the things that will be remembered about this is that when the virus came the people were too scared - even those with signs of serious illness - to go near a health system they don't entirely trust.

The leaders of both parties - Varadkar and Martin - were previously health ministers. Martin was ambitious in policy but largely ineffectual in practice. Varadkar was ambitious, but only for the leadership of his party. As a minister, the job was just a stage on the way to bigger photo ops.

Each of them bemoaned the huge waiting lists and the A&E chaos, but their parties ensured both by steadily reducing the numbers of beds.

They applaud the nurses - a few months ago they forced them into a strike for better pay and conditions.

They cheer the "heroes" who keep the food chain going, but they always side with opponents of the trade unions that fight to get those workers a living wage.

The housing crisis was for FG/FF a sign of a healthy society - rising house prices, commercial opportunities for landlords and investors.

They were happy with cheaper meat from the slaughterhouses.

Inevitably, when the virus arrived, the meat factories became clusters of illness. Similarly, the direct provision centres, where migrants were packed into virus-ready dormitories.

In the bad old days, our migrants to the UK offered hard work for much-needed income to feed their families. They got better treatment from the British than we offer people who come to this country in the same spirit.

In reshaping our society, there are things we can't afford.

We cannot afford the swaggering loudmouths who dictate who builds what and where. We cannot afford the overpaid class of professionals for whom a proper education is a lottery win.

This country is now fifth in billionaires-per-capita. That's how the money flows - up. Across Europe, employees get an average of 61pc of the national income - here it's 55pc.

All of this is shaped by the political parties who've dominated the stage for a hundred years.

"We have," Mr Varadkar said last week, "the opportunity to reshape our society in ways that will benefit our citizens for generations to come".


And removing from office his party, and that of his comrade and fellow rotating-Taoiseach, would be a necessary start. Each is part of the problem, posing as a new version of the solution.

Meanwhile, with a view to the inevitable movie about Covid-19, no doubt there are casting directors already mooching around Dalkey, on the off-chance that Yer Man might sign up to play Tony Holohan.

Sunday Independent