COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on the Irish economy. The nature of the statistics we are currently being exposed to, relating to the period from mid-March onwards, is truly extraordinary.
I never believed I would be commenting on a monthly decline of 36pc in retail sales or an unemployment rate jumping from 4.8pc to 28.2pc over a two-month period, but such is the reality of life at the moment.
On the upside, such statistics are reflecting a virtual shutdown of large swathes of the economy, and as it is gradually re-opened, many economic statistics will rebound quite quickly.
On the downside however, my fear is that the crisis will leave a permanent legacy in the form of lost businesses and irretrievable damage to villages, towns and communities around the country.
Justifiably, much attention has been focused on pubs, restaurants and smaller retailers, many of whom will struggle to survive without considerable support.
However, some recent business statistics suggest to me that our already-pressurised post office network is also under very significant threat.
The statistics show that since the crisis commenced, the volume of business has fallen significantly.
In April, overall business volumes were 23.8pc lower than a year earlier, with social welfare volumes down 41pc due to the movement to double payments since the crisis commenced. BillPay has fallen 28pc, NTMA business is down 29pc, but mail business is only up by 2.7pc.
A larger increase might have been expected on the mail side of the business, but I guess WhatsApp, Zoom and such technologies are being used to deal with cocooning and social distancing.
These are pretty dramatic declines in business volumes and revenues for a network that was already under considerable pressure.
It is now generally accepted and feared that more than 400 of the 952 post offices in the network at the moment could become commercially unsustainable over the next year.
"So what?" some might argue. I tend to disagree.
Post office closures of this magnitude would, in my view, have a detrimental impact on many villages, towns and communities around the country. The impact can be categorised in both economic and social terms.
From an economic perspective, post offices provide a wide range of services; they help maintain footfall and retail activity on the streets of towns and villages; and they help support local employment.
From a social perspective, post offices help support social interaction in rural towns and villages; they create social capital; and they help create and maintain a sense of community.
Not all businesses can be or should be online. Face-to-face interaction is very important from a social perspective, with older customers in particular often visiting the post office and having social interaction with the staff.
The post office plays an integral role in building economic and social capital in communities and it is only when they are closed does the real social and economic contribution become apparent.
As a user of the post office, I have observed the varied level of services that post offices provide to the local population. It is clear to me that it is a valuable part of the fabric of the community.
Villages and towns who have seen their post offices close in recent years have witnessed a significant diminution of local economic activity as cash paid out in welfare payments circulates less, and the important concept of "community" is damaged.
The closure of so many post offices would go against the Government's stated aim of sustaining and promoting rural economic growth and development.
Ireland would be a sadder place without the post office network. It is essential that as many as possible are enabled to survive.
Ways to support the network need to be explored. Offering them new services is important, but it appears to me that they should be supported by a proper PSO (Public Service Obligation) mechanism.
During the Covid-19 crisis, post offices have provided a very valuable and essential service to the public, not least through the facilitation of the online purchasing that has been an integral part of the Covid-19 lockdown.
As lockdown restrictions lift, it is critical that post offices are encouraged to get back to their essential business such as weekly welfare payments, bill pay services and being a community hub.
The programme for government expresses the view that "An Post can emerge as a central hub for a wide variety of valuable community-based services". I agree with this sentiment, but it is clear the next government is going to have to look seriously at delivering a PSO for post offices, as not doing would come at a far higher economic and social cost.
For the sake of local economies and the social fabric in communities around the country, I believe that it is imperative to do whatever is necessary to save as many post offices as possible.
Jim Power is an independent economist