Imagine a dozen fishermen and a captain on a fishing boat out at sea. It’s stormy and choppy, and the boat is already in bad condition because the captain hasn’t repaired it for years. Suddenly, it gets hit by a massive wave and, as expected, starts sinking.
What does the captain say? He shouts to the crew, “Don’t worry guys, I’m giving you all a €10 pay rise!”
In such a situation, what’s needed is not some quick-fix bonus, but a thorough refurbishment of the boat.
Which takes us to pandemic bonuses. The situation is somewhat comical because politicians, who failed to suppress the pandemic for a year-and-a-half, are now pondering who suffered the most, and therefore, should be rewarded.
Perhaps the hope is that €500, or vouchers, or a few days off will make those who have borne the brunt forgive the political class. Or perhaps the goal is to organise once again a national game of “who is most worthy” between the nurses, doctors, gardaí, teachers, retail workers and civil servants, rather than seriously evaluating the national response to the pandemic.
In any case, we are faced with a form of parish pump politics, something rather familiar in this country. The problem is everybody is going to start pleading that they deserve a few crumbs.
The unions seem happy to participate in a system of personal connections. Once the bonus idea was floated, union leaders fell into line to beg a few gifts for their members.
The teachers pushed back on their unions’ moves because they got embarrassed to be put in the same category as health workers, who really had to put their bodies on the line and face risk every day, and still do.
Meanwhile, real reforms and investments are not happening.
Sláintecare was a good starting point for fixing the healthcare system, but several key figures have resigned, frustrated by the slow pace of the process and bureaucratic obstacles, questioning the determination to achieve real change. And so, hospital waiting lists, and waiting times for a whole lot of services actually, are getting longer.
The fundamental problem that the bonus circus reveals is a democratic deficit. Our political system is not responsive to the will of the majority; rather, it’s based on personal favours and distributing goodies here and there. In a truly democratic polity, the political system would consider that a majority wants a good healthcare system and proper housing and would take the obvious means to address those challenges: more public investment and closing tax loopholes that benefit the rich and the corporate sector, for starters.
On their side, unions should try to have a broader societal vision rather than focusing narrowly on the immediate benefits of their members only. One incredible fact is that many unions have never formulated a strategy to suppress the pandemic.
They have been reactive, waiting for “the public health advice” even if it turned out to be so wrong so many times, and repeating “my members want more gloves and masks” and the like. Fine, we need PPE during a pandemic, but we need more strategic thinking at the national level to beat Covid.
The take-home message is this. Big problems like those we face in housing and healthcare require system change, not a patchwork of personal favours here and there. Otherwise, our boat will sink to the bottom of the ocean, where it’s really cold and dark and full of weird animals.
Julien Mercille is associate professor in the School of Geography at
University College Dublin