My 15-year-old recently joined a drama group and was tasked with working with a small group of other teenagers to devise a short play.
Unprompted, they came up with the following premise: the whole world has experienced a major news event, but nobody can remember what it was. This is now universally referred to as the “Big Blank” — a black hole of trauma in people’s memories. The characters in the play are desperately trying to recover this memory.
A global news event. A major societal trauma. A memory suppressed.
“It’s clearly about Covid,” I said.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” he said.
So I decided to see what a professional made of it.
The science is never static: we keep learning more
Psychiatrist Brendan Kelly wrote a book, Coping with Coronavirus, early in the pandemic, and became one of my touchstones for insights into how we, as a people, were coping.
“Most of us don’t have two years’ worth of memories for the two-year period of the pandemic,” he observed.
“Partly because less happened on a day-to-day basis and partly because of how we process memories following trauma.”
In the aftermath of a serious trauma, the brain has to deal with a large amount of emotionally charged information, so it processes it in “bursts and starts”, he said.
“The load is too great for the brain to process at any one time, so parts of the memories are processed, parts are repressed for processing later, and parts are reactivated by triggers over time.”
He was not saying that Ireland has been left with a collective post-traumatic stress disorder, he stressed.
But the teenagers’ play reminded him that the processing of trauma takes time — that “there are blanks now which might be filled later, and that memories are often re-awakened as emotions, sometimes unexpectedly”.
We did suffer a societal trauma. Everybody will have their own way of processing that: a sci-fi play (or even a zombie-apocalypse TV series like The Last of Us) is as good as any. But crucial to the collective processing of that trauma will be an official inquiry.
Last week I looked at some of the areas where mistakes were arguably made in Ireland’s pandemic response: the sidelining of democratic processes; the stringency of lockdowns; the mask mandates; the extended closure of schools.
Debate on these was marginal at the time — those who objected risked dismissal as cranks or conspiracists. Some of them were conspiracists, but arguments should be judged on their merit, not on who supports them.
‘If you need to be right before you move, you will never move’
I cited a recent article in The New York Times, based on a major review of the scientific literature on masks, which proclaimed definitively: ‘The mask mandates did nothing. Will any lessons be learned?’
In the meantime, the publishers of the review issued a statement saying their study had been “widely misinterpreted” and that its findings were inconclusive.
This highlights a risk for an inquiry — or any attempt to review the success of the pandemic response, such as this column. The science is never static: we keep learning more.
If you want to come to a definitive verdict on what interventions worked, or didn’t, you will be a long time inquiring. In any case, you risk missing the point: mistakes were not merely an inevitable part of an appropriate response, but perhaps a necessary one.
As the former head of the HSE, Tony O’Brien, wrote in the Business Post last week: “We knew going into the pandemic that 20 to 30pc of the decisions made would turn out to be based on reasonable but incorrect judgments.”
Or as the World Health Organisation’s Mike Ryan said at one of the first of their daily press briefings, three years ago: “If you need to be right before you move, you will never move. The problem in society we have at the moment is everyone is afraid of making a mistake. But the greatest error is to be paralysed by the fear of failure.”
So the point of an inquiry should not be to isolate those mistakes and hold individuals accountable.
‘If you have to choose between guidelines and kindness, you should go with kindness’
The system as a whole — politics, public service and media — vested almost unquestioning faith in an approach to the pandemic that was driven by a peculiarly narrow focus on aspects of public health, crudely measured in deaths and case numbers.
In a recent article, Martin Cormican, now professor of bacteriology at the University of Galway and formerly a member of the Covid-19 National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), called this a “dictatorship of the scientariat”. This was the fundamental mistake and for this the system should be held accountable.
The effect was to exclude or overwhelm other values: individual liberty; democratic accountability; education; socialisation; quality of life; dignity in death.
In the absence of this sifting and balancing of values — which is one of the primary roles of politics — policy decisions that were essentially pragmatic judgment calls based on scientific guesswork became imbued with moral value.
Having a pint with a packet of Pringles was unsafe, and therefore wrong, but having it with a €9 plate of chicken goujons was safe. Standing at a bar was unsafe, unless you were in a nightclub, where it was safe.
More egregious were the situations seen elsewhere. In Spain, it was safe to walk your dog, but not your children, and it was illegal to be outdoors without a mask — even if alone, in the mountains.
These were bad laws, though they were the result of reasonable attempts to find practical compromises between public health and civic life.
But because of the primacy placed in public discourse on the supposed sanctity of “the science”, co-opted by politicians in communicating policy, laws that were objectively nonsense acquired not just legal effect but quasi-religious fervour.
The effect of this was deeply disorienting, akin to a kind of societal gaslighting. It required what George Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, called “an unending series of victories over your own memory”.
This was literally the case if you went from a bar to a nightclub. The effect of wrestling with the public health guidelines on the moral plane on which they were often articulated was that one’s mind “slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink”.
Thus the pandemic did real damage to the integrity of our constitutional order; because the vast majority of people and institutions so readily went along with this abandoning of some of that order’s most fundamental precepts, and because a minority who didn’t have been alienated, perhaps permanently, by it.
In the face of the fear, and all the consequent rules, one elementary value was too easily forgotten. As Cormican used to advise his colleagues: “If you have to choose between what you think the guideline says and kindness, you should nearly always go with kindness.”
A proxy for kindness is empathy. For an inquiry to be a part of repairing this damage, it too will need to be shaped by empathy. Our opportunistically adversarial Oireachtas committee system is not fit for this purpose.
But should the right format be found — one that manages to infuse contentious discussion with empathy — the inquiry could have a legacy beyond its remit: it could help revive the values of empathy and kindness in our politics more broadly.
However we process the experience of the pandemic — from youth drama to opinion columns to scientific reviews to official inquiries — we need to do so, not merely for the purpose of coming to terms with any trauma, but also so as to learn from it, to fill in the blanks. Because it will happen again.
How soon? Juan Cambeiro, a biosecurity fellow at the Institute for Progress who is also a so-called “superforecaster”, calculates there is roughly a one-in-five chance of a new pandemic that kills more than 20 million people arising within the next 10 years.
Many might prefer to move on, and leave the blanks unfilled — but we need to make sure we remember.