There are basically two competing approaches to thinking about the Coronavirus: The first is popular with many policymakers and media observers, and it is to basically accept that the virus is now out of control globally, that most of us will probably get it and survive, and that it’s just a fact of life that we have to adapt to.
This approach has a reasonable amount of merit. None of the evidence to date suggests that COVID-19 is anything like an extinction level event. Around the world, many more people are recovering from it than are dying from it. While there have been some alarms about the possibility of re-infections happening, the balance of probabilities would seem to suggest that if you get it once, you probably won’t get it again. In this line of thinking, COVID-19 is nothing more serious than a bad dose of the flu.
Of course, that’s no comfort to the many people who are, in fact, at genuine risk of dying. And while the global death rate remains around 3% of those who are infected, one particular statistic in Italy is very concerning: 276 people out of the 2,706 recorded cases have recovered from their illness, but 107 have died. In other words, in people in whom the disease has run its course, the death rate is nearly one third.
Of course, there are probably statistical reasons for that – authorities may be being cautious, for example, in declaring a patient recovered, and those who have died (the youngest was 55 years of age) may have been people who were quite ill and frail already. But this brings us to the second approach, the one being taken (in name, at least) by the Irish Government.
Ireland has a Government that is trying, it says, to contain the coronavirus – to prevent it from spreading. In this cause, we have closed schools, cancelled sporting events, and to listen to the radio, you would think we have made it mandatory for every broadcaster to mention hand-washing six times an hour.
And yet, all nine cases in the thirty-two counties on the Island have originated in Northern Italy.
So why aren’t we simply banning travel to and from northern Italy?
There are, to be fair, a couple of arguments against it, and let’s mention these first. The obvious one is that if you banned flights from Milan in the morning, you would probably strand hundreds of Irish people who have the misfortune, for whatever reason, to be stuck there. How do those people get home?
Second, there is the question of whether the Government actually could, legally, ban travel from Northern Italy (or indeed all of Italy) if it wanted to. Freedom of movement is, after all, the law of the European Union. It’s probable that it would be possible, but it’s not a certainty and there could be legal challenges.
Third is the precedent it would set, and the limited impact it would potentially have. What happens if you ban flights from Italy tomorrow, but then on Friday someone displays symptoms after arriving back from the UK, where there are now over 100 cases? Indeed, someone from Milan who wants to come to Ireland could circumvent any such ban easily by just flying to Heathrow and hopping on an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin. If you ban flights from Italy, you’re probably quickly going to look silly for not banning them from London, and doing the latter would cause immeasurable economic harm.
So that’s the case against it. But still, it doesn’t really stand up.
The Government banned the Rugby game, if you recall, because of the risk of a large number of people from an infected area arriving into the country – that was the standard it set for itself. While it is possible that such a ban on flights could be circumvented, it also stands to reason that if you want to reduce the chances of the disease spreading here, you reduce the numbers of people coming from infected areas.
It’s just common sense.
Irish people stuck in Italy could still be evacuated, if necessary, via the London route I mentioned, or via almost any other European airport.
It’s also true, incidentally, that other countries are considering doing exactly this. As you read this, there is a huge question mark over whether the opening four races of the 2020 formula one season can go ahead because Australia, Vietnam, and Bahrain are all considering restrictions on travel from Italy that could prevent Ferrari from attending (the team is based in Maranello, in Northern Italy, and has closed its factory because of the risk).
At this point, then, Irish policy doesn’t really make any sense. On the one hand, we’re cancelling some events and closing schools where people have been infected. On the other hand, Simon Harris is proceding with a plan to bring 1000 people here for an alcohol policy conference, including from infected countries, and the gates to Milan are wide open for all sorts of sick people to wander through, right into the hotels and taxis and busses and trains of Dublin.
If the country is trying to keep COVID-19 out, then the policy is almost perfectly designed to fail. If on the other hand the country accepts that keeping COVID-19 out is impossible, then the country is entirely unprepared for what thousands of cases will do to the health service.
You’d almost wish we had a functioning Government, wouldn’t you?