Nobody’s talking about it, but the biggest problem with “getting back to normal” once the Coronavirus crisis has passed its peak here in Ireland will be the simple fact that it’s a global illness, and it’s progressing around the world at a varying pace.
Imagine for a moment that we arrive in early June (being optimistic) and have had no new infections for a week. The hospital beds are emptying, and the worst seems to be behind us.
In those circumstances, there will be huge pressure from business and from voters to lift the national lockdown. Airlines, the tourist sector, pubs, and hotels will all be crying out for relief. Many workers will be in severe financial difficulty. The Government itself will be facing a devastating recession – and to most people, it will seem utterly absurd to keep measures in place when the disease is gone.
But what if, at the same time as we’re past the worst of it here, it’s only just peaking in – to pick a random country – Argentina?
The problem might well be that we lift the restrictions in Ireland on a Monday, and on Wednesday somebody arrives into Dublin from Buenos Aires, having travelled via Paris, and spends their taxi journey to a Dublin hotel coughing all over the back seat. Three weeks later, we have 200 new cases a day.
This is the problem, in a nutshell: In a global pandemic, travel is the enemy.
And infectious disease expert Dr. Paddy Mallon agrees:
Dr Paddy Mallon, a consultant at St Vincent’s University Hospital in Dublin and professor of microbial diseases at UCD, said a major risk to the State was more new Covid-19 infections coming in.
“We have got our own outbreak in the country that we are trying to extinguish but the big threat is new infections coming in,” he said.
“We should be looking seriously over the next week at protecting our borders and stopping new infections coming in because it will give us the ability to control the infections that we have.”
The warning comes as the Health Service Executive said it was “impossible to predict” the timing of the peak of infections but it was planning for the worst of the crisis to hit by mid-April.
The problem is compounded, of course, because of the two jurisdictions on the Island. In some ways, the issue of timing above is out of the Government’s hands – if the UK was to lift its restrictions too early, that could pose a problem for the Republic even if we remained in relative lockdown.
The truth, though nobody wants to admit it, is that the world will almost certainly remain in some form of total lockdown (at least in terms of cross-border travel) until this thing has been either totally eradicated, or until an effective cure or vaccine is found.
Logically, the very fastest way to eradicate the virus – in the sense of preventing new infections and waiting until everyone who is infected either recovers or dies – is for every country in the world to seal itself off almost totally from every other one, and for no borders to re-open until the WHO declares the virus extinct in humans. Obviously, some travel is still necessary – countries need to import food, and fuel, and medicines, for example – but because travel is the fastest vector for infections to cross borders, limiting it almost totally is the painful solution.
The problem is that such a solution is probably neither economically, nor politically, sustainable, and would certainly turn the coming recession into an almost historically unprecedented global depression.
So in that sense, while Dr. Mallon is correct to say that the borders should be closed, there’s a real risk that when they are closed, they may not open again for an inordinately long time.
Incidentally, this all raises questions for leaders, not just in Ireland, but globally. How will the Americans, and their President, cope, if by July the number of new cases is on the wane but the advice is to maintain the lockdown? By that time, people will have been cooped up in their homes (which is apparently terrible, we’ve discovered) for almost four months. You have to suspect that the American President, at least, will be minded to lift the restrictions and let the chips fall where they may.
And he won’t be on his own.
This is why the science has warned about a devastating “second wave”.
It’s a verboten phrase now, but it’s also why the UK Government initially talked about letting people get infected so as to build “herd immunity” – the thinking was “there’s going to be a second wave if people don’t get it now, so we may as well all get it and mitigate the problem heading our way next winter”.
That lasted for a few days before a combination of media pressure and new figures for deaths forced the policy to be either changed, or re-presented, depending on who you listen to.
But in Ireland, we’re not thinking about it at all.
The borders will have to be closed. That’s not a question. The only question is when, and for how long. You fear the words of Sir Edward Grey, the UK foreign secretary, on the eve of the great war: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.
Four years, that misery lasted. Let’s hope for a vaccine, or a decent drug to fight this thing, and fast. It may be the only hope for a return to normalcy.