One of the most fascinating moments of the week, in Irish journalism, came on Tuesday. Standing before the gathered masses of the Irish media, at the opening of a social housing facility in Mulhuddart, the Taoiseach lamented the housing crisis, and highlighted his government’s valiant (in his telling) efforts to solve it. Pointing to the various causes of the crisis, he said, and I quote
“we were hit with two lockdowns”
As if this were a thing done to his government, and not a thing done by his Government.
As you might expect, he got no questions on the apparent contradiction. My colleague Ben was poised to ask him about it, but sadly, the Taoiseach did not take his question. Perhaps another time.
Lockdown, in fact, is the thread running through almost every Irish crisis of the moment, with the lone exception of the matter of Ukrainian refugees. For everything else covid did, it did not turn Vladimir Putin’s mind to war. We think.
It did, however, shutter our health service. It provoked our Government to suspend cancer screening services. It caused Governments to pump gazillions of euros (an imprecise term, but not an inaccurate one) into the economy in “pandemic supports” – a policy many independent economists now blame for inflation. It caused our housing industry to crawl to a halt, because the Irish Government shut down construction for longer than anyone else in Europe. It shuttered classrooms, causing as yet unknown amounts of damage to a generation of children (and the data coming from elsewhere on this point is not encouraging). Many businesses went bust, and many others laid off staff they have never gotten back.
In social terms, the effects are still with us: One Bingo-caller I know tells me that attendances have never recovered. The same is true of masses. Whatever your thoughts about mass, or bingo, the fact is that many older people in this country, nearly three years on, are living lives of quiet and fearful isolation, no longer socialising as they once did. And, of course, they’re mostly left to it. Forgotten. Their lives no longer matter – even though these were the people we were all supposed to be helping stay alive.
A point often lost in all of this is that lockdown also radicalised a large section of our population: The “rise of the far right” narrative in the media is mostly clickbait nonsense, but there are indeed a substantial number of very angry and alienated people who are much more willing today to believe in conspiracies than they were before the Government locked them in their homes for a year. Those people will not be quick to forgive.
And all of this…. For what?
Here’s the thing about people who still defend covid policy: They have no data to support the idea that what they did had a beneficial impact on society. The data cannot be presented, because it does not exist. There simply is no set of figures anywhere that will convincingly demonstrate that lockdowns either saved lives, or, to use the other justification mooted at the time, saved the health service from collapse. If that data existed, I promise you, it would be being endlessly cited everywhere in the media, and by politicians to this day. One rule of politics and journalism: When either a politician or a journalist is proved right, they’ll never shut up about it.
The justifications for lockdown that exist and remain, in the wild, are all of the ex-post-facto kind: “What other choice did we have?”
This argument, I think, explains March 2020, but not much else: This writer, indeed, was a lockdowner back then. There was an unknown threat, of potentially serious severity, and experts said the mortality rate could be as high as one in ten. Lockdown, facing that, was rational. For about a few weeks. A short lockdown until we knew what we were facing with was both proportionate, and sensible.
But almost immediately – certainly within a month – we all knew that our worst fears, in terms of mortality, were not well placed. And yet, this country and several others stayed in some form of lockdown for more than 18 months.
Because there is, to this date, no data, of any kind, that convincingly suggests a positive outcome from lockdown, you do not get any positive arguments for why this was the right policy. You only ever get negative arguments – most of all, what you get is the “everybody knows” and “grown up” argument: Everybody knows it was the grown-up thing to do.
End of story. No more questions. Conspiracy theorist.
Yesterday, my colleague Fatima wrote movingly about the impact of pandemic policies on her, personally, just one story out of millions: Even though she had natural immunity to covid 19, having contracted it early in the pandemic, she was forbidden to see her own terminally ill, dying father without being vaccinated. Forgive me for being flippant, but what was she going to do? Give him a terminal illness?
With vaccine mandates, the same problem now applies for those who defended them: They have no data, none, suggesting that vaccines saved a meaningful number of lives. We have gone from “the vaccine stops transmission and infection” to “the vaccine stops infection, but not always transmission” to “the vaccine stops serious illness, but you can still transmit” to “the booster stops you getting sick” to “vaccines may reduce hospitalisation” to “the side effects of the vaccine are mild and nothing to worry about” to “we’ll make boosters available to those who want them, but there’s not really a push on vaccines any more”.
You might notice, for example, that all the stories about higher death rates in the unvaccinated have suddenly disappeared in the media. When was the last time you read one of those? The reason, if you are wondering, is that the data no longer tells that story. Again, if it did, and in the face of the growing scepticism about those vaccines, we would be hearing that data from the media, loudly, every week.
It’s been one slow retreat from the starting position, and we’re expected not to notice. The new posture is silence, based on the shaky proposition that the “pandemic is over”. Well, it’s over when we need it to be over. It’s not over when the Government needs an excuse for full hospitals in Winter. Funny, that.
It’s no wonder people feel gaslighted. They feel that way because they are being gaslit.
And in all of this, the lockdown position has retreated to the point where the Taoiseach is now saying “we were hit with them”. As if an Asteroid did it.
I don’t think this will ever be unwound, because the psychological cost of admitting we got it wrong is simply too high: We sacrificed too much for lockdown for it not to have made a difference. It’s like the fellow who spends vast sums on a car, and then realises the car isn’t that special: He’ll never admit it to himself.
And rather than praise his own car, he’ll denounce the alternatives: Oh, I’d never drive a Kia, I don’t trust Korean engineering.
And so it must never be considered: Lockdown saved lives. The vaccines worked. We got through it. We all did our bit. The alternative was to listen to those freaks.
Sometimes, the need for comforting national stories outweighs the need to face the possibility that the story is wrong. We were all in it together.
Weren’t we? Well, we certainly are now. We’re living with the costs. I’ll leave you with this video report on the Taoiseach’s comments, as well as some thoughts, from Ben. Enjoy your weekends.