One of the things that will swiftly be forgotten, now that Ireland is finally, and belatedly, on the road to something approaching pre-covid normality, is how deep in the grasp of groupthink the nation once was. It was not four weeks ago, for example, that the great and the good in Ireland were discussing the potential imposition of mandatory vaccines. Then, at the weekend, even vaccine passports were abolished. As ever in Ireland, consensus is overwhelming, and, as ever in Ireland, the consensus changes so fast that if you blink, you might miss it.
It is, therefore, important to write this: For much of this pandemic, all two years of it, the Irish media consistently and persistently elevated the voices of people who were completely wrong, and hushed down critics of the predominant view of pandemic management. From almost day one, the collection of scientists and hangers on calling themselves the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group were given top billing across media programmes, to the extent that many are now household names: Tomas Ryan, Gerry Killeen, Aoife McLysaght, Orla Hegarty, Anthony Staines, and many more. Doom-laden commentators like Sam McConkey, who variously predicted deaths in the tens and hundreds of thousands, were fixtures on the national broadcaster.
Other voices, scientific, and rational, were kept comprehensively under wraps. And yet, recent history has shown us definitively that it was never possible to restrict your way out of Covid. Just look, if you need evidence, to New Zealand. While Ireland finally opened, with 8,000 recorded cases on Sunday, New Zealand was re-imposing harsh restrictions because of an outbreak of nine – yes, nine – covid cases at a wedding party in Auckland. At some point, they will be forced to admit to themselves and to the world that this strategy is not sustainable, both in terms of the irrational fear it provokes in the population, and the long term economic damage it does to their country.
In Ireland, the voices named above would have us in a similar position, had they been given their way. Do not forget, for example, that as recently as a year ago, the Zero Covid people and the Social Democrats (who then couldn’t get enough of Zero Covid) linked arm in arm to promote the “ten cases” strategy: That Ireland should not consider re-opening until fewer than ten daily cases were being recorded here.
Over the last two years, we have done some truly frightful things in this country. Never forget, for example, that we kept people locked in mandatory hotel quarantine, and prevented them from visiting their sick and dying relatives. That was a Zero Covid idea, adopted by the Government, and then, much later, quietly abandoned as unsustainable and cruel.
But throughout the pandemic, these things were allowed to happen because of the Irish predilection for groupthink and consensus. As so often, people who disagreed were smeared: Covid deniers. Anti-science. Far right. Anti-lockdown. Ratlickers.
This is not to say that every criticism of Government was correct, or reasonable, or sane. It is true, for example, that many conspiracy theories sprung up. At the fringes, as ever, some truly mad things were said, and increasingly believed. But the problem is this: There was always a sane, rational, reasonable case against the lockdown: it was just barely given any airtime.
What will happen now, of course, is very Irish indeed: All of what went on over the last two years will be forgotten in specific terms, and remembered only in the vaguest of generalities. That is to be expected and forgiven, to a degree. For most people, it will go something like “we made sacrifiices, we pulled together, and it worked, and now we are free”
But a fuller accounting must be conducted.
Can we agree, for example, if there is ever a new pandemic, that the nine euro meal does not work? That mandatory quarantine is cruel? That keeping the elderly from their families is heartless and lacks compassion? That vaccine certificates did not affect the levels of infection one iota? That the five kilometre exercise requirement was dumb?
Yes, we made sacrifices. But the country also made innumerable mistakes. It delved into the depths of despair and panic at the merest hint of a rise in case numbers. It encouraged people to suspect their neighbours of ungood conduct. It made evidence-free scapegoats of the young, and of foreigners, and of critics.
Most of all, though, can we agree that the “independent experts” were almost all wrong, almost all of the time? Had we listened to them, we would now be New Zealand, or Australia: implementing harsh and restrictive laws on the basis of tiny case numbers, throwing foreigners out in case they influenced our own people to think differently, and being no closer to the end of the pandemic than we were a year ago.
There is, we should have learned by now, no such thing as “the science”. There is only things that are rational, and logical, and make sense, and things which do not. For two years, in this country, we let ourselves be blinded to bullshit by people’s titles and qualifications.
That should be lesson number one.