Now we know what ‘existential crisis’ means.

Photo Credit: Kiril Krastev under CC licence

Covid-19 looks likely to rank among the most startling black swan events of history.  A black swan in economic parlance disturbs the existing paradigms, sails into sudden view out of seeming nowhere and shatters settled doctrines about white feathers, orange beaks and blacked up eyes.

Who could have predicted? We were looking in the wrong place for Armageddon. 2020 was ushered in with the climate prophets calling time on our carbon spewing lifestyles. The economic prophets were warning politicians about fiscal complacency, about setting us up for another crash. Various lobby groups were re-branding equality and diversity for a new generation of social activists. And social conservatives were pushing back hard against an invasion of cultural black swans.

That agenda has been overtaken as suddenly and drastically as if the planet was hit by a meteorite. In a way it has, but the missile is invisible, insidious, pervasive and of course didn’t come from a galaxy far away.  It is one of the many ironies of this crisis that modern science and technology could cope more effectively with an advancing meteorite than a rapacious, microscopic, home grown virus.

The immediate impact of covid-19 has been a reduction of carbon emissions that should thrill the most doom-minded climate seers. I am not sure if they are happy though and not just because it took a horrific pandemic to bring it about but because it has happened without following their particular ideological  prescription. What we have now is bottom up, behavioural change. Not draconian top down strikes against big business, big pharma, big everything except big government.

We are set towards a paradigm shift that was expected to take decades, if not generations. But then any historic overview shows that paradigm shifts often come about as a response to social upheavals, however they happen. We are already seeing amazing things. Blue skies over Beijing that were not specially contrived for the visiting G8.  People discovering just how much work can be done effectively online. Speaking of the G8, their next meeting will be a conference call. What a saving of carbon and taxpayers’ money that promises to be. More locally, we see neighbours pooling together for supermarket runs. Neighbours checking in with the more vulnerable or isolated among them.  Much of the social initiative and consumer responsiblity that this crisis is generating will hopefully be for keeps.

One thing that has not so far changed is the exploitation of crises to advance a political narrative. We have seen some head-spinning spin from RTE and other media.  Following Donald Trump’s decision to suspend flights from Europe, Pat Kenny, believing it was some devious trumpian manoeuvre, declared that ‘the lack of air travel did not stop the ‘flu pandemic in 1918’. I doubt I was the only listener asking the radio out loud in my kitchen, ‘remind us Pat how covid-19 first arrived in Ireland ?’  Probably the only people not asking a similar question were the nodding eggheads in the studio with Pat.

Later in the week RTE’s reporter in Washington thought he was covering his brief by giving his personal appraisal of Trump’s alleged dallying around the issue. He finished his report by citing Trump’s answer to another reporter who asked how many marks out of ten the President would award himself for his handling of the crisis. Sharon Ui Bheolain obliged with an appreciative snigger when she heard, ‘ten out of ten’.

If RTÉ was offering objective analysis instead of news spin, they should know that the number of US confirmed cases more or less matches that of Canada in terms of ratio to population. Given that the US has considerably more international traffic, one might have reasonably expected a considerably higher rate there without necessarily implying shortcomings of management.

Even more to the point, RTÉ should be aware that, again in terms of ratio to population, Ireland has more confirmed cases than the UK.  It is worth dwelling on that point in relation to the blunt doomspeak of Boris Johnson. He spoke of a ‘catastrophe’, of people ‘losing loved ones before their time’. He was criticised in predictable sections of the media commentariat too of scaremongering that was allegedly at odds with the way his administration had been dealing with the situation.

In his address to the nation, Leo Varadkar, told us ‘our numbers’ (of confirmed cases) are still low. In real terms yes, in relative terms decidedly no.

In a scenario where even the medical experts are finding their way, it is extraordinary how Boris Johnson’s strategy of ‘herd immunity’ rather than ‘social distancing’ has been panned authoritatively by people who never heard of either term before this crisis broke.  Medical people hold different views on the question. There may be a quasi-consensus one way or another at a given time but the rightness or wrongness of an approach cannot be decided on that basis alone  and it is certainly not more likely to be right or wrong because Boris Johnson decided to adopt it. That the approach is now being re-evaluated by some of the medical experts who originally recommended it shows how complex and and tentative the science is.  Alternative strategies may not produce better outcomes. Holland continues to follow the ‘herd immunity’/mitigation approach.

Medical calls can often be counter-intuitive to laypeople as anyone who has had a serious family illness may know.  One thing we can all grasp is the comparative prevalence of the disease in various countries. Not the numbers but the ratio of confirmed cases to population. Our comparative rate is troubling.  Could it be accounted for by the influx of rugby fans from Milan who wandered freely around Dublin even though it was thought prudent to cancel the game they had come to attend ? That question was put to Simon Coveney by RTE but he was allowed to skate away from it with a pre-packaged answer.

It was Simon Coveney who took the opportunity to go after allegedly fake news floating around social media. A post about the effects of ibuprofen on the immune system was credited to an internal brief by a Cork hospital doctor. Anyone reading the post would know that both claim and source were unsubstantiated without being told by Simon Coveney. As it happened, the Daily Mail carried the same claim later that day, emanating this time from a fully named French medical expert. That doesn’t make it gospel either but it puts it beyond what Simon Coveney or any non-medical person can dismiss as fake news.

Social media often times sends the gullible chasing after hares but not infrequently it can also let the cat out of the bag. Fine Gael, to a man and woman, are steeped in spinspeak. It has superficial plausibility and gives them the illusion of control. It sounded bland and washed out during election debates when confronted by the rawer, ‘for real’ rhetoric of the left.   It sounds particularly limp at this time when the country is grappling with fear and well based foreboding, with an actual rather than a theoretical existential crisis. It took Leo Varadkar until St Patrick’s Day to tell the country we are ‘in the calm before the storm’.

The solemn, largely comfortless words of Boris Johnson a week ago were  echoed in the much repeated ‘we are in a war’ mantra of Emmanuel Macron’s address to the French people. Both men had a sense that their handling of the crisis could define their legacy. Their tone and words speak better to the truth of the situation than the anodyne, political plainchant we had been getting from the Taoiseach and government ministers.

Listening to well known Irish oncologist,  Dr John Crown on Virgin TV was  the reality check the country needed. It brought me back to September of 2008 when Central Bank Governor, Patrick Honohan, spilled the news that the IMF were en route to our shores while the government and their agents continued to reassure us that we were solvent, sort off. Like Patrick Honohan, Dr Crown is not drilled in PR fudge. He told what he believed was the unvarnished truth. Cofid -19 could be ‘catastrophic’ for our country because of government inaction. We would be ‘in a war’.

It is not always easy for the scientifically unlettered to adjudicate between opposing medical theories. But the obvious is hard to miss if you cast aside the political and media overspeak.

We know the statistics from China. They are reassuring.  However, that means that rigorous containment can work while it is being rigorously monitored. The Chinese are obedient to civil authority and civil authority won’t settle for less.   We don’t know what will happen when schools and businesses re-open and streets fill up again. When normal life returns to China then we will know how effective their approach, and ours, actually is. Until then we are, as a country, acting on faith, under doctors’ orders.

We are not deaf to the mood music across the world, better described as the heavy, ominous beat of doom And that curve graph. It shows what we hope to achieve by our containment/delay strategy.  It may be ambitious or it may not but it is a stark reminder that the goal isn’t about protecting you or me from the virus. The goal is about optimizing the potential of our health service to cope when we do succumb. The strategy is to extend the duration of the pandemic, to prevent our health system from crashing. Angela Merkel said earlier on in the crisis she expected up to 70% of German citizens  to contract it.  Here a spokesman for the HSE said they could not challenge the claim that some 1.9 million Irish people would contract the disease.

What the graph means for me is that I won’t be visiting my grandchildren until well after the pandemic has peaked and the health system is in a position to provide me with care. If it’s possible to completely avoid risk by ‘social distancing’ until an ‘all clear’ is declared, I would happily wait.  But it seems the virus will run its full course and claim each and everyone susceptible to it.  The curve will run its full span whether with a sharp rise or a flatter more gradual one.  The only thing that appears to be negotiable with this lethal force is the time it takes to reach its inevitable victims.

We know the health system is already stretched beyond capacity.  The Taoiseach’s reassurance that testing kits and respirators are on the way blithely bypasses the many other deficiencies and gaps in the system. What of the pre-existing health crisis, one of the main reasons he lost the election ? Reassurances from Simon Harris, the most recent overseer of our crippled system, is not reassuring. It’s scary.

We can see already how this crisis has torn up the policies, the priorities and the predictions of pundits and politicians. We won’t I think be hearing a lot from Greta Thunberg in the months ahead. No-platforming will obviously be a redundant form of protest.  Parents will become more engaged with their children’s education. Communities will oddly enough re-establish connectedness even if it is through telephone and social media. Families too..  In a crisis, those who do real, front line work in public life will be largely free of the pointless protocols that impede them in normal circumstances. With an online, community centred presence, churches have a new reach. Their enduring relevance comes to the fore at times like this when the fragility of the world is exposed.

Some of the new ways of living might catch on.  Maybe our relationship with alcohol will shift a gear in a year when all our pubs were closed on St Patrick’s Day. A year that followed the year in which we fought to extend drinking hours to the only day, Good Friday, on which pubs remained closed. Who would have thought a dry St Patrick’s Day would follow the new liberalizing legislation of 2019?  The lack of organized sport will hopefully lead families to explore our natural habitat, enjoy an Irish Spring and the flourishing life around us that is not virus tainted

All over the world, the way things are done is coming under scrutiny.  Like Ireland,  Iran is set to release some of its prisoners.  Not necessarily something to be welcomed in Ireland but ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished’ in Iran. I hope and I pray that the eight or nine thousand prisoners to be set free in Iran include Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe and Nasrin Sotoudeh.

That would be a glorious and symbolic sliver of silver lining in this very black cloud.


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