Credit: D Storan

Tony Holohan’s award: Gotta be a joke, right?

Giving Tony Holohan the Freedom of the City of Dublin is significant in one way: At least one person, now, has freedom in Dublin:

CHIEF Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan has officially accepted the Freedom of the City of Dublin.

Dr Holohan met with Lord Mayor Hazel Chu at the Mansion House in Dublin on Wednesday to sign the Roll of Honorary Freedom and accept the Freedom of the City…..

Green Party councillor Ms Chu originally proposed Dr Holohan be awarded the freedom of the city last July on behalf of the nation’s health care workers to acknowledge his work, and that of his team, during the Covid 19 pandemic.

It is important at the outset to say this: Dr. Holohan is, by all accounts, a good and decent man. He made the admirable decision, in the middle of the pandemic, to take time off to be with his dying wife. There is no evidence, though people may disagree with his decisions, that he has made them based on anything other than his professional judgment, and nothing in his record suggests that he wants anything other than the best for his country. If awards were handed out purely for being a person of good character, then there is no reason he should not receive one, along with thousands of other Irish people.

But this award, of course, is not for that. It is an award recognising his unique contribution during this unique period in Irish history. The difficulty is that his contribution has neither been unique, or outstanding.

In terms of sacrifice, tens of thousands of Irish healthcare workers sacrificed objectively more. At the beginning of the pandemic, many risked their health, and their lives, to combat a then unknown, and potentially lethal, virus. Several lost their lives. Many businesses, and individuals, have sacrificed their income – some of them their life’s work – at Dr. Holohan’s command. Across the country, workers took massive hits to their income, and many people ended up living on state supports – the PUP – for the first time in their lives. Dr. Holohan, by contrast, sacrificed very little.

In terms of leadership, his record is mixed. Few remember it now, but this man, who these days calls for restrictions on international travel, went ahead and hosted a global alcohol policy conference in Ireland in the first weeks of the epidemic. So the award certainly cannot be for consistency, and clear leadership, given that his own record on indoor gatherings during a pandemic, for example, is so spotty.

There’s also the question of what he deserves credit for, precisely. Ireland’s record on Covid 19 is somewhere around the middle of the pack, internationally. We cannot claim, for example, to have beaten the world on deaths, or hospitalisations. In fact, our record when it comes to nursing home deaths is one of the world’s worst. Part of the reason for that is that in the early stages of the pandemic, patients in nursing homes were just left in nursing homes, and not admitted to hospitals. That was a NPHET decision, and it undoubtedly cost lives. In terms of our economy and re-opening, we are persistently behind other western democracies. It is almost impossible to argue that Ireland has an outstanding, or even really good, record in any part of the pandemic. On vaccinations, too, we lag behind the rest of the western world, though that is a fact more directly tied to Government policy than any decision of Holohan’s.

But there, too, there is a point: Holohan is simply an advisor. The Government are the people who, for good or ill, made all the decisions. They could have ignored him, and, in fact, on several occasions they did ignore him. The credit or blame for Ireland’s covid response lies with the people who made the decisions that counted, not one voice in the room where the decisions were made.

Elevating Holohan as some sort of national messiah is very typically Irish. It is also something that is not repeated elsewhere in the world. In the UK, nobody writes of Dr. Chris Whitty, Holohan’s UK counterpart, with anything like the reverence reserved in the Irish press for “Dr. Tony”. There, there is a recognition that the decisions were made by Boris Johnson, and his team. In Ireland, we seem to be happy to delude ourselves that Holohan, not our elected politicians, is in charge.

A twitter friend noted, in response to this news last night, that in the coming years there will be an “almighty effort” to get Holohan elected President. He may be right, or wrong. But either way, we should probably welcome that campaign. For it will, at long last, mean that his record – which is mixed – might be subject to some democratic scrutiny.



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