“Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war” Marc Anthony cried in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with the intention to incite the crowd at Caesar’s funeral to rise up against the assassins.
The objective was to cause confusion and chaos in the first instance, and then to use this disorder as the opportunity for the frenzied crowd to do his bidding before calmer heads could prevail.
A few weeks ago, speaking on CNN’s Connect the World in Abu Dhabi, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the unvaccinated population can create an “awful lot of difficulty”.
“We do have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, around 94% of adults are fully vaccinated. Unfortunately the 5% that are not [vaccinated] are causing a lot of the trouble.”
And now, RTE reports that An Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said that it is now known that people who are not vaccinated against Covid-19 have had a “disproportionate” effect on Ireland’s health service and intensive care beds, saying it was “clear as daylight” that if people do not get vaccinated they are jeopardising their personal health and the health of others.
This wagons are circling for sure. This comes just after the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, at the conclusion of their winter meeting, addressing Catholics with concerns about vaccines: “Anyone who, for reasons of conscience, chooses not to be vaccinated must, nevertheless, do their utmost to avoid, by other means and by appropriate behaviour, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infection.”
And almost on cue, the Irish Independent’s Kantar commissioned poll finds that the public mood is turning on the unvaccinated. 56% of people surveyed now want to see their fellow citizens – the small and decreasing 5% of adults who have not been vaccinated – be restricted from working and from travelling. That is the headline piece from a poll commissioned the day the Omicron variant was officially named and all panic broke loose based on absolutely minimal knowledge, but with every worst case scenario was hypothesised.
The second finding is that 15% of all people intend to carry on socialising as normal. It says this rises to 36% in the unvaccinated but fails to establish what the baseline is: if it is socialising in the manner they were doing on the day they were polled, well, that 36% were not allowed to socialise, while the 15% vaccinated were allowed to socialise pretty much without restriction.
But that difference is not addressed, yet the impression given is that the unvaccinated are the less ‘responsible’.
All of this points in one direction, which is letting slip the metaphorical dogs of war. The most egregious dog-whistling has come from the leading members of the government, but it has been buttressed by a still relatively compliant and unquestioning media.
Havoc has been the cry from NPHET and the Government, with a watching narrative as the numbers of cases increased over the last few weeks along with the numbers of ICU beds being filled. The number of cases of fully vaccinated people getting infected by Covid (breakthrough infections) increased rapidly as the efficacy of the vaccines waned.
Yet, the focus remained on the vaccine free and the disproportionate number of ICU beds they were taking up. Limited attention has been paid to the reality that the number of ICU beds available are little more than we had 20 months ago when the government first announced restrictions in order to ‘flatten the curve’.
Little attention is given to the fact that Ireland had and still has amongst the fewest ICU beds per capita in Europe; that ICU beds are at capacity every year; that it was recommended ten years ago to increase the critical care capacity in the country.
That none of this was done reflects poorly on former Ministers for Health: the current Taoiseach and Tanaiste.
Fortunately for them, the Omicron variant came along just as the third – the booster – shot was being rolled out.
The most recent statement from the Taoiseach comes as the approval of the Government response to Covid drops to 46%. It is incumbent on them, as incumbents, to cry havoc because the public mood is indeed turning.
The question is who the majority decide to turn on: the government or the vaccine free? This explains the need for the An Taoiseach and An Tanaiste to scapegoat the vaccine free. It is a matter of their survival. It could be a case of ‘It’s them or us’ and this may explain why both should take to dogwhistling at the small number that remain unvaccinated.
Hannah Arendt, the German political philosopher and Holocaust survivor, had the benefit of hindsight in many of her defining writings, able to analyse the banality of evil, the origins of totalitarianism, with the knowledge of the facts of how the unimaginable became a reality.
We do not have that at present – it is dangerous and self-defeating – to draw on the wisdom of Arendt before the situation itself has come to light, which is the great tragedy and irony of all that Arendt has to say.
In order to draw on Arendt you have to acknowledge pre-emptively the totalitarian reality that has not yet come to pass, yet the focus of her writings is that such forthcoming calamity cannot be recognised except in its banality – that banality that exposes such foretelling as alarmist nonsense. Arendt was able, because it was evident and unobjectionable, to use terms such as ‘evil’, ‘totalitarian’: these cannot be used in the current situation to predict what is at risk of coming to pass. They are too extreme, too dogmatic, and too unimaginable, to have any resonance in wider public.
It is for this reason, that Arendt is best read as an educational tool rather than used as a warning of impending illiberal society and government. Yet, as we hear about how the 5% unvaccinated are jeopardising the health system, it can be noted that Arendt said “One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive” and that “Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived”.
As the Government claims – repeatedly to have the solution in the vaccination of the resistance, remember that she said: “the last century has produced an abundance of ideologies that pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.”
For those that remain unconvinced for whatever reason, remember that Arendt said “In their moral justification, the argument of the lesser evil has played a prominent role. If you are confronted with two evils, the argument runs, it is your duty to opt for the lesser one, whereas it is irresponsible to refuse to choose altogether. Its weakness has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget quickly that they chose evil.”
For some principled objectors it may be of interest to hear that she said, “The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.”
For the 56% that want to see their fellow citizens lose their relative freedoms, Arendt said: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
Yes, all this sound somewhat fantastical, and saying that, if Arendt had said such things in advance, they would also have sounded fantastical – which is the whole point of her life as a political philosopher. Society cannot be life the frog in the boiling water. It has to recognise that the heat has been turned on.
The othering by An Taoiseach and An Tánaiste of those who have not been vaccinated may seem like their just desserts to some, or a means to an end for others. Some may say that it is just words. But, replicating what is happening in some other European countries, it is a worrying step for leaders of a country to single out a small portion of their citizenry for othering in such a manner.
Some may argue their intent is good and the outcome noble, but such is a utilitarian calculus and treating some as a means to another’s end. The common good may be claimed but there is no common good in scapegoating a minority. That is a majoritarian good. An Taoiseach turned up the heat a little more this weekend. If it is the national crisis that our leaders want us to believe it is, then its resolution requires cooler heads and less inflammatory language than the two most senior members of government are offering.
Dualta Roughneen hails from Mayo, and writes from Dublin.