Unfortunately, none of us dreamt up Covid.
We haven’t been asleep since March 2020, and we didn’t invent the checkpoints or the missed funerals.
A Cork grandmother really has spent months in jail for not masking up in a shop, and Stephen Donnelly did actually want to know what you had for breakfast.
What’s more is that “Pandemic” is now in our collective lexicon; up there with “war,” “natural disaster” and “terrorism,” in terms of words you never want to see on your local newspaper, but which we are going to have to deal with more in the future.
These things happened, and they were dreadful. And yet, perhaps prompted by the war in Ukraine or renewed Brexit hassle, we all seem to be moving on.
Avoidance is understandable, especially when it comes to Government. The best insights into the unvarnished decision making behind the algal Rialtas na hÉireann podiums presently available come from recent books by journalists who had and have the most intimate—nigh symbiotic—access to the decision-makers. These books describe the sort of chaos you’d expect to see at a time of genuinely unprecedented international panic but multiplied by a factor of the Roinn Sláinte, detailing PPE procurement fiascos, ego wars, and apocalyptic mispredictions that had experts killing off hundreds of thousands more of us. So as well as the fact that the pandemic was a traumatic time that most of us will want to bottle up and throw into the sea, politicians must also reckon with their accountability for the many, many poor decisions that they made, and their costs.
Michéal Martin—Taoiseach since the second, more locked-down phase of the pandemic in June 2020—appears to grasp that the public deserves answers, so has been making frequent references to a future Covid inquiry since January of this year. While he has yet to set out its schedule, he has already begun the work of undermining its potency and legitimacy by appearing to prohibit the questioning of key decision makers like ex-CMO Dr Tony Holohan, as well as HSE chief Paul Reid and others. This is, he says, to keep tomorrow’s pandemic leaders from feeling like they have to “[look] over their shoulders . . . saying ‘there’s an inquiry behind my back and I’ve got to watch my Ps and Qs.’”
A “Ps and Qs be damned” attitude goes some of the way to explaining some of the weirder utterances made by the higher ups in the course of the pandemic; be it Simon Harris’ claim that this was the 19th coronavirus we’d faced, or Prof. Philip Nolan’s description of antigen testing as snake-oil, or Donnelly’s complicated metaphor about the dangers posed by trampolines. But it also speaks to the subtle, hopefully subconscious antipathy that so many politicians seem to ingrainedly feel for inquiries, which disdain manifests in the slothful way in which they organize them.
I say slothful because our Government’s approach—in typical fashion—stands in marked contrast to that of the UK, where Boris Johnson announced the terms of reference for their inquiry into the pandemic responses in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland at the end of March, and where the Scottish Government released the terms of their own national inquiry last December. In France, ministers are only accountable while in office, so they have had continuous, home-raiding, and eminently sensible inquiries underway since Le Sifflement de Wuhan’s very beginning in 2020, and even Iran’s lame parliament is up to its turban in an investigation into the disappearance of funds designated for their Covid response by their “Supreme Leader”.
Moving on isn’t all bad, especially as it seems to have confined the outbreak of the so-called “New” strain of normality to the masking of the Late Late Show’s audience for the most part. Holohan and most of his accomplices have also been dragged kicking and screaming back into obscurity, and, every week, vestigial restrictions are being unwound by politicians who were baying for the blood of the unvaccinated not 5 months ago.
But much as they may want to, they can’t pretend that the HSE didn’t spend €300k on vaccine stickers and €2 million on an app nobody’s using, because it did.
And they can’t pretend Holohan didn’t send a tweet that brought armoured Gardaí onto the streets of Dublin to baton-charge teenagers, because he did.
And they can’t pretend that 2400 of our vulnerable elderly didn’t die alone in their nursing home beds where they should have been safest, because they did.
This attitude towards learning the lessons of Covid is laggard to the point of sticking our fingers in our ears and shouting it didn’t happen, and runs the risk of repeating mistakes that we don’t even know we made as well as the ones we do whenever the next Covid comes along. It will be gutwrenching, but there are truths that the country must face and examine if we are to properly recover from the pandemic. There is a natural inclination towards self-preservation amongst our political class that is understandable in the circumstances, but that cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the accountability that will help us to protect ourselves from the next pandemic, which, unlike Covid, will be very precedented, and against which today’s Ps and Qs will be required.