Caveat: Business beware as public mood gets twitchy over lockdown

Fear pushes us to blame indoor dining or travel for Covid-19. In truth we are all at fault

Can you feel it? Ireland has arrived at an especially tense moment in the fight against the pandemic. Even though case numbers are falling, which means fewer hospitalisations and deaths will soon follow, it is difficult to pinpoint a time when the public mood was as volatile as it is now.

Lockdown is making people twitchy. Our fingers, which in the past we would have used to grip our neighbours’ hands while greeting them or for waving, are now more commonly deployed to point at each other in blame or to bang out angry messages at each other on social media. You could almost reach out and pluck the tension like a harp.

Many business groups have been persistent and active at various stages of the pandemic in representing the interests of their members, either by advocating for a timely easing of restrictions or by drawing attention to the harm being inflicted on their trade. The damage wrought on SMEs, especially in the hospitality and retail sectors, has never been deeper than it is now.

But this is not the correct time to highlight such matters and most business groups have wisely decided to keep quiet as the eye of the storm passes overhead. There is no benefit for lobby groups in wading into such a febrile storm, as hospitals bulge under the pressure and people can’t see their loved ones. The public would turn against them and it would be hard to shake off that sort of negative association. They should continue to hold back, even if a time for the debate may return in coming months.

Images on television from RTÉ’s Prime Time this week of Irish tourists sporting tans while returning from sun holidays in Lanzarote perfectly, and soberly, illustrated for many the wrinkles in the Government’s uncertain regime for anti-virus restrictions on travel. But some people also chose to use those images to justify yet another wearying round of public shaming on social media. That is not our best side.

Stifling atmosphere

Evidence that perspective on this issue has become widely distorted came in the Oireachtas this week, when Roscommon-based Senator Eugene Murphy gave an over-excitable speech in which he excoriated the handful of Irish travellers who chose to escape the stifling atmosphere on this island and book flights abroad, and whose actions were subsequently caught by the television cameras.

I am not a political reporter and don’t spend my time wandering the corridors of Leinster House, prattling with politicians. But I know Murphy to be a reasonable man. He once took a day out of his schedule when he was a TD to personally bring me around various tourist sites in his home county, as part of my research for a series of articles I was writing on tourism across the island. He drove me everywhere and introduced me to everyone and couldn’t have been nicer or more humble about it.

That is why I was so surprised this week to see someone as genial as Murphy launching a populist attack on the supposed “treachery” of his fellow citizens who had returned from the Canary Islands. Steady on. People might legitimately disagree with the choices they made, but they hardly sacked the National Archives or sold out our leaders to invaders. This kind of oratorical excess not only thrives on the white-hot atmosphere that makes rational decision making so difficult. It also feeds it, while we love to gorge.

We have witnessed this kind of thing before, such as when one of Murphy’s senatorial colleagues called for the army to be deployed on the streets of Galway last September to stop students from drinking outside during Freshers’ Week. Logic is often abused during these kind of crusades, even if such criticisms have their genesis in a certain strand of common-sense thinking. Yes, Galway students should never have been congregating outdoors to drink. But it was better they did it outside rather than cooped-up in house parties where nobody could see them.

Climate of fear

And, yes, the people who flew to the Canaries were, in all likelihood, in breach of public health restrictions on unnecessary travel. It seemed even more brazen to do so for a tan. But logic also dictates they were less likely to catch Covid-19 in Lanzarote, where the virus is much less prevalent than here, than they would be in Longford. So it hardly hiked the risk of them spreading it to the rest of us. Assuming they produced negative PCR tests and observe the rules on self-quarantine – and who is to say they won’t – they represent a minor threat to public health and no more than the rest of us.

All of this judgment and aspersion and blame spews from a place of anxiety deep within us. It isn’t normal to have a six-foot commute to work, from the end of your bed to the desk just inside the door. It is depressing. It is upsetting for parents to keep their young children away from their little friends, replacing precious socialisation with awkward interactions snatched on tablet screens. We all miss friends and family. There is a climate of biting fear, even if a little bit of it is logical in a pandemic.

This fear and anxiety manifests in us lashing out, often with questionable justification. Recently, every woe currently befalling us supposedly was all down to the decision to reopen indoor dining for a few weeks. That decision may have errant, but it was never on its own a plausible explanation for the scale of the current carnage. Now, all our fingers are pointing at tourists. But nobody can credibly argue that the UK strain could have been kept out of the country. It is unrealistic. We share this island with the UK.

I suspect that what is agitating some people about our current situation is the realisation that, mostly, we did this to ourselves. The Government, the media, rule-breakers and downplayers – all deserve various slices of criticism. But the main reason the virus has surged so much in recent weeks is because we spread it to each other in our own communities.