Government has no message for people who have no more to give

An ad campaign promises ‘better days to come’, but little is done to help us believe it

Ever since the second lockdown, people worn down by their own compliance have been pondering the impossibility of doing “a little bit more”.

Ever since the second lockdown, people worn down by their own compliance have been pondering the impossibility of doing “a little bit more”.

 

When you look back on this pandemic, what will be the phrases that have stuck most in your mind?

“To comply with Government guidelines, our toy department is closed,” remains a frontrunner for me. Others might think of the Taoiseach’s misguided focus on a “meaningful Christmas”, or Stephen Donnelly’s unhelpful observation that children playing on trampolines is “an inherently risky thing for them to do”.

Unfortunately for him – and for anybody whose blood pressure or despair levels spiked as a result – deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn made an inadvertent bid for posterity at last Thursday’s press briefing by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) at the Department of Health with four small, seemingly innocuous words.

“If every individual can do just that little bit more over the next few weeks we will stop another wave,” he said.

“A little bit more?” the nation responded in tones ranging from despair to apoplexy, with bonus confusion for those of us whose initial thought was a confused “Shouldn’t that be ‘a little bit less’?”

Crisis end-date

The deputy CMO said many things at this press briefing, including the fact that Irish people had “done so well” and “come on a phenomenal journey” over the past 10 weeks. But “a little bit more” was the line that happened to be picked out for an RTÉ News tweet that attached a 36-second video clip of this remark and the accompanying advice to “go back to where you were a fortnight, three weeks ago”.

It has since racked up more than a million views and garnered more than 1,800 quote-tweets – a high number of this form of Twitter reply is never usually a sign that something has gone down well. People, it is fair to say, did not want to “go back” to where they were three weeks ago, because where they were three weeks ago was a dark place that bit further away from the imaginary crisis end-date we all have in our heads.

Such was the explosion of distress that Dr Glynn apologised the following day “to anybody who feels frustrated or angered or at the end of their tether when they see that clip”, and pleaded with them to watch the full press conference in which Nphet’s gratitude to the people would have been plain.

The problem is that, whatever about a short clip, anybody minded to watch or read past a headline or tweet is already likely to be on the socially responsible side of the spectrum. We are not on anti-lockdown marches. We get it. We are the converted and we have heard this preaching before.

Likewise, the people who took Nphet admonishment’s of last December – “too much socialising” – most to heart will have been the ones who hadn’t done any.

Loss of faith

So “change the record” isn’t only an emotional reaction to Nphet, but a logical, rational one.

The reason people are frustrated and/or angered and/or at the end of their tether isn’t just that we have been giving as much of ourselves as we possibly can and feel this isn’t always being recognised by the Government and Nphet. There are two other factors here: the belief that the Government and Nphet could themselves be doing “a little bit more”, and a worrying loss of faith in the effects of our own actions.

Ever since the second lockdown, people worn down by their own compliance have been pondering the impossibility of doing “a little bit more”.

Instructions such as “reduce your social contacts” have utterly mystified people who have none outside their household or support bubble and, in some cases, none at all. Many who thought, this time last year, that going to the supermarket once rather than twice a week made a difference no longer think this any more – or, at least, they have adjusted their minds to the risk trade-off a visit to the supermarket demands.

The fear that defined the first lockdown was never going to stay at such a heightened level forever, and even the rush to judge the behaviour and attitudes of others seems to have waned. We are too busy trying to fish our own morale out of the toilet.

A remark by Dr Ronan Glynn, deputy chief medical officer, asking people to do “a little bit more” did not go down well with a despairing public. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
A remark by Dr Ronan Glynn, deputy chief medical officer, asking people to do “a little bit more” did not go down well with a despairing public. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Alarmingly, people are now wondering that even if they could personally do “more” or somehow go back in time three weeks, it wouldn’t necessarily alter the spread of Covid-19, such is the insidiousness of its new variants.

You would like to think the Government, cognisant of the months of criticism it has received for its chaotic communications, would be alive to the danger inherent in this new defeatism. Instead, its main role seems to be to cause more of it.

Absent leadership

When people say “where is the Government’s communications strategy”, what they are really saying is “where is the Government?” Talking to itself, for the most part, it seems, and quietly reclassifying lockdown as our default reality, while news of restrictions that have major consequences for our lives leaks out late at night from internal party meetings.

Knowing this will inevitably happen each time, shouldn’t they have something official ready to go?

“A little bit more” went nuclear because of the vacuum of authority we feel we have been existing in. Cut off from normality, we need assurance of a brighter future – a detailed plan, not helplessness and inaction. For our most senior politicians to be absent or addled or, to borrow from Risteárd Cooper’s impression of HSE chief executive Paul Reid, relying on the “that’s AstraZeneca for you” get-out clause is underwhelming form.

Meanwhile, the radio advertising campaigns that spent most of 2020 declaring “Covid-19 is here” now implore us in soft tones to “make your plan today to keep well” and to “hold firm” because “there’s better days to come”.

These are good messages in themselves – or they were. Over time they have become aural wallpaper, and absolutely no match for the loudness of the Government’s silence.

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