It would be a shame if we let Covid damage Ireland’s Céad Míle Fáilte

Time will come later in summer when it is safe and sensible to open up to outsiders

Tourists in Dublin: Covid-19 has caused a fear of other people, as ‘outsiders are all seen as potential carrier of illness and death’.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Tourists in Dublin: Covid-19 has caused a fear of other people, as ‘outsiders are all seen as potential carrier of illness and death’. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

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One of the more depressing outcomes of the Covid-19 crisis is that it has spurred resurgence in the fear of outsiders. For a nation like Ireland that trades, with real justification, on the openness and hospitality of its people, this may have long-term social and economic implications.

These effects will have to be ameliorated over time with deft policies to facilitate the reopening of this country to foreign visitors.

There is an understandable climate of trepidation about doing this while Europe’s vaccine rollout is under way, and so the timing will have to be right. But this nettle will have to be grasped eventually, regardless of fears over the threat of new virus variants that are being stoked in public debate.

We should apply greater scrutiny to arguments and fears that, so far, have been whipped up beyond the borders of all known evidence. Most scientific data that has been presented to date suggests vaccines work well against all variants.

A study in South Africa early this year suggested the AstraZeneca vaccine may be substantially weakened by the variant there. But Ireland is no longer reliant on AstraZeneca and all the others still work well. Until empirical evidence emerges to change this picture, reopening should remain the aspiration.

There is much at stake. Céad Míle Fáilte is not just some trite tourism slogan or a greeting that is bellowed amid the merriment of St Patrick’s Day. Industry research proves that the open attitude of locals to foreign visitors is a major driver of international tourism, which was worth almost €6 billion to this island’s economy before the pandemic came along and swept the whole lot into the sea.

The State’s tourism agencies, Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland, track the moods of foreign visitors. In a 2018 survey, Fáilte Ireland asked foreign holidaymakers how their trips here measured against expectation. About 63 per cent said it met expectations and just over a third said it exceeded them.

Of those, 64 per cent put it down to the welcoming nature of Irish people. In this regard, it was four times as important as our famed scenery, and almost twice as important as Irish history and culture.

What a pity it would be if this, our best and most renewable natural resource, was corroded by the restrictions that are in place as part of the public health response to the virus. Make no mistake – the threat of such corrosion is real.

In January, an academic psychology journal, Human Arenas, published a paper by Parul Bansal, a psychology professor affiliated with the University of Delhi. Her research – The Ravaged Psyche: Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on the Human Mind – found that it is not the virus that becomes the object of fear, but rather it is a fear of other people, as “outsiders are all seen as potential carrier of illness and death”.

“The link between imagining disease and imagining the other together is rooted in the notion of one’s own home as a safe and clean place that must be protected from lethal diseases and the ‘outsiders’ who carry them,” she wrote.

The academic explained that this is a psychological defence mechanism to shift blame for the spread of the disease on to outsiders. Bansal linked this to the way that infectious diseases are often named according to their perceived links to foreign countries, for example the German Measles, Spanish Flu, or South Asian Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).

This attitude has been apparent in Ireland during the times when we were most afraid of the virus. In January, when daily infection rates were topping 6,000 or 7,000 per day, we stripped off for an orgy of blame. The hospitality sector, which credibly was the source of some of the infection, at first received a completely exaggerated share of the blame because the Government had varied from the National Public Health Emergency Team’s advice about reopening the sector before Christmas.

After that died down and it became obvious that a new UK variant was also driving the surge infection rates, travel became the next scapegoat.

Day after day throughout January and February, elected politicians, mostly from the left and who should have known better than to be stoking up a fear of outsiders, went on to the national airwaves and suggested that if only Ireland had shut its borders, none of this carnage would be happening.

This has been said ad nauseum, but it was never possible to keep the UK variant off an island that is a fifth inside the United Kingdom. Just as a country integrated into the European Union could never have kept out variants that spread from Spain and elsewhere last summer. It is obtuse to keep suggesting otherwise.

The truth about the misery and suffering that spread around Ireland in January and February is that, mostly, we did most of that to ourselves. We met in each other’s houses and took risks with our families, because we missed them.

But rather than admit this, it was easier to succumb to a fear of what had come in from outside. Subsequently, we implemented mandatory hotel quarantine, a catastrophic policy that even most Cabinet members don’t believe in. It has made Ireland stick out like a xenophobic thumb in the EU. That shouldn’t be us.

When the European Commission, as well as governments of friendly nations such as France and Italy, berate Ireland for trashing our principles like that, we should listen. But, stubborn lest they have to do another policy U-turn, Ministers have stuck their fingers in their ears and are sticking with it.

If after the pandemic it becomes clear that mandatory hotel quarantine made no real difference to the outcome, it will stay as a stain on our virus response.

New Zealand is often held up as an example of a country that has dealt well with the virus. It has implemented quarantine policies with rigour. But New Zealand, too, will eventually have to deal with the long-term social and economic effects on of stirring up a fear of outsiders. Those effects have started already.

This week, its minister for tourism, Stuart Nash, announced that the government there has decided on a long-term strategy of winding down a lot of its inbound international tourism, citing “sustainability”.

But what it boils down to is that even after the pandemic is gone, New Zealand has decided that it doesn’t want too many international visitors. The shift will require massive transfusions of New Zealand taxpayers’ cash to areas that were once dependent on tourism for economic survival.

There are people in this country, including some senior politicians with influence over the tourism sector, who covet a similar approach for Ireland. I think that would be a massive pity. We have lost much to coronavirus. What a shame if we also lose any of that part of our make-up that is welcoming and generous towards foreign visitors. Wanting them to come here is a part of that generosity.

The time will come, perhaps towards late in the summer, when it is safe and sensible to open up Ireland to outside visitors. We should grasp that opportunity when it arrives, and not be afraid.

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