The Covid-19 pandemic has closed down so many of the everyday activities that sustain us, forcing us to spend more time at home and to reconsider what is most important in our lives. Many of us yearn to go back to cinemas, galleries, theatres and gigs, and to travel to other places for inspiration and renewal.
But many of us also don’t yearn to go back – or not to go back to exactly the way things were. The pandemic gives societies an opportunity to push the reset button and to introduce social, economic, legal and political changes that will enhance our lives into the future.
Here we focus on 16 transformative ideas with the potential to enhance Irish society – so that when we go back, we also move forward.
Change manager and entrepreneur Aisling Costello’s ConTenTed is a social innovation for the camping community that links up campers and public and private landowners. The aim is to give people options to go to eco-friendly pop-up campsites in scenic locations.
Costello believes that ConTenTed could offer space, tranquility and freedom from locked-up lives for those who are looking for a way to reconnect with family and friends in a safe environment, while experiencing the great outdoors.
“I love camping and my research found that four out of five people enjoy camping but not necessarily in Ireland. I realised that this is because they wanted big spacious sites in nature with activities like walks and cycles direct from the campsite, and these pop-up sites can provide just that,” she says.
She also discovered that for short trips people don’t need a lot of facilities on site. So, through her website, contented.ie, campers can check out when a landowner offers a weekend of camping. They can either bring their own tent or rent a luxury one on site.
“With guidelines for the logistics of toilets, insurance, parking, security, etc, all from an eco-friendly standpoint, landowners don’t need to reinvent the wheel and campers don’t need to worry about the environmental impact of their experience. And of course with camping, social distancing is guaranteed,” she adds. Contactcontented@gmail.com
A specialist centre for infectious diseases
“Covid has given us a scare and moving forward, we will need to have a [dedicated] centre with expertise in infectious diseases,” says Prof Jack Lambert, clinical professor of infectious diseases at University College Dublin and consultant in infectious diseases at the Mater hospital.
The Mater hospital has a six-bed isolation unit to handle very small numbers of people with highly infectious diseases that are deemed to be of “high consequence”. Lambert suggests Ireland needs a national infectious diseases centre that could provide training, education and resources to other hospitals in the future.
“It would be the referral centre and a resource centre to support other hospitals. We’ve seen how smaller hospitals have struggled during the Covid-19 pandemic. And Covid is not an isolated event because there have been huge changes in the last 10-20 years in zoonotic diseases – diseases that spread from animals to humans – in part due to global warming, so we need a centre that could plan for our responses to future pandemics,” he says.
Cheap retrofitting loans
The national Climate Action Plan aims to retrofit 500,000 homes by 2030, yet just more than 6,500 homes were retrofitted to a B2 BER rating in 2018 and 2019 combined.
Many people have spent more time than ever in their homes during the pandemic and, arguably, have become more aware of the costs of keeping them warm. Yet in spite of grants for up to one third of the costs for improving the energy efficiency of our homes, Irish people are still reluctant to get the work done.
Laura Heuston of consultancy business Sustainability Works says that this is partly due to not wanting the disruption of having builders in our homes. It is also because people haven’t fully realised the benefits of warmer homes with lower heating costs. But not being able to afford to pay the other two thirds of the costs involved is perhaps the biggest deterrent, and many commercial lenders are reluctant to offer cheap loans to fund the works.
Sustainability Works proposes a new model in which homeowners can get long-term, low-cost loans from commercial lenders to fund retrofitting. In this model, a one-stop shop would signpost the sources of cheap finance to homeowners, while also connecting them to certified retrofitting experts.
With such a model in place, the homeowner would be assured of quality work and the commercial lenders would be able to provide the low-cost finance when a grant scheme supports some of the costs of the retrofitting. A new report from Sustainability Works, Financing Energy Efficiency in Ireland: A Handbook on the Residential Sector, explains this in more detail.
An opportunity for personal transformation
The Covid pandemic has offered us all a unique opportunity for personal transformation, according to Jim Lucey, psychiatrist and author of the new book, A Whole New Plan for Living: Achieving Balance and Wellness in a Changing World (Hachette). Having worked with people with mental illness for decades at St Patrick’s University Hospital, Dublin, Dr Lucey believes it is time for a fresh approach.
Lockdowns have provided us with a lot of time for self-examination and reflection on our close relationships – good and bad. But to move forward, we need to make a personal plan for living. This, according to Dr Lucey, is not something flippant or facetious but a genuine attempt to approach our lives with a “hopeful heart and an open mind” and with a desire for self-care, care for others and care for the world.
“On a blank piece of paper, write your name. Ask yourself: Who am I? What am I? How can I love and be loved?” he suggests. “Look inwards and look outwards. Be meaningful and authentic. Connect with others. We have become constrained by so many social circumstances and distortions and many of us are not engaging fully with our lives. If you fail to reach a goal, lower your expectations and try again tomorrow. Self-care and love has to be at the heart of your plan.”
Wildlife zones within 5km
Irish Wildlife Trust campaign officer Pádraic Fogarty says that when confined to a 5km zone, many people have discovered that their local green spaces aren’t great. “They are overly manicured grassland, close to heavy traffic or polluted waterways with very few plants, insects or birds, leaving little opportunity for discovery or finding wonder,” he says.
Fogarty suggests we should have the right to wild nature within 5km of our homes. “Local people, who know their area best, could propose such areas to their local authority. The county councils could designate them in development plans with full legal protection and we could also enshrine the right to wild nature in our Constitution,” he says.
According to Fogarty, such wilderness zones could be small (a chunk of an existing town park or a stretch of river) or large (a hillside or marine area), creating a network of thousands of new nature reserves all over Ireland. “Local communities could manage them with State financing and expertise,” he suggests.
A new model for nursing homes
Nursing homes have come under huge pressure during the Covid-19 pandemic, not least because of the large numbers of residents and staff who share facilities, which has made infection-control measures difficult to achieve. Many experts believe the time is right to move away from the traditional model of nursing-home care.
The World Health Organisation has said that the traditional models of residential or nursing-home care perpetuate outdated ideas and ways of working which often focus on keeping older people alive rather than on supporting dignified living and maintaining their intrinsic capacity. Creating domestic-style “household” spaces could be more nurturing and mutually supportive. These communities would shift away from environments where residents are seen as passive recipients of care to ones where people – staff and residents – are engaged in mutually supporting each other.
In such a model, the nursing station and large dining and recreational spaces would be replaced by spaces that resemble a family home. “The kitchen/dining area would become the hearth of the home, yet people have their own private spaces to retreat to in line with their own personal preferences,” says Nisha Joy, manager of CareBright Community in Bruff, Co Limerick.
The CareBright Community has created a purpose-built household model of care for people living with dementia. There are three bungalows on a four-acre site, each with a homely kitchen and living area, nook areas and private bedrooms with an adjoining private garden.
Rethink towns and villages
After 20 years working with refugees in war-torn countries including Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan and Sri Lanka, Shane Cogan returned to Ireland during the pandemic. He was shocked to see the demise of many small towns and villages in his home county of Roscommon.
“Decades of social and economic marginalisation and lack of government investment seemed to be the main reasons for the decline but there was also a lack of hope and motivation,” says Cogan. While on the creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship course at University College Dublin’s Innovation Academy, he developed the social enterprise Rethinking Rural Ireland.
His plan is to offer small rural towns empathic leadership to develop and fund innovative projects to give their areas a fresh identity and a new brand. “Things like co-working spaces, new walkways and greenways are good for people’s health and have a knock-on effect on local businesses. My idea is to bring people together of all faiths and nationalities to produce long-term, community-led solutions with appropriate funding to make things happen,” says Cogan.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the courts services brought forward modernisations that were planned for the next five years. The use of technology reduced by thousands the daily numbers attending court. “Our virtual, remote courts have facilitated tens of thousands of matters across almost 15,000 remote court hearings organised in its first year of operation,” says Angela Denning, chief executive of the Courts Service.
In many cases, only the registrar was needed in the courtroom, while the judge, lawyers and other participants and observers logged on via a remote link dedicated to that court or hearing. Following these changes, Denning foresees a future of “hybrid courts”, blending the old traditions of the physical courtroom with digital courts that would be suitable for civil, commercial and family-law cases.
A new green policy
Laura Burke, director general of the Environmental Protection Agency, says the pandemic gives us an opportunity to reset our ambition for the environment now, not when healthcare and the economy are sorted out. “During the pandemic, people have recognised the importance of the environment. Emissions went down and air quality improved, but if things go back to normal there will be a rebound,” she says.
She suggests that to improve Ireland’s environmental standards, we need a “generational goal with environmental objectives set by parliament” like what exists in countries such as Sweden. “We need an all-party committee on the environment which meets and sends in proposals to Government, so we can hand over to the next generation a society in which the major environmental challenges have been solved.
“We need to put all the environmental actions together because water and air quality and biodiversity are all interconnected with climate, but if we deal with them separately, they become competing issues with unintended consequences,” she says, citing the diesel cars issues as a case in point (Diesel cars were previously encouraged because of their lower carbon dioxide emissions yet they emit other gases that pollute the air).
“If we solve climate, we’ll only address some of the environmental issues. The key will be that such an all-party environmental committee would pull together all sectors of society – agriculture, business, tourism, etc, and have oversight mechanisms to monitor and report to Government to make long-term decisions for the improvement of our environment.”
Irish-language broadcaster, writer and film-maker Ola Majekodunmi says that when people ask “How are you?” now, they really want to know the answer, whereas before most people were too busy, too distracted or too selfish to think beyond their own problems.
“I think people became less fearful about talking about their mental health during the pandemic. I also think that many people who don’t experience racism have understood it better because the pandemic has allowed them to think outside their own space. Everyone has become kinder,” she says. She believes Ireland would become a better place if this kindness lasted after the pandemic has passed.
“There is a greater willingness and openness to hear other people’s stories and let other people speak. I found that after the Black Lives Matter events in Ireland, a lot of people reached out to check in on me. And I think virtual events have allowed more people to speak out, so I’d like to see these online events continue after the pandemic even when live events return.”
Reimagine remote working
Senator Alice-Mary Higgins believes that the rise in remote working during the pandemic can be an opportunity to reimagine work, but “it must be a positive option, not a deepening of the casual or gig economy”.
She says that the pandemic has highlighted the essential work of homecare and childcare that were previously often invisible in workplaces. “Productivity increased during the pandemic and employees were trusted to do their work and not apologise for caring responsibilities. We need to be honest about how work happens in the context of lived lives with families and other commitments,” she says.
“The danger is that flexible remote workers aren’t given responsibility, so there needs to be opportunities for progression for remote workers,” she adds.
Higgins suggests that strong legislation will be needed to protect remote workers – some of whom may work in community hubs rather than their own homes. “Remote workers will need to have the right to collective bargaining. And we will need to look at the right to request flexible work and the right to disconnect as people need to be able to plan their lives,” she says.
Underpinning all of this, according to Higgins, is more resources and regulation for the currently “undervalued and underpaid” childcare and homecare sector.
Ireland’s first remote-working strategy was published in January 2021 with a plan to make remote working a permanent option for life after Covid-19.
Jens Thoms Ivarsson, designer and artist from Gothenburg in Sweden, will speak at ideas conference Riot: Sligo 2021 on March 23rd and 24th about using rain as a creative resource. “The pandemic has encouraged cities to use public space for humans again, and what we do is make being outdoors enjoyable even when it’s raining,” says Ivarsson.
The Rain Gothenburg project has put poems on manhole lids and created “rain art” by using colours that only appear when the concrete pavements are wet. It has also created two playgrounds with shelters where water is gathered into something children can play with.
“Most people appreciate falling water when it’s done in an inspiring way and we work with city architects, engineers and planners to add more green and blue infrastructure to the city,” he says.
At Riot: Sligo 2021, Ivarsson will speak about how with more intense rainfall and droughts resulting from climate change, towns and cities in the west of Ireland can build more robust and attractive water drainage systems and use water to create experiences that people can enjoy.
Proper food, shelter, education and healthcare
There is no real doubt that the most effective investment we can make in rebuilding Ireland after the pandemic is in children, says The Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole. “We should in any case be ensuring that every child has proper food, shelter, education and healthcare – it’s the most basic promise the Republic made when it was declared by the first Dáil in 1919. Every study shows that money spent in early childhood returns to the State many times over in later savings and more productive lives.
“But the coronavirus crisis has upped the stakes for children who are coping with disabilities, vulnerability, marginalisation and living with the threat and actuality of poverty. It’s been a hard time for all our kids and they’ve been brilliantly resilient. It’s also had the worst effects on those who can least afford them. Disruptions to schooling and social lives will leave them even further behind,” he says.
“We don’t have to tolerate this. There are superb programmes, both here and abroad, for helping kids and their families through those crucial early years. We know what works – consistent support from pregnancy through to primary school. It just needs the political will that in turn comes from our concern as citizens to make sure that those who are too often unseen are not, yet again, unheard.”
Lessen inequality among Irish people
Lorraine Maher is a consultant and trainer who works with the I Am Irish community. The group connects with, advocates for and empowers Irish people with multiple heritages and ethnicities, while challenging perceptions of what being Irish looks and sounds like.
Maher would like to see policies emerging from the pandemic that work against the inequalities that Covid-19 brought to the surface. “Just think that 60 per cent of the global population doesn’t have a computer and the whole of society – parents and children – became more reliant on computers during the pandemic.
“The pandemic has also made it more difficult to ignore issues around housing. And black, Asian and minority-ethnic individuals are at greater risk of death from Covid-19 so we need health policies that recognise that,” she says.
Maher would also like to see services that reflect the needs of people with multiple heritages or ethnicities. “Many people of multi-ethnicity identify as Irish and the system must understand the nuances of their particular health needs and the school curriculum must include their experiences in its representation of what it is to be Irish,” she says.
Maher would also like better consultation so that multi-ethnic Irish people are asked: “Is this what you really think is needed in our society?” Maher will speak at Riot: Sligo 2021, a two-day conference on rethinking our living spaces, created by Sligo County Council and Creative Ireland.
The Irish Times columnist David McWilliams says that when thinking about policies, a helpful starting point is to kick off with the question: “If we didn’t inherit this policy and we had a blank page, would this policy be the policy we would choose?”
Many policies or systems would not look anything like the ones we have inherited and are operating within, suggests McWilliams.
He says: “If I had a blank page, I would start small and focus on dereliction in our cities and towns. Dereliction is vandalism, both from an architectural and economic point of view. It is a deeply anti-social act, as it undermines the street, makes the place less attractive by undermining the social capital of the area. Buildings are allowed to decay because there is no cost to the owner for such defacement.
“Let’s make vandalism expensive. Buildings are destroyed not because their owners are too poor; they are too rich. Only the truly wealthy can afford to let an urban asset go to waste. If a building is let go to ruin, there should be a hefty tax put on such anti-social behaviour. In contrast, a tax break should be offered to a new owner who undertakes to rebuild the neglected building.”
Reform the Leaving Cert
We’ve been talking about reforming the Leaving Cert for decades, says Carl O’Brien, The Irish Times Education Editor. “Most agree the exams are narrow, inflexible and don’t capture the wide range of students’ learning and potential. Yet little, fundamentally, has been done to alter the system – until last year.
“Ironically, the calculated grades system – hatched in the space of a few months – could offer a template for future reform. It is based on teachers’ estimates of student performance during senior cycle, combined with a standardisation process. This is a seismic shift for an education system where changes are typically slow and cautious. Suddenly, wider reform of the exams seems possible in a way it hasn’t before,” he says.
“Recommended changes are being finalised by the State advisory body on the curriculum, which has been consulting with teachers, students and parents in recent years.
“An interim report found an appetite for exams to be spaced out over a two-year period and a much broader array of assessment methods such as projects, teamwork and portfolios. A final report – to be published soon – is understood to suggest ideas such as allowing students to gain points for accredited work experience or apprenticeships while still in school. This would broaden students’ exposure to vocational options and ensure the Leaving Cert isn’t simply a filter for entry to third level.”