Coronavirus: In one month, the Republic has pushed Covid-19 back

Amid death and infection, our lives have changed, but lethal battle remains

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan. Photograph: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan. Photograph: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

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“Lá Fhéile Pádraig shona daoibh! This is a St Patrick’s Day like no other. A day that none of us will ever forget.”

It may seem like a lifetime ago but it has been one month since Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told us in a St Patrick’s Day address to “come together as a nation by staying apart from each other”.

The biggest social experiment ever attempted in this country was, as everyone foresaw, rolled over after a two-week period. After some delay, the Taoiseach’s gently proffered directions were given teeth through the enactment of draconian laws requiring citizens to have a “reasonable excuse” for being outside.

In his March 17th address to the television cameras, Varadkar warned: “We cannot stop this virus but working together we can slow it in its tracks and push it back.”

A month on, this central objective has been largely achieved. There have been bumps on the way, and performance in different areas has varied, but much of the health service has prepared well, while the blow to the economy and to our individual livelihoods has been cushioned for now.

At the time the Taoiseach spoke, Ireland had 292 Covid-19 cases and two deaths; now we’ve had some 13,000 people diagnosed with the illness and more than 450 have died.

Despite this upward trajectory, the die was already cast at the time of Varadkar’s address to the nation. The virus was circulating and infecting people rapidly, and the challenge was always going to be to limit its growth first.

Mass social distancing

This has been achieved in large measure; a daily growth rate of more than 33 per cent has been cut to about 6 per cent. Over the space of a month, the number of people contracting the disease from an infected person has dropped from an average of 20 to about three, as mass social distancing has taken effect.

Beyond the numbers, however, we have endured those “difficult days” envisaged by the Taoiseach as thousands have fallen ill and hundreds have died.

The expected frontline of the battle with coronavirus has shifted too. Despite difficulties with personal protective equipment, hospitals have coped well with the expected surge of patients by clearing out other business more effectively than expected and by ramping up capacity. The numbers of infected people in intensive care units (ICU) are stable and even falling slightly this week.

Sadly, nursing homes and other residential centres have fared less well. The warning signs were there from an early stage, including a lack of specific guidelines, a lack of engagement with the sector and a lack of transparency.

Frail exposed

Today, the virus is present in hundreds of care homes, which account for more than half of all deaths. An inquiry into how so many mostly elderly and frail residents, as well as poorly protected staff, were left exposed is inevitable at some point in the future.

May 5th is the new date for when the restrictions may end, but only a wild optimist believes a blanket departure from the measures is likely then.

Ireland is, at least, near the top of the graph, probably. Having endured the Taoiseach’s “calm before the storm” and coped with the surge, we can soon look forward to cases and deaths beginning to fall.

The problem is that there is no clear way out of this. While everything in our lives has changed, in terms of the challenge we still face, nothing has changed.

Other countries may be easing their restrictions at present, but these moves are tentative.

The science tells us the virus can and will return if social distancing ends. And if distancing stays, our lives stay altered immeasurably, at least until a vaccine is developed.

In another demonstration of the challenge posed by this disease, a study published on Thursday in Nature found people were most infectious in the days before they showed symptoms.

The only way to cope with it for now will be to build the testing and contact-tracing system we have so far failed to properly develop.

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