Coronavirus: Irish Times view on further social lockdown

The behaviour of some over the past two weekends indicates there is no alternative to the State policing us

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan has warned that Ireland "is at an early stage" in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. Video: RTÉ

 

The novel coronavirus does not blow in on the wind. It will not jump randomly from a cyclist’s helmet onto your coat. It cannot pass through car windows, or infect you through your walking boots. You are unlikely to get it from passing a sliotar.

The fine weather on Sunday saw tens of thousands of people take to the country’s beaches, parks and hills, in search of fresh air, sunlight and a break from the anxiety caused by confinement and overexposure to social media. The vast majority appeared to follow the guidelines on social distancing. Unfortunately, others did not.

In theory, there is no reason we cannot continue – unlike Italy, Spain or France – to live our lives with a degree of carefully-calibrated freedom. Going for a walk, run, cycle or drive with your close family units and housemates, while maintaining your distance from all others and avoiding touching common surfaces, is safe. Over time, as this crisis continues, it could become ever more vital. Literally, it couldhelp keep us sane.

KEEP YOUR DISTANCE: Social distancing advice signage erected in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Similar advice has in places been painted onto pavements there. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
Social distancing advice signage erected in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Similar advice has in places been painted onto pavements there. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

So why have other countries stopped their citizens from doing this? It is not simply because their numbers are worse. It is because of trust. Those governments have learned that they cannot trust their people to follow these simple rules. Allowing any degree of outdoor recreation quickly became a licence for allowing any and all outdoor recreation. The only alternative was to ban it altogether.

South Korea and Singapore have brought the virus under control without resorting to lockdowns. But they had the experience of Sars to draw on

This is a form of collective punishment – but it is one many people are calling on themselves. Social media is loud with demands for a total lockdown, now. Perhaps these people are right: it may be that our societies are too big and diffuse – too lacking in what the political scientist Robert Putnam calls “social capital” – to avoid this kind of enforced discipline.

Yet Ireland is a very small country, with an unusually cohesive common culture. Locking society down in its entirety could incubate a further health crisis for the future: one of mental health. That, too, could take lives – as could the economic devastation, which would leave future governments unable to make necessary investment in vital services.

South Korea and Singapore have brought the virus under control without resorting to lockdowns. But they had the experience of Sars to draw on, and rapidly implemented aggressive testing and contact-tracing regimes. Ireland was well behind on this, though, with 41 test centres now open and testing increasing, it seems to be catching up. The challenge is to match that with a popular mobilisation that demonstrates we are capable of self-policing our behaviour in public. The failure of some people to do so over the past two weekends indicates there is no alternative to the State policing us. If so, that is a price worth paying to avoid further tragedy.

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