Divisions ‘risk eroding public trust’ in Covid-19 struggle

Irish medic Mike Ryan of World Health Organisation troubled about ‘restraints fatigue’

Divisions over how to fight Covid-19 risk causing an "existential breach in public trust" that will make it impossible to contain the pandemic, World Health Organisation (WHO) expert Dr Mike Ryan has warned.

The Irish doctor running the organisation’s health emergencies programme expressed concern around the “negative and destructive narrative” emerging on the public health actions needed to combat the virus.

Speaking on a webinar hosted by the London-based international relations think tank Chatham House, Dr Ryan said that during a recent interview on Irish radio he could feel people’s frustration and how they were “getting peed off” by Covid-19 public health measures.

There needed to be “absolute clarity” from governments on how they planned to deal with the virus over the next six months to secure public support for action, he said. He warned against making governments “the whipping boys and girls” of the public health response aimed at stemming the spread of the virus.


“There are huge trade-offs here. There are really difficult choices here in as much as we need to support governments on being able to achieve that,” he said.

“We have seen the impact of division and we are at that point where the levels of frustration, and the levels of disappointment and exhaustion are such that the danger is we turn on each other, not on the virus.”

The Irish epidemiologist and public health expert urged politicians and the public to “find a common way forward or else this is going to get really, really nasty and that is not going to help our response to this pandemic”.

‘You cannot contain epidemics’

Public trust is “at the centre” of successful action against the virus, he said.

“The current risk that we run is of an existential breach in public trust. Without trust, you cannot contain epidemics. It just doesn’t happen,” he said.

Dr Ryan said that it was easy to take potshots at a minister for health and cautioned opposition politicians and others to be careful around their motives for questioning governments outside of constructive criticism as it could erode public confidence in a country’s response in the pandemic.

“Is this going to help us stop this disease or is this aimed at scoring points?” he said in response to a question from The Irish Times on the risks of public fatigue in the Covid-19 response.

He said that governments needed to come up with public health plans, as the northern hemisphere heads towards winter, to avoid “lurching back to a very, very blunt instrument of widespread lockdowns”.

Lockdowns are “not a sustainable solution”, he added, and that the “central pillar” of a response was the capacity to identify and isolate positive cases and their contacts and to test suspect cases.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent