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Diarmaid Ferriter: Island mentality and threat of infection

Offshore communities have mixed feelings about Covid-19’s geographic access

Staring out at Clare Island and Inishturk Island from mainland Mayo last week, I thought of the observation of the late Tim Robinson: that if Ireland was intriguing as an island off the west coast of Europe, then its offshore islands were even more fascinating as “Ireland raised to the power of two”.

It’s an idea that carries even more weight in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. When historians come to assess the global response to the current public health crisis, how islands fared will make for interesting reading. There has been much interest in the success of New Zealand in taking advantage of its island status to lock down hard and fast with far-reaching and positive results. Yet the reappearance of the virus there this week is a reminder that even that fortress is not impregnable and there will be much debate about the appropriateness of using a sledgehammer to smash what appears not even a tiny nut by locking down Auckland again.

By early June, according to the Coronavirus Resource Centre at Johns Hopkins University, NZ had 1,504 cases of Covid-19 and only 22 deaths. In contrast, Ireland – cited as another island nation with a similar population – had more than 25,000 cases and 1,679 deaths. The idea of taking advantage of being an island to aim for elimination of the virus will remain an attractive proposition for some. But Irish politicians have frequently batted away questions that focus on Ireland’s resistance to the NZ approach, citing the remoteness of NZ and the complications in Ireland as a result of the internal border and our exceptional interconnectedness.

Historically, islanders have had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to visitors, who were seen as both a blessing and a curse

Geography is of course crucial; the fact that NZ is a relatively isolated island has greatly helped its strategy. It also has a low population density, meaning the virus cannot travel as easily. Yet the NZ experience has not just been about geography, but also vigorous locating, testing, and quarantining in the proper sense.


Health vs economics

Closer to home, the reaction of residents of our offshore islands to the idea of preventing access is not uniform as they try to balance health and economic concerns, and in that sense they are indeed Ireland raised to the power of two. I heard numerous complaints last week of a packed Achill Island and the pressures that is generating. Strictly speaking, of course, Achill is not an island since it was linked to the mainland by a bridge opened in 1887, but it has been maintained that Achill remained in essence an island; according to the painter Paul Henry, who found it an ideal artistic haven, “it held all the islander’s susceptibilities to the outside world although only a few hundred yards separated it from the mainland”.

Central to the narrative of Ireland's modernisation and progress has been the opening-up of the island to trade and people to end isolation

Our island communities, however, have to be particularly careful; Inishturk, for example, which has fewer than 50 full-time residents, most of them pensioners, would be hard-hit by any importation of the virus. Some of the Aran Islanders have also voiced concerns about the extent of both overseas and Irish visitors; other islanders have complained of mixed messages from central government and wanted the islands to remain closed for longer, while health services on different islands are not uniform.

Mainland invaders

Historically, islanders have had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to visitors, who were seen as both a blessing and a curse. The English poet John Masefield read JM Synge’s book on the Aran Islands before it was published and told Lady Gregory in 1903 it was uniquely good, but added ominously, “I am afraid its publication will send scores of tweeded beasts to the islands, but that cannot be helped.” In Covid times, there are 21st-century versions of those invaders and they inevitably generate mixed feelings.

Central to the narrative of Ireland’s modernisation and progress has been the opening-up of the island to trade and people to end isolation, but the question will remain as to whether that continuing impulse hinders the capacity to deal with the pandemic as best we might; that not to take advantage of our island status means we can only get the job half done. Yet that assumes the job can be fully done, a questionable assumption as NZ this week discovered. While the geography lessons are interesting, and we are all preoccupied with futurology in relation to a vaccine, our most useful guide at the moment remains history. In dealing with the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, public health interventions were crucial and included closures, social distancing, avoidance of crowds and use of face masks. In 2007, historical medical and scientific studies in the US charted death rates in US cities during the Great Flu and revealed death rates were about 50 per cent lower in cities that implemented preventative measures early on and that relaxing intervention measures too early caused otherwise stabilised cities to relapse. It looks like the need for us all to make ourselves mini-islands will remain the dominant message.