Lessons from the pandemic: Irish Times view on the value of public service

In Ireland and elsewhere, people looked to government to mind them in a moment of peril

In Ireland and elsewhere, people looked to government to mind them in a moment of peril. It responded with unprecedented economic and institutional force and with the disregard for convention that the occasion demanded. Photograph: Getty Images

In Ireland and elsewhere, people looked to government to mind them in a moment of peril. It responded with unprecedented economic and institutional force and with the disregard for convention that the occasion demanded. Photograph: Getty Images

 

It’s far too soon, with Covid-19 still ravaging the world, to say with any certainty how the pandemic will change how we behave, still less how we think. Even in the aftermath of the most profound crises, such as the implosion of the global financial system a decade ago, the irrefutable moral case for radical change can lose out to the entrenched powers of special interests and the gravitational pull of old habits. There is ample evidence from the past year to show that the pandemic has reinforced existing ideologies as much as it has challenged them.

But what have changed, to adapt a phrase used by diplomats, are the facts on the ground. The most obvious, and potentially the most far-reaching, of these facts is the central role of the State. In Ireland and elsewhere, people looked to government to mind them in a moment of peril. It responded with unprecedented economic and institutional force and with the disregard for convention that the occasion demanded.

In Ireland, almost overnight, the State acted aggressively to top up incomes, ban evictions and, in effect, nationalise private healthcare. Systems that would ordinarily take years to set up were established in weeks. A mass vaccination programme got life-saving shots into the arms of 80 per cent of the adult population in a matter of months. In all sorts of areas, from the Leaving Cert to remote working, changes that were once thought impossible occurred in an instant. There were mistakes as well, of course, and it will be important to analyse and learn from them. Institutional checks that were eased in the interests of speed will have to be reimposed. But the point is that in a country where for too long an expansionist State was anathema to prevailing political orthodoxy, the value of an effective, protective public sector was powerfully stated. And people quite liked the results. In a society where public and private have been too often set against one another, the value of public service – whether that of the doctor or the hospital porter, the attentive neighbour or the shop worker who keeps shelves stacked with essentials – has been restored.

We know that big shocks can change societies in lasting ways. The Great Depression led to the New Deal. The second World War helped forge the modern European welfare state. But change is not guaranteed to endure. The historian Joe Lee has observed that the Irish public service has always been capable of rising to meet a clearly-defined crisis; where it struggled was with the more diffuse, long-term problems that set the course of the country’s development. Similarly, the pandemic-era sense of public-spiritedness will not remain by default. But our need for it has never been greater. In global warming, Ireland is about to face a far larger test of its ability to rebalance personal rights in favour of the public good. It will be a test it cannot afford to fail.

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