The Irish Times view on the coronavirus pandemic: a time for resolve and solidarity

How the crisis plays out on the island is still something we can control

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar  alongside Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan at Government Buildings in Dublin on Tuesday. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar alongside Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan at Government Buildings in Dublin on Tuesday. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

With coronavirus spreading rapidly across Europe, every hour of every day will count in the effort to manage the infection rate – and keep down the death toll – on the island. The threat posed by Covid-19 is neither abstract nor hypothetical. In a matter of weeks, since it hit hard in China, the virus has travelled the globe at an alarming rate, ravaging northern Italy and eventually reaching every European state. The Republic has 43 reported cases, Northern Ireland 18. There may be large gaps in our knowledge about the disease, but we have enough information to know that the threat of large-scale loss of life is very real, and that a failure to limit the spread could very quickly put health systems under intolerable strain.

This will require national resolve and social solidarity. How the crisis plays out on the island is still in our hands. For individuals, that means taking sensible but essential steps in our daily lives, including regular hand-washing, observing good coughing etiquette, frequent surface-cleaning and avoiding close contact with people who are not well. It will also involve families and communities looking out for their most vulnerable members, in particular older people who may feel concerned or isolated in the coming weeks.

The quicker the State’s testing criteria are widened, the better

Some of the most difficult but consequential decisions will fall to Government. Advised by public health doctors, Ministers must decide when and how to step up measures to contain and delay the spread of the virus. With 43 confirmed cases and the first death, the scale of the outbreak in the Republic is in line with or lower than EU states of comparable size. But that’s not a reason for complacency – it’s merely an indication that we may have a few days before the worst effects begin to hit. We know that, in nearly every affected country, there are more cases than the authorities are aware of. Other countries’ crises also show us that social distancing works, but that if the infection rate exceeds the critical care capacity of a health system, the death rate will rise. We also know that the more testing that is done, the quicker vulnerable people can be protected. The quicker the State’s testing criteria are widened, the better.

The Government has responded decisively on the economic front, with €3 billion in funding to mitigate the worst effects of the crisis. It cancelled St Patrick’s Day parades but has so far resisted calls to close schools and cancel large gatherings, saying public health officials have not yet recommended such measures. The key point is communication: the need for public buy-in demands that the reasons for these decisions be shared. In a similar vein, the authorities should be able to release more information on the nature of the outbreak in Ireland. The stakes here are very high. And all the evidence to date shows that the only way to fight Covid-19 is through a fast, decisive and large-scale national response.

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