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Fintan O’Toole: Even before Covid-19, we feared an impending disaster

The new government will have to dispel the despair that lingers from the last decade

Anxiety was already in the Irish air even before coronavirus was. The groundwork for the Sign of the Times study of Irish attitudes was done in February, before the threat from Covid-19 loomed large in the public consciousness.

Yet here are some of the phrases that emerged: “an underlying a sense of anxiety, with many feeling that we’re living on the edge”; “feels like it wouldn’t take much for it to come crashing down; “no evidence of a back-up plan”. One respondent pointed to the way early childcare facilities had almost closed in December because they couldn’t get insurance. “Crisis averted this time, but what will be next?” One of the things Irish people were afraid of was a “major healthcare crisis”.

This prescience might seem mystical, as if the nation was reading its tarot cards and turning up all the bad omens. In the context of what was then a booming economy with technically full employment, this level of dread is all the more remarkable. The giant cranes, totems of boomtime, were dominating the skyline. Investment in Ireland, private and public, was projected to reach €2 billion a week during 2020. The most obvious problems were growing pains: there were too few houses and public services were too constrained for a rapidly rising population. Yet there we were, even in our ignorance of what was coming: the worried well.

In thinking about how the pandemic will affect Irish politics, it is important to remember that the body politic had this pre-existing condition. We like to think of ourselves as a happy-go-lucky people. One of the markers of Irish identity that emerged in the Sign of the Times survey, indeed, is the “we’re laid-back, relaxed, it’ll be grand” mentality. But this broad self-image is flatly contradicted by the actual findings. We are not laid-back about the state of our society. We are not relaxed. Even before the disaster hit us, we did not think things would be grand.


If we are to recover from the coronavirus disaster, a new government must start by understanding this pessimism. Faced with a public health emergency on the current scale, it is tempting to think: people have been scared by the virus; therefore, when the virus is under control, they will feel safe again. Tempting because, in an immediate sense, obviously true. Of course, right now, Covid-19 is the sum of all fears. It gives a name and a focus to our trepidations. If and when it is under control, there will indeed be an enormous sigh of relief . And if the Government is seen to have done well, that collective exhalation will give it a fair wind.

But the survey shows how much of a mistake it would be to underestimate the biopanic that was already there. In the individual body, the virus makes the danger from an underlying illness much more acute. But getting rid of the virus doesn’t mean that you don’t still have asthma or diabetes. So it is with the body politic. Seeing off this threat will, we hope, keep Irish democracy alive. But that will not mean that the chronic conditions that have made us so anxious will have disappeared. If anything, the staggering economic costs, if they are unequally borne, will have made those conditions worse.

Why were we already so apprehensive? There are, very broadly, two sets of reasons. One is made up of things that are largely outside our own direct control; the other of things that result directly from our own collective political choices.

In the first category, the two deepest shadows are cast by Brexit and climate change. Given that the survey was done shortly after Brexit became a reality on January 31st, it is unsurprising that it loomed large, with 62 per cent worried about its impact on the Irish economy and 55 per cent fearing its effects on their personal finances. Equally, with the images of the Australian wildfires then dominating the news (remember when that was the apocalypse?) it is to be expected that 70 per cent were “extremely concerned about environmental issues”.

The virus found us in a condition of deep uncertainty about the very foundations of civil society

In terms of how these twin anxieties affected feelings about how Ireland is governed, the effects probably cancelled each other out. The study shows that, on Brexit, people felt "proud of our conduct on the world stage", with "renewed appreciation of our European identity and what EU membership does for us". This is, of course, the positive glow that Fine Gael expected to light its way to victory in February's general election. That it didn't may in some measure be down to the equal and opposite feelings among the public about climate change, the sense of a lack of leadership that is so strongly expressed in Sign of the Times.

So, on the one side, Brexit has made us feel like we had good national leaders and a confident place in Europe. But, on the other, Ireland's shameful record on carbon emissions has made us feel leaderless and out of step with Europe. We are proud in one domain, guilty in another. These mixed feelings are not conducive to a sense of security; we don't quite know what to make of ourselves or of our governing class. And of course neither of these huge issues will be gone when the coronavirus crisis is over. A new government will have to be seen to continue to deal well with Brexit while acquiring a wholly new authority on climate change.

The other category of reasons to be fearful is made up of things that are, at least in principle, under our own control: housing, health, childcare, precarious work. Each of these is important in its own right, but what is most interesting is the way they cohere into a general sense of social fragility. The virus found us in a condition of deep uncertainty about the very foundations of civil society, haunted by a sense that the ground we stood on was cracking beneath our feet.

That feeling that “it wouldn’t take too much for it all to come crashing down” is not hysterical. It has its roots in concrete experience. For things did indeed come crashing down in the earthquake of 2008, the seismic collapse of the great Ponzi scheme of property-based credit. The official narrative is that those faultlines have been closed up, that the debris has all been cleared away. The Sign of the Times survey provides stark evidence that most people don’t believe that story. They feel they are still living in an earthquake zone.

The study is fascinating in what it reveals about attitudes to risk. It makes it clear that people were scarred by the crash and that they wanted to create safety nets for themselves and for Irish society. But those nets were never erected. On the domestic level, it does seem that Irish people wanted to become more German, to create a nation of cautious savers. That desire has been thwarted by the very high cost of living, especially of housing and childcare: most people don’t have enough disposable income to build dykes against future hazards. On the political level, the policies that might underpin a sense of security – housing as a right rather than a commodity, reliably good public services – have not been implemented. Hence the gap between the statistics of a booming economy and the unhappiness of the 60 per cent of people who say they are either just managing to get by or really struggling.

This study shows that the memory of the last big crisis is still very close to the surface

Biopanic is the result. Ireland’s body clocks have been ticking very loudly – people in their late 20s and early 30s anxious about when they will be able to settle down, buy a house and have kids; people in their late 50s and older realising how dependent they are becoming on health and pension systems that do not provide reassurance. Aspirations were postponed in the wake of the crash – but by now it has begun to feel that this was not a postponement, it was a cancellation. The ticket to the middle-class lifestyle is, for very many people, no longer valid. The safe harbour people long for seems as far away as ever.

Where will the Covid-19 crisis leave this pre-existing condition of vulnerability? The answer may be somewhat paradoxical: our collective anxiety may be both assuaged and deepened. On the one hand, Ireland may well come through the crisis with (proportionally) much less loss of life than in the UK. If that does happen, faith in the State will surely be enhanced. If you have been dreading the arrival of an unnamed and unknown crisis and then you survive one much worse than your darkest imaginings, you may feel more confident about the resilience of Irish society and government.

On the other hand, the sense of expectation will be raised. If the public realm shows its mettle under this terrible pressure, what excuse can there be for not being up to the other, more mundane, challenges? In this crucible a sense of collective possibility is being forged. Success – however grimly relative that term may be in the face of so many deaths – will engender a greater impatience with failure.

This study shows that the memory of the last big crisis is still very close to the surface. It has continued to shape, in largely negative ways, the way we feel about ourselves and about Ireland. The great challenge for a new government in dealing with the aftermath of this crisis will be to avoid another dark aftermath with a new set of scars incised over the old ones. It will have to dispel the despair that lingers from the last decade by showing that just as things can be worse than we feared, they can also be much better.