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Fintan O’Toole: Let’s end the stand-up tragedy of Ireland’s pandemic policy

There’s a script for what works, so Ireland should stop improvising

We now know how to crush the virus while we wait for mass vaccination to take effect. Photograph: Johnny Milano/Bloomberg

If Ireland was a comedy club, we could call it Tragedy Improv. Policymaking has been essentially ad lib. Whose line is it anyway? The Government’s? Nphet’s? Zero Covid?

A year ago, there was no real choice but to improvise. The coronavirus was new and unknown.The immediate problems were specific and frantically urgent. Grab the personal protective equipment. Get the ventilators. Conjure up extra hospital capacity and more intensive care units. Do it all right now.

Mistakes, in that atmosphere, are inevitable. When it’s all trial and error, no one should be tried for making an error – even when, as in the case of nursing homes and residential institutions – the flaws were fatal.

Error is, moreover, built into the structure of science. It is easy to say that governments should “follow the science”. But science isn’t a set of certainties. A scientific statement – unlike, say, a religious or ideological doctrine – is one that is capable of being shown to be false or inadequate. To follow science is to follow evidence and with a new disease the evidence has been constantly evolving.

So, this time last year, ad-libbing was fair enough. When there has been no time for rehearsals and there is no fixed script, what else are you going to do?

Natural improvisers

It’s also true that, for historical and cultural reasons, Irish people are natural improvisers. Look, for example, at the way we reopened schools last year after the first lockdown. We didn’t do it by good planning or meticulous preparation.

It’s been one long and increasingly unfunny shaggy dog story in which the State pretended to be monitoring incoming travellers and they pretended to self-isolate

We did it by hoping that principals and teachers would juggle everything and not drop too many balls. Miraculously, they pulled it off.

The feat added to the complacent assumption that we could keep winging our way through the crisis. Over time, though, the downsides of improvisation have become more and more apparent. 

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"The health service is a ramshackle pile-up of public and private systems in which preventative and community medicine has been woefully neglected." File photograph: Alan Betson

One is that really successful improvisation depends, paradoxically, on structure. Listen to jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald or fiddle player Martin Hayes – they can reinvent the tune moment to moment because they know its form inside out.

Our problem is that our structures are not solid. Both the command-and-control system for pandemic response and the health service itself are improvised.

The existing procedures for emergency management were inexplicably ditched. And the health service is a ramshackle pile-up of public and private systems in which preventative and community medicine has been woefully neglected.

 It’s like scat singing without a basic tune to riff off. It’s not surprising that we’ve been unable to sustain an integrated testing and tracing system that doesn’t get overwhelmed when it is most needed.

Secondly, there’s a reason why improv is often dreadful. It devolves very easily into mere b******t. This is what happened with foreign travel and quarantine. It’s been one long and increasingly unfunny shaggy dog story in which the State pretended to be monitoring incoming travellers and they pretended to self-isolate. 

We went in December from 30 deaths a week to 300 because the Government thought we could improvise a merry little Christmas for ourselves

Thirdly, there’s only so long anyone can continue to make it up as they go along. It’s exhausting – for the officials and managers who have to do it but also for the society as a whole.

We’ve all been improvising our lives, getting through the days, making do with what consolation and hope we can pick up along the way. On the whole, we’ve done it remarkably well. But we can’t go on simply reacting to events. After a year, we need to feel that we are able, at least to some extent, to control them.

Winging it

Finally, and most importantly, there’s an inverse relationship between the state of knowledge on the one hand and the justification for winging it on the other. If you’re in the dark, you have no choice but to feel your way around. The more lights come on, the less excuse you have for bumping into the furniture.

The pandemic has turned the world into a giant laboratory for trial and error. Over time, it has become more and more obvious what works and what doesn’t.

Our public health authorities thought, last spring, that there was no need to ban visitors from nursing homes. Then they changed their minds. They thought that there was no point in wearing face masks. They learned that they were wrong. But there has been far too little capacity to learn the big lesson – that the pattern of lockdown and release, lockdown and release, does not work. 

Hundreds of people have died unnecessarily to teach us that lesson. We went in December from 30 deaths a week to 300 because the Government thought we could improvise a merry little Christmas for ourselves. The least we can do, when knowledge is bought at such a terrible price, is to apply it.

To do this, we have to stop pretending that Ireland is different, that strategies that have worked in Australia or Taiwan or Finland couldn’t possibly work here because we’re more open and connected than those societies. We’re not.

Our stand-up tragedy show has been on stage for far too long. There’s now a working script for how to crush the virus while we wait for mass vaccination to take effect. The job of the Irish authorities is not to keep inventing one on the hoof. It’s to adapt it for a local audience.  

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Fintan O’Toole: Let’s end the stand-up tragedy of Ireland’s pandemic policy

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