Ireland is running low on loopers. If we don’t watch out, we could emerge from the pandemic with our reputation for wildness completely shredded. We are in danger of being exposed as the sanest people in Europe.
Vaccines go into the arm, but also into the brain. They are a kind of probe sent into the national consciousness. In Ireland’s case, the probe has discovered exciting evidence of intelligent life.
Since the first great lockdown last year, Eurofound has been monitoring public attitudes to vaccination across the EU. What its surveys reveal is that the country with the highest level of acceptance of the need to be vaccinated is Ireland.
If you believe that the virus is a hoax, that the vaccine has a satanic code and/or a microchip embedded in it [...] you will believe anything
In February and March, when vaccination programmes were getting under way in earnest, 86.5 per cent of Irish people said they were either very or rather likely to get their jabs. The equivalent figures for Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands were in the low sixties. In France, just 48.7 per cent said they were likely to get vaccinated.
Conversely, hardcore vaccine sceptics made up 29 per cent of the French, 24 per cent of the Germans and 25 per cent of the Dutch and Austrians. In Ireland the proportion saying they were “very unlikely” to get vaccinated was just over 6 per cent.
This is very good news. It’s good in itself because it has fed through into a very high take-up of vaccinations in Ireland, which helps to protect us all. But it’s also good because anti-vax sentiment is a kind of biological marker for dangers to democracy. It tells us how susceptible a society is to misinformation, to conspiracy theories, to paranoia and to rampant individualist egotism.
If you believe that the virus is a hoax, that the vaccine has a satanic code and/or a microchip embedded in it, that wearing masks will cause brain damage to children, you will believe anything. And in the end, people who believe anything will do anything. The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.
Ireland is not free of these threats. We have a very noisy coterie of far-right activists and anti-science zealots. But look at the huge protests in France and Greece over the weekend – we’ve had nothing on that scale.
[In Ireland] perhaps we have been inoculated against fanaticism by the experiences of recent decades
Why is this? Why do countries like France and Germany, which think of themselves as bulwarks of European democracy, have such alarming levels of loopiness and we don’t?
It’s not an easy question to answer. The most obvious thing to reach for is political culture. Distrust of the state is obviously a big factor, but it works in different ways in different countries. Germany and the US, for example, have very similar levels of vaccine scepticism – but perhaps for opposite reasons.
In Germany, the distrust may be a legacy of both Nazism and communism, which would make it a toxic side-effect of an essentially healthy impulse. In the US, it is an expression of the anti-government strain in American culture that Donald Trump both drew on and amplified.
Ireland, on the other hand, has a very high level of trust in government. (This does not mean trust in “the Government”.) We love to complain about what governments are up to and they can usually be relied on to feed our appetite for grievance. But there is a very strong underlying identification with the State.
Yet I'm not entirely convinced that this fully explains the huge gaps between countries. I would have thought that Spain, as a state, is much more contested (in Catalonia for example) than France is. But the Spanish have vastly more positive attitudes to vaccination.
And then we have to consider that there is a country in Europe with even higher levels of trust in the vaccine than Ireland has. It is Great Britain. In the most recent survey, just 4 per cent of Brits reported vaccine hesitancy. Does that suggest that Britain is a polity at ease with itself? Or is it just that the vaccine is associated with one of the institutions that people really do trust, the NHS?
We've had a test of our collective capacity for reason and of our acquired resistance to hazardous nonsense. We've passed it with considerable honour
So political explanations – the strength of the far right, the level of trust in government – obviously matter, but go only so far. I’m inclined to think that in Ireland’s case at least there is something deeper at work: perhaps we have been inoculated against fanaticism by the experiences of recent decades.
We’ve had a long and deep exposure to monomania. We’ve had the religious extremism that had such terrible consequences for women and children. We’ve had the nationalist zealotry that fed a 30-year cycle of atrocities.
If it’s true that we have built up antibodies to dangerous loopers because of these collective experiences, then that relative immunity has been very hard won. Far too many people had to suffer for it to build up in our systems.
All the more reason, then, to value it. We’ve had a test of our collective capacity for reason and of our acquired resistance to hazardous nonsense. We’ve passed it with considerable honour.
It may take some getting used to: the cool, phlegmatic Irish, addicted to rationality and logic. Thank God we’ll always have Hollywood to keep the other version of ourselves alive.