Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Fintan O'Toole: The State has never got its head around the pandemic

Openness is so fundamental to us that we have failed to shut off the island from danger

Passengers at Dublin airport as the Cabinet met on Monday to discuss tightening travel restrictions. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

For thousands of years, governments trying to deal with plagues were overwhelmed in two ways. They didn’t have the practical systems to cope with disease and death on such a scale. But they were also overwhelmed conceptually. They couldn’t get their heads around what was happening. The same, alas, has been true of our Government and the pandemic.

For most of history, the conceptual problem was that people didn’t know what plagues were. The only way to understand them was as messages. The gods (or God) were using them to tell us something – specifically that we had been very bad and must mend our ways.

So: make more sacrifices, kill the Jews, burn some heretics, scourge yourself with whips. These policies did not work, but they were somewhat satisfying. They interpreted the problem and reacted to it within the existing way of understanding the world.

Winter Nights

Irish governments, like their counterparts all around the world, have had to respond to a threat they should have anticipated but didn’t. They faced in essence the same big challenge: don’t get overwhelmed.


Unlike those rulers in history, they did have the practical systems: the whole infrastructure of health and social care. And all their energy has gone into making sure that these systems are not inundated.

A mindset of openness was conceptually overwhelmed by the idea that we needed to seal the island

The results of this frantic effort have been equivocal. Nursing homes and residential care institutions have been engulfed at times, with devastating results. The hospital system is currently at breaking point.

Conceptual overload

But the underlying problem is conceptual overload. Over the last year, our governments have failed repeatedly to establish a framework of thought that would allow the island we inhabit to control the virus.

Pre-modern people had to fit the experience of plague into their fundamental worldview. If you assume that this horror must be a message from the gods, that assumption will shape the way you try to control and mitigate its effects.

The international terminal at O’Hare Airport, Chicago, is nearly devoid of travelers. PhotographScott Olson/Getty Images

Contemporary Ireland does not believe in such cruel gods. But we have our own, more benign, deity: openness.

Being open rather than closed is the one really big idea the Irish State has had in my lifetime. It is the essence of the revolution set in train by Seán Lemass and TK Whitaker in 1958. We must open up.

It's a very good idea, of course. It gradually transformed Ireland for the better, economically, socially and culturally. But its very success has made it foundational and therefore almost invisible. It is as hard for us to think our way out of it as would have been for King Oedipus in Thebes all those millenniums ago to say: "The gods have nothing to do with this disease that's killing the city. It's spread by fleas."

This is our essential problem. The State could not get its head around the big thing it needed to do because it was the opposite of its governing assumption. A mindset of openness was conceptually overwhelmed by the idea that we needed to seal the island.

Maybe we were especially unlucky with the timing. Because of Brexit, the State has doubled down on a principle of unfettered connectivity. The message has been that we must not only preserve and enhance our links to Europe, to Britain and to the United States, but also ensure that there is no hindrance to movement across our own Border.

There was no serious attempt to create an all-island strategy, no controls on movement across the Border and, crucially, no real policy on international travel

Precisely because both of these things are so obviously true, it is very hard to step outside of the frame and say: we have to put up the shutters, hard and fast.

The advantage Ireland has is geographic. Being an island is not a prerequisite for crushing Covid, but it sure helps. We have consistently squandered that advantage.

From very early on, public-health experts advocated the zero-Covid strategy that would involve sealing the island, using a lockdown to get rid of the virus, heavily controlling movement on to the island and the rapid isolation of any local outbreaks that might occur.

International travel

And from very early on, the State has refused to take this approach seriously. There was no serious attempt to create an all-island strategy, no controls on movement across the Border and, crucially, no real policy on international travel.

There are two possible attitudes to international travel – either it’s not a problem or it is. If it’s not, then restrictions are pointless. If it is, then restrictions have to be effective.

The cognitive confusion at the heart of government is shown most clearly in the answer to this basic question: international travel is a problem and we’re not going to have any effective restrictions.

For a full year, not just quarantine for incoming travellers, but even giving basic information on one’s movements was, in reality, voluntary. The State’s policy was: be good, now, won’t ye?

Passengers wearing face masks on an Olympic Air De Havilland Canada aircraft flying from Athens. Certain factors on board, such as raised seat backs, can help lessen virus transmission. Photograph: Nicolas Economou/ NurPhoto via Getty Images

Between the start of December 2020 and January 11th this year, more than 190,000 people arrived into Ireland by air. Why? Because we’re open, that’s why. It’s the sacrifice we make to the gods of our modernity.

In the end, this conceptual overload has made it impossible to prevent the practical overwhelming of our systems. Open Ireland necessitates a shutdown of its own citizens. It also brings far too many of them to the final, terrible closure.