"Each day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain," wrote Jon Ronson with uncanny prescience in So You've Been Publicly Shamed. He was talking specifically about the appetite for "constant artificial high dramas" that had emerged on social media.
"It's all very sweeping and not the way we actually are as people," he went on, a statement that might have been true when it was published in 2015, but isn't anymore. Shaming people is the only form of indoor sport approved for a pandemic, and Ireland is in the running for the world cup.
This week's "sickening villains" – following in the trail of the sickening Italian skiers, Cheltenham-goers, teenage party animals and funeral-goers – aren't the usual amorphous, anonymous receptacles for ire, but two young women, Niamh Mulreany and Kirstie McGrath. They travelled to Dubai for what Judge Miriam Walsh said "was colloquially referred to as a boob job" spent two days in the airport there when they couldn't afford to pay in advance for quarantine, and then allegedly refused to enter the system when they got back. Subsequently they did go into quarantine.
Travelling abroad for cosmetic surgery and resisting quarantine when you return is not going to make you many friends in a country barely holding it together in the longest lockdown in the world. But it wasn’t their perceived deficit of social responsibility that landed them in the pages of the New York Post (“Two Irish moms have reportedly been busted at Dublin Airport for refusing to quarantine after travelling to Dubai for boob jobs.”)
The bosses of the Beacon or the Coombe, who have been accused of regarding 'spare' vaccines as their personal property to be distributed accordingly, might well be worthier targets for vitriol
The orgy of outrage was because the so-called “Dubai Two” fills the bingo card of simmering resentments and lazy prejudices about single mothers and about young people on social welfare and young people from particular Dublin address codes and young women who care too much, or not enough, about how they look. And on and on and on. Even the Golfgate crew weren’t subject to such scrutiny. I don’t remember questions about how they could afford to go there; how many children they had or who was minding them; whether they’d been there previously; why they weren’t at work.
"Why are they being made examples of and why not those who gave vaccines to people who were not yet entitled to them?" asked Sabrina Mulreany, the mother of one of the women, not unreasonably. The bosses of the Beacon or the Coombe, who have been accused of regarding "spare" vaccines as their personal property to be distributed accordingly, might well be worthier targets for vitriol. Or even the non-frontline board members at the Mater hospital, some of whom, it was reported this week, took up the offer of vaccines in the early stages of rollout. That at least would count as "punching up", the go-to permission slip for anyone wanting to feel good about taking part in the latest pile-on. But there's something about young, female, rule-breakers that still seems to bring out the worst in us. The media was so convulsed with what Mulreany described as "the circus", there was little energy left for other matters – like why five people have already managed to stroll out the doors of our soft border quarantine.
There has been no convincing explanation by the Government for the decision not to have the system policed by gardaí. Nor does there seem to be a willingness to learn the lessons of other places. One instructive example is the Australian state of Victoria, which has published a lengthy report into the failings in its quarantine system which were directly responsible for its second wave. The decision to rely on private security contractors rather than police took up a lot of time at the inquiry. Nobody, the report notes, wanted to accept responsibility for it. "The then chief commissioner of police was consulted and expressed a preference that private security perform that role and Victoria Police provide the 'back up'," the report finds, and everyone just went along with it. It reads like a manual for all the things Ireland shouldn't be doing.
Here, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly sought support from the gardaí for enforcement of quarantine, but his request was reportedly rejected in favour of leaving it to the Defence Forces, who don't have powers of detention. Meanwhile, 10 travellers out of the 419 checked into our own leaky version of hotel quarantine had tested positive at the time of the writing. Let's hope none of them decide to go for a stroll.
There has been little scrutiny, either, of the rationale offered by some in Government for their initial reluctance to extend mandatory quarantine to EU countries other than Austria. On Highland Radio, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney mused that "there's 20,000 Irish people, living in France… is it reasonable to put those people, for two weeks, in a hotel, if they have a home to go to?"
He went on: "this is not primarily about non-Irish people coming to Ireland on their holidays... This is primarily about Irish people coming home", a stance which risked sounding like we are not only trying to protect Irish people from non-Irish people, but also from Irish people in non-EU countries. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar echoed the same thinking on RTÉ's Six One. "There are hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens living in France, living in America, they might not have the money, or the two weeks to be able to come home under these rules," he said. Public health authorities never gets sick of telling us the virus doesn't care if we're fed up, but it certainly doesn't care what's on your passport or how long it is since you've been home.
The report into the Victorian quarantine fiasco makes the point that its programme was developed under “extraordinary pressures” and in the space of about 36 hours. We’ve had 13 months. Future reports into what went wrong here are unlikely to be so forgiving.