Michael McDowell: We will laugh at the puritanism of the two metre advice

Let's imagine how, in late May 2021, we will look back on the first half of 2020

People exiting Heuston station in Dublin as phase one of Ireland’s reopening plan began on Monday. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

People exiting Heuston station in Dublin as phase one of Ireland’s reopening plan began on Monday. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

No one has a crystal ball. But it might clear our heads a little to let our imaginations wander and to ask ourselves how we imagine that we will, in late May 2021, look back on the first half of 2020.

In retrospect, will this semester look like one in which the western world over-reacted to coronavirus and sustained massive economic damage in an anaphylactic shock that could have been far less severe had calmer heads prevailed?

Or will we think the economic damage an inevitable consequence of taking the minimum morally justified steps to protect the weakest and most vulnerable – the old and the infirm – from the ravages of a pandemic?

Without a vaccine, the resumption of international travel and tourism would be hard to imagine

If an effective vaccine is found in months rather than years and if, equally uncertain, it is shared with countries such as Ireland, will we be seeing a recovery by May 2021?

Assume for a moment that a vaccine is not found and shared. Will we have learned collectively to live with coronavirus, or with the risk of it, by a combination of changed social habits and effective testing and suppression?

With a vaccine it is possible to imagine the resumption of international travel and tourism. Without a vaccine, such resumption would be hard to imagine.

At some point our political system will probably have grasped that being led by the “science” of public health must increasingly be balanced by applying the precautionary principle to our economic survival and sustainability, and pushing out the boundaries of risk-taking in pursuit of getting all our people economically active again.

There will have been spikes – hopefully containable spikelets – of Covid-19 infection if the virus is not hunted to extinction in Ireland. Will we have done all that is appropriate to protect vulnerable citizens – especially in care homes – from any resurgence of the virus?

The UK question

Even if coronavirus were to be extinguished in Ireland, it would have to be extinct in the UK before we could breathe easily about the implications of free movement in the Common Travel Area. What realistic hope is there of that?

Are we fully prepared to face the winter flu season? Is mass flu vaccination possible in the coming autumn? Can we reconfigure our hospital system – with or without the private hospital care system – to cope with a seasonal increase in admissions, including coronavirus admissions?

Will a weakened Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings attempt to rally England in a Dunkirk-like struggle with the EU in pursuit of electoral support?

Will a re-elected Trump – freed from political constraints – be pursuing confrontation with China, Iran, Venezuela, the EU and elsewhere? Will he be targeting Irish pharma and foreign direct investment?

Or will we be looking back on the pandemic as the thing that killed off Trumpism? Will we see more apocalyptic movie scenes such as the crazy protesters invading Michigan’s state legislature toting assault rifles? Or can American polarisation subside?

Will a weakened Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings attempt to rally England in a Dunkirk-like struggle with the EU in pursuit of electoral support? Will they paint themselves into the corner of a hard Brexit? With major industries in the UK demanding massive bailouts, can the UK afford tariff barriers on top of the coronavirus depression?

Greener Ireland?

Will we be looking back at the first year of a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael-Greens coalition? Or will one-third of the Green grassroots prevent that? Will we be looking at a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael government battling on, supported by 10 or 11 election-averse Independents and holding back all the lefties –left, hard left and leftovers – in the Dáil?

Or will we be looking back at a second general election in 2020, in which Leo Varadkar, hoping to capitalise on the pandemic and Fianna Fáil weakness, gains some seats, while Sinn Féin grabs the chance to convert votes into 45 seats at the expense of the Greens and the leftovers? Will we have an even less governable State? Will we be able to stabilise the public finances sufficiently to borrow as we must?

One firm prediction – if we have any sense of humour left, we will laugh at the puritanism of the 2m 'advice'

If we aren’t well down the road of rolling out a radical home-building campaign, will we be even halfway through the construction of the massively expensive children’s hospital (which we won’t be able to staff and commission) while our other hospitals lie half-deserted waiting for a resurgence in the pandemic? Will the increased mortality from cancer and other illnesses be accepted as the price of confronting Covid-19?

Will the EU have succeeded in pressurising Ireland into accepting common EU corporation taxes as the price tag for its support measures? Or will we have resisted that? Remember our Green MEPs have already attempted to sell the pass on that one in the EU parliament.

Too many questions? One firm prediction – if we have any sense of humour left, we will laugh at the puritanism of the 2m “advice”, the flip-flopping on face masks, the warnings against “dickeying up” your home during lockdown and the so-called experts who feared opening garden centres.

Let’s hope it’s not too hollow a laugh.

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