Opinion
Subscriber Only

Una Mullally: Fragile Dublin is uniquely vulnerable to Covid-19

The city was already coughing and spluttering, and it’s about to become very sick indeed

Faced with extreme global events, all we can do as a collection of societies is rely on our robustness to withstand ill winds. But if cities are already vulnerable the pain will be acute. As urban areas around the world struggle to chart a course through the Covid-19 unknown, the strengths of their foundations will be tested. For the Irish capital we’re about to find out whether a city can survive when it is built on sand.

The coronavirus outbreak is not normal, but neither was Dublin before the pandemic appeared on the horizon. The dysfunction and inequity of Dublin may be normalised, but it’s not normal.

When those who created this situation attempt to absolve themselves by pointing to the unprecedented nature of this event, we should remember that these vulnerabilities happened by design, not by accident.

They were shaped by Fine Gael policy, propped up by Fianna Fáil, the same two parties who are now dropping the pretence of their shadow-boxing to progress the inevitability of their last dance, a “grand” coalition. Or perhaps that should be an “it’ll be grand” coalition.

Viruses are invisible, but the capital’s vulnerabilities have been plain to see for some time now. What many people saw unfolding very clearly in recent years is an exposed city with overlapping problems across housing, health, transport, design, planning, business and more.

We will start to really understand that prioritising tourism as the economic foundations of a city’s commerce, and increasingly relying on global capital across construction, property, business, hospitality, and job-creation was always a bad idea.

Dublin was already coughing and spluttering, and it’s about to become very sick indeed. If only a decade of post-crash neoliberal government and Dublin City Council had done things differently.

Cracks

Panic is pointless, but we also have to get real. How robust is Dublin? Not at all. The city is fragile. The cracks have been showing for some time; restaurants closing suddenly, businesses squeezed with rents and rates, homogenous global brands elbowing their way in, a new wave of emigration made up of people who managed to survive the recession yet now can’t afford to live in the capital, a creative brain drain, corporate gentrification, and a lack of employment opportunities outside tech.

It’s a city where global capital is embedded in the fabric of the streetscape, a place where many morally questionable tech companies call home, and where the lowly couple trying to buy an apartment has to compete with multi-billion-euro REITS.

Fine Gael made its choices about who and what would be prioritised in this era, and Fianna Fáil endorsed those approaches.

The mass building of hotels and luxury student accommodation shows that the construction sector is alive and well and full of verve – just not for building housing.

What is wrong with our planning laws that hotel-building, luxury student accommodation, and glorified hostel-slash-bedsits known as “co-living” were given the go ahead, when it’s public housing that we needed prioritised?

Before coronavirus Dublin was always going to be vulnerable to even the slightest downturn in the global economy or the most minor dip in tourism. When the tourists go, the money that props things up vanishes. This could spell catastrophe for the capital.

Businesses will need a lot of cash to ride this out, but even those with deep pockets are exposed as the global downturn spooks their international investors. It will be bad for everyone, although the business people who benefit from an inequitable system of dynastic familial wealth will be okay. As we know, many of those who lost their shirts in the crash are back in the game.

Bunk beds

So here we are. We have plenty of hotels, plenty of luxury student accommodation, plenty of offices, and a housing, rental and homelessness crisis.

How do you “self-isolate” if you’ve been forced to live in a house or flat-share with multiple other people?

How do you not infect your housemate if you are stacked in bunk beds?

How do you self-isolate or protect older family members if you’ve been forced back into the family home because you can’t afford your own place?

How do you self-isolate when your entire family lives in one hotel room?

The resilience of a city is also in its people. Simon Coveney has called for a collective response to the public health crisis. That goes without saying, but where was Fine Gael’s collective response to the housing crisis?

Many Dubliners are battered by the daily grind, the commute, the cost of living, the economic hardship. How are you meant to responsibly stockpile if you can barely afford a weekly shop? Or if a substantial amount of your food comes from a soup kitchen or food bank?

How do you take time off work if you’re on a zero-hour contract, or a gig-economy worker, or in the freelance hustle?

How do you pay your rent or mortgage when the extra revenue you’ve been forced to get from AirBnB evaporates? How do you self-isolate in Direct Provision?

Dysfunction

How will our health system cope when it has been mismanaged to a point of dysfunction and is totally overburdened on an ordinary day, and thus has close to zero capacity to deal with a crisis of this nature?

How do we cope with potential school closures when we have no properly functioning childcare infrastructure?

The opportunities to build a functioning society with strong public services have been lost, and we’re about to find out how incredibly irresponsible that was.

The threat of exposure to the coronavirus is real, and scary. But our capital has already been exposed to a decade of terrible policies and decisions that have filleted its resilience. If we’re hit hard the coping mechanisms just aren’t there. We needed 2020 vision, but now all we have is hindsight.