Shock of #Covid19 is an opportunity to change NI for the better

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Viktor E. Frankl

For all the catastrophising of this event, Northern Ireland seems to be holding up fine. That’s in large part because of the people of Northern Ireland (and I mean all, not some) have changed their habits and bought our health system precious time.

Belfast’s hospitals have themselves turned on a sixpence and remain still well under capacity as far as Covid19 is concerned. The number of people coming to Accident and Emergency is flatlining as people think twice about turning up.

On the upside, this suggests the penny has dropped that health provision is a finite, not an infinite resource and their change in behaviours means that we are not seeing the terrible chaos ripping through our hospitals the way northern Italian health service has.

On the downside, some patients who need urgent help may be holding back from going into hospital may not be going there for the dread fear of catching this virus. Ben Lowry reports 1,900 empty beds across Northern Ireland and many non Covid related deaths.

This is a measure of our success in preparing for the worst (with very little notice), but it doesn’t mean (contrary to the views of some of the more hysterical corners of the local press commentators), the long game here is neither won nor lost yet.

Health Minister Robin Swann, who has taken an unwarranted level of political abuse (including that nasty old NI staple, the politically-motivated death threat) has asked people to stop playing (brainless) games over who’s doing better, the UK or Ireland:

The sort of comparisons made by Fintan O’Toole ignores the fact that: one, testing rates in the north and the south have roughly equalised in terms of numbers; and two, Mary Lou McDonald’s COVID positive was delivered more than a fortnight later.

This tells us the real rate of southern testing is slower than advertised (an omnishambles one nurse called it) by Michelle O’Neill. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just that the whole world was unready for this and we’re ALL desperately trying to catch up.

Such comparisons reek of provincialist resentment and are very misleading. The higher UK death figures are still relatively proportionally when compared to France, where the preparations in their health service were more advanced than either Ireland or the UK.

Differential rates will likely hinge upon other factors like international trade, population density and the availability (or otherwise) of private alternatives to overcrowded public transport. Human geography is ignored in favour of polarising and jingoistic badinage.

London is a global trade hub, densely populated, reliant on public transport with a population the size of Sweden (which currently utilising its own much smaller density to do a far more liberal ‘non-lockdown’ regime with relatively low mortality rates.

Both countries’ slowness in getting mortality figures from care homes speaks to the rigidities of public administration and the fragmentation of social care in both countries. It’s not some wilful trick conjured up by stupid politicians/civil servants.

This is a key weakness in those who belatedly claim that Northern Ireland should have followed the Republic’s public health strategy. The fact is you can do that only if you have already planned and prepared to do so long before the virus hits.

And the fact is that we had plenty of time to do something. The evidence of poor preparation for a public health crisis stretches back to the dioxin in pigs scare at the end of 2008, in which it took nearly three days for notification to reach the NI Executive.

Some of us argued back then that a broad self-interest existed such that strengthening the competence of the relevant cross border public health body from promotion to implementing some public health co-ordination was (and remains) a no brainer.

Whatever we see on the outside (and however critical we armchair health experts are) department of health officials have been moving mountains because their performance now matters to the real lives of people in NI in a way Stormont rarely has before.

Doing government in NI brings a low premium compared with the Twitter borne virtue signaling and the re-tribalisation that has characterised the re-start we thought we were getting after 1998. In the face of Covid19, old fears and hatreds won’t suffice.

Public administration (and not just in NI but across the world) seems only to come into the public spotlight when it comes into disrepute and its successes go unremarked upon. This makes it easy to public traduce it, or imagine it is not having any effect.

But as Simon notes of local government in England, just because you can’t see it on a public map somewhere, doesn’t mean it is not in the territory:

For many of Northern Ireland’s narrowing population of mainstream commentators public administration remains a dull, foreign country so faced with the terrifying uncertainty of the present crisis many just lean back into the comfort of tribal certainty.

Worse is the general tendency of journalists to seek testimony from public figures and then republish without reflection or adding serious judgment as to its veracity, which leads to the permanent lodgement prefabricated party narratives in the public mind.

This is how President Trump got his start and why (against present expectations of those outraged liberals who helped put him there) he may be successfully be re-elected come this November. Passive re-transmission of tribal outrage is a populist’s godsend.

Trouble is that it sells papers and gets clicks on rage and misery sharing platforms like Twitter and Facebook. It won’t help us to face the potentially traumatising layers of change we face after the tail of this global epidemic has hurried through our societies.

After the galvansing stage of this emergency, other work will have to be done. That will take more than just the honesty and hard work of Robin Swann and others, it will require a shared vision and broad recognition of our abiding interdependence.

Lessons can be drawn from the fact that decisionmaking and risk-taking are now moving at lightening speed. Politicians might learn from Frau Merkel how to communicate the fragility of our situation without  scaring the bejesus out of the public:

Above all, our political leaders need to tell a story of hope. ​In Churchill’s famous finest hour speech he note, “if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future”, so re-igniting hope in a better future.

Big gains can be made by leaders who pay attention to the need to build a resilient society in the long term, not by carping on the sides or mumbling their own words to Trump’s infamous dirge about ‘draining the swamp’ but through real leadership

If we are lucky there is a major reset coming. No one wants to return to the last thirteen years of sham fights and excuses for inaction (or promises of a tomorrow that never came). Others too, in journalism, for example, not just politics must up their game.

We need diggers and dreamers and leaders with foresight to grasp the upsides of the changes that may come and the sense to anticipate the downsides with an ambitious programme of actions and not just the usual empty promises and hollow words.

While we see a chance to change things (and ourselves in the process) for the better, we should take it. We may not get a second chance. Who knows what Covid23 (or a similar systemic threat) may bring? As Sun Tzu said ‘opportunities multiply as they are seized.’

Photo by Alexas_Fotos is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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