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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Paul Reid CEO of the HSE and Minister for Health Simon Harris in the Conference Centre at Citywest Hotel Dublin as preparations get under way for a Covid-19 Isolation and Step Down Facility .Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.

Politics of a pandemic How Covid-19 changes could open doors to a better Ireland

Dr Stephen Onakuse says the Irish electorate displayed a new empathy in GE2020 and somehow, the coronavirus brought the changes they sought.

MAJOR INTERNATIONAL CRISES have a habit of accelerating the pace of change. They expose fault lines in society and exacerbate issues that may have been concealed by feebly constructed social contracts and a false sense of harmony.

While the crisis arising from Covid-19 might yet prove to be no different, we remain fortunate enough to be in a position to control some of the wider social implications arising from the pandemic.

However, to do so, we must first recognise that the repercussions of Covid-19 will be unlike anything we have experienced in living memory. 

Despite the many wartime analogies that have been employed, we are not dealing with the collective psychological consequences that often stem from major conflict. Nor are we dealing with the fallout of a major international recession, because there hasn’t been a financial crash or market collapse.

Instead, notwithstanding the fact that it may take some time to restart in full, we will emerge from our present state of Covid-19 isolation with an economy that was put into stasis, and hopefully with a greater sense of social cohesion.

Consequently, as our medium to long-term macroeconomic outlook remains relatively positive in comparison to other countries according to the OECD, the thoughts of the government must look beyond the economic impact of the crisis, and turn to the inadvertent social changes the pandemic might bring.

This will be a departure from previous crises when efforts were concentrated on generating economic growth as a means of navigating our way out.

Unusual changes for some

For some families, the Covid-19 lockdown will have relieved them from the pressure of having to pay enormous childcare fees. For others, the opportunity to work from home will have released parents from having to undertake onerous commutes that negatively impact their family life.

For those who live in fear of rents hikes, the government has accepted what they once saw as impossible, and introduced a rent freeze, and a ban on evictions. The main banks have even offered a short-term moratorium on mortgage repayments to customers affected by Covid-19.

Organisations that previously demanded presentism and inculcated an “always-on” culture among their employees are now coming to the realisation that productivity is not necessarily related to either of those concepts.

After years of neglect, we are now seeing the virtue of possessing properly resourced public services that can respond to the needs of the people. Never before has there been so much goodwill directed toward the health service, or an appreciation for the many state bodies that have reacted to this crisis with clarity and efficiency.

The meitheal spirit, which was slowly being eroded by individualism, is now thriving across our communities, where people are demonstrating instinctive empathy as part of what President Michael D Higgins described as “the citizenship moment”.

In the space of a few short weeks, we have been given a glimpse of a future where people’s wellbeing is put ahead of the metrics that determine economic growth. So why would we choose to return to the world that existed before Covid-19 reached Ireland?

GE2020 displayed this shift

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were given a precursory glance at that future following the general election. At the outset of the campaign, the government’s strategists gambled on Brexit and the economy being the dominant issues that would see them retain power.

However, even before the Dáil was dissolved, it was apparent that housing and health were the primary concerns of an electorate that wanted to see its politicians address basic needs. People were not willing to accept that market forces would solve the housing crisis, or that long hospital waiting lists and lines of trolleys occupied by those in need were an acceptable part of modern health service. 

People voted with empathy, and this crisis has allowed Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin to catch up with the public sentiment in this regard.

This is not to say that we have an opportunity to create a utopia. Like all major international crises, people and families will undoubtedly suffer. Not least those who either have lost or will lose loved ones in the coming weeks.

Prior to this crisis, high streets throughout the country were already struggling to keep pace with online retailers and out-of-town shopping centres.

After the crisis, some high street shops may never open their doors again, others might struggle on in the face of the boom in online shopping that has occurred. Never before have major grocery stores been so inundated with online orders, and this crisis could yet accelerate demand for such services in the future.

Additionally, those who employed in the tourism sector must be looking ahead to the summer months with a great deal of anxiety. Their concern acts as an example of how the impact of this crisis will endure beyond the lockdown.

As a result, the empathy we are demonstrating now will need to extend far into the months ahead as we collectively struggle to overcome the economic impact of Covid-19 on the global economy. 

However, unlike previous crises, the lockdown is giving us the space to take stock and consider what is important to us. It is an opportunity for us to consider the future direction of our country and the values that we hold as a people. A particularly pertinent point as we move toward celebrating the centenary of the state.

At the time, Ireland acted as a beacon to other nations who were looking to overthrow the shackles of colonialism, by placing empathy and fairness at the heart of a renewed Ireland, we can be that inspiration again.

A positive act of renewal would be to maintain some of the measures we have just put in place to protect our most vulnerable.

Dr Stephen Onakuse is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Food Business and Development and Deputy Director of the Centre for Sustainable Livelihoods at Cork University Business School, University College Cork.

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Dr Stephen Onakuse
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