Fortress Ireland approach needed to prevent future pandemics

Posted By: February 27, 2021


New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took a tough approach to the pandemic and life in the country has largely returned to normal. Picture: Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald via AP


Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday,  February 27, 2021.


Diseases are inevitable, pandemics are preventable. That’s the lesson that governments in Belfast and Dublin have failed to learn in tackling the coronavirus.


If you are not sure that pandemics are preventable, contrast the severity of the Covid-19 outbreak in two island nations: Ireland and New Zealand. (NZ has two islands, but you get the idea.)


With a population of five million, New Zealand has had 26 coronavirus deaths. Ireland (north and south) has had over 6,000 deaths among 6.7 million people (2,000 in the north, 4,000 in the south). NZ has had less than 3,000 cases in total. Ireland has 350,000 and rising.


The explanation for the huge differences between the two is that one country prevented a pandemic, the other did not.


It all began last February when the first person outside China died from Covid-19. The next day NZ banned entry to any foreigner coming from or via China. Any New Zealander coming from China had to isolate for 14 days. Then the country was closed to almost all non-residents. Meanwhile, Ireland, north and south, did nothing.


By March 25, NZ had 100 Covid cases and no deaths. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern launched “Go early, go hard”, a stay-at-home, seven-week lockdown. At that time Ireland reported its first coronavirus case from the 20,000 race-goers whom Leo Varadkar allowed to travel to Cheltenham.


As Ireland tried to contain the disease, NZ had already begun to eliminate it, (meaning no new cases for 28 days.). This requires intense surveillance which, Ardern reported, was proving effective at the end of June, just as Michelle O’Neill was attending Bobby Storey’s funeral. By July, without the public having to wear masks, NZ reported no cases of community-based infection for 80 days.


In November, NZ ordered a partial lockdown of Auckland, so health authorities could trace how a student (yes, a single student) became infected. At the same time, Arlene Foster was using a Petition of Concern to block the extension of our paltry restrictions.


When NZ came out of lockdown last April, there were no cases of community transmission. When we left lockdown, infections just rose again. Our problem was a partitioned island, which has an all-Ireland approach for the health of animals, but not for humans. The lack of co-ordination between Belfast and Dublin heaped chaos on confusion.


Ireland had no limits on inward travel. 10,500 people arrived in Dublin airport last week, as the Dáil debated quarantine restrictions, nine months after health experts advised them to. In the north, the two main parties are trying to outdo each other by staying in step with either Dublin or London (hence the argument about re-opening schools). Their confusing and constantly changing restrictions significantly have damaged public confidence in government.


You might argue that politicians here were unaware of what to do. Good point, but in those circumstances, you look at best practice in the world and copy it. (Ignorance is not a problem if it is accompanied by a willingness to learn.) Even our local world-class research veterinary scientists were not consulted for advice, even though they deal with new viruses every year.


Today in NZ, life is largely normal. Ireland is still directionless, relying on vaccines to solve its lack of leadership.


With climate change and increasing human encroachment on forests, we will face many more viruses. This week, for example, for the first time the bird flu virus was transmitted to humans in Russia. The New Zealand Herald newspaper reported it (they are still ahead of us). It received little coverage here, even though our poultry flocks are now confined indoors to contain the virus (another under-reported fact).


To tackle future viruses, we need an all-Ireland health system internally and a fortress Ireland approach to the outside world. Both seem highly unlikely, which means that, just like this one, future pandemics will not be prevented. Ireland will remain united in using politics to stifle science.