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Political columnist Eoin Neylon says Zero COVID is a nice idea but one that is not feasible in Ireland.

One of these days, not long in our future, there will be an occasion where not one newspaper will carry a story relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time you’re reading this, it will have been confirmed that Ireland has hit the milestone of 500,000 vaccine doses administered. By the end of the month, we’ll be nearing, if not passed, one million doses dished out. The EU’s early supply gaffs aside, we are now gathering pace with the vaccine administration and, with it, the end of the pandemic, at least in Europe and North America. The rest of the world, however, will lag, as the western hemisphere has used its considerable financial weight to ensure its citizens have been prioritised in the fight against Covid.

Nevertheless, other countries, particularly those in South-East Asia, were much better prepared for this virus, owing to their previous experience with other outbreaks, such as the SARs epidemic of 2002 to 2004. In the interim, some countries in the region had spent mindbogglingly massive sums of money on pandemic preparedness. In certain countries, some economists have estimated when compared on a GDP equivalent to Ireland, this spend would equate to about €100 bn spent here over the past 16 years on pandemic preparedness measures. I’m not sure such spending levels would be tolerated by any western country over the past generation on an issue they’d not encountered in living memory. No doubt, this will have to change going forward.

As humanity continues to cause ecological devastation around the globe, driven by goals of unsustainable endless growth, we will come across more and more deadly pathogens. The very fact that this pandemic had its root cause in unsustainable farming and food policy in communist China, where species previously listed as endangered or protected were re-classed as okay to eat due to food shortages, should serve as warning to us all. The single biggest thing the world can do to lessen the prevalence of future pandemics is to invest in more sustainable farming and food production.

Nevertheless, this itself will not be any guarantee of a future without such killer viruses. All countries will need to invest in rapid response preparedness for the future. This will mean different things in different countries. For instance, New Zealand, who people mistakenly liken us to in terms of the pandemic response, have a natural advantage in being one of the most geographically isolated countries on earth. Add to that fact that they have a low population density, roughly a quarter that of Ireland’s, a low dependency on international trade for a developed nation, its trade being load on/load off, as opposed to roll on/roll off here, and the fact it isn’t part of an economic and political union with other states, nor is it a major transport hub and you soon realise that, outside of having a similar population number, an overbearing neighbour, some beautiful scenery and a love of rugby, that Ireland and New Zealand are not very similar when it comes to economics and sociology.

Their ‘Zero Covid’ approach looks attractive, given their results. But in truth, it’s an expensive policy of maximum suppression (which we’re currently in), followed by rolling localised lockdowns and extensive track and trace procedures, predicated on strict border controls. All sounds good, but New Zealand is one country on two major islands. Ireland is an island with two countries, however. North of the border, the DUP ardently refuse to disconnect themselves from Great Britain in any way, regardless of economics (as seen in Brexit), science (as seen in terms of climate change) or life (as we’re seeing now). It is that party’s entire reason for existence and any suggestion they would abandon that for any reason, even life and death, is foolhardy.

With a 500-mile porous border that was proven impossible to seal throughout the Troubles, and which the EU and UK failed to come to a solution over, suggestions of closing it are naïve at best. There are 300 public road crossing and an unknown number of private crossings, with some 13,000 trade vehicles a day crossing, as well as thousands of people who work cross border. By comparison, the Sweden – Norway border is 1630km long and has just 6 highway crossings. Other countries that did well in suppressing the virus tend to have similar natural hard borders, like Cambodia, which is lauded for its low Covid numbers. In total, on Cambodia’s borders with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, there are just 5 border crossings open to tourists. Pointing out these disparities to Zero Covid advocates, though, is not well received.

Zero Covid is a nice idea, but it just does not apply to a country such as ours given the geographic, economic, political and sociological make up of our shared island. If we are to be serious on getting Ireland back to normal, and preparing for future pandemics, we need to figure out an Irish solution to an Irish problem. Simply cogging other people’s homework is not an option this time.

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