We must work 'against reason, against all discouragement that could be'

Covid-19, its fall out, the homeless and accommodation crisis - what a year 2020 has been

Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Like everyone else, Insider needs occasional harmless distraction on social media, so a recent challenge to 'write the first sentence of your 2020 memoir' was tempting - until I realised most of us had the same depressing pun: It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.

Dickens does, though, offer other opportunities for summing up the past year. Comparing a socially-distanced Galway with the 'Before Times' is truly a tale of two cities. Gone are the great expectations for the 'city of culture'. And who, observing the embarrassment that the United States has become, would quibble with Dickens' description of a place that is "loathsome, drooping, and decayed"; or fail to empathise with his report during a visit that “I am sick to death of the life I have been leading here - worn out in mind and body - and quite weary and distressed.”

In trying to make sense of the past year, I find myself trying to reconcile two duelling conclusions. Everything has changed; and yet the changes largely accentuate pre-existing realities. A year ago, who would have predicted that pubs nationwide would be shuttered through the summer months, under a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach? That the controversial aspect of an IRA funeral would be the lack of masks?

Your mask protects me, my mask protects you

I know I am not alone in finding the lockdown challenging - addicted, at first, to tracking daily (and hourly ) charts and trend-lines, before realising how stress-inducing, and potentially destructive that was. Yes, this is a global event of epic proportions, which demands our attention and response on both societal and individual levels. However a fixation on the firehose of data, without the tools to move from observation to action, can be overwhelming, inducing paralysis, and a fixation on the scale of a crisis that is larger than any of us.

'Emergency legislation granted extraordinary powers to the State, including potentially the ability to forcibly detain those deemed a risk to public health'

So almost mantra-like, I return to what is within my control: your mask protects me, my mask protects you. Mutual aid and solidarity are all we have to rely on now. Much has been made recently of the fact that various public health policies - around masks, or self-isolation by visitors - have relied more on exhortation than legal powers of enforcement, and Insider must admit to occasional frustration himself.

However, if we are to have long-term compliance with necessary, if inconvenient, rules, we need public buy-in: top-down enforcement will suffice for only so long. There has been broad compliance with public health directives, even if that compliance has been minimalist or creative. This, as they say, is the way. In the face of potential catastrophe, people want the Government's response to be appropriate, and for it to succeed.

'The initial phases of the response were handled well - a view reinforced by anyone who looked at the UK or the USA'

We saw this in the Oireachtas debates around the introduction of emergency legislation, which granted extraordinary powers to the State, including potentially the ability to forcibly detain those deemed a risk to public health. The Government - and An Garda Síochána - have been appropriately reticent about making use of these powers.

Given the unprecedented length of time for which an acting government was in place, that was prudent. Indeed, the significant increases in support for Fine Gael over the past few months reflects the broad sense that the initial phases of the response were handled well - a view reinforced by anyone who looked at our neighbours in the UK or the USA.

Significant missteps

However, there were some significant missteps in the response, and Insider assumes there will be a time for analysis and reflection, important to improve our response to future challenges. Initial estimates of 15,000 deaths within a matter of months were avoided - but we are closing on 2,000 deaths, with many of those concentrated in nursing homes and other residential facilities, as well as among those working in the meat processing industries.

How was there such a blindspot when it came to nursing homes, given the multiple risk factors associated with them? Meat processing facilities had been recognised as hot spots for infection in the US, and elsewhere, before we saw infections in the sector here. Was there anything that could have been done to better protect the workers in this sector?

More recently, the truncating of the 'reopening process' - followed, inevitably, by a slowing down of subsequent phases - damaged public confidence in the Government, and fed suspicion that some decisions were being shaped inappropriately by lobby groups, rather than impartial evaluation of evidence and risk profiles.

Politics in Galway

The pandemic is, of course, only one aspect of local politics in the past year. When the general election was called for February 8, political activists sighed, remembering the more clement canvassing weather of springs and summers past. The most significant shifts, locally, were a fall of six per cent in support for FG, meaning it lost the second seat it had secured with just 1.5 quotas in 2016.

'As Fine Gael fell, Sinn Féin rose, buoyed by anger over crises in housing, health, and more'

There was surprise for some that Sean Kyne - by then elevated to government Chief Whip - was the loser, but Insider had observed the hard, and savvy, work of Naughton over the past number of years, and had a sense that she had consolidated her base.

Mairead Farrell Election 2020 II

As Fine Gael fell - in what was a shambolic national campaign by the party - Sinn Féin rose, buoyed by anger over crises in housing, health, and more. It was quite the volatile 15 months for the party locally, with the resignation from the party of Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh in November 2018; the loss of all three city council seats in May 2019; and then the election of Mairead Farrell to the Dáil in February.

'The Government now proposes to let renter protections lapse in a matter of days, which will allow landlords to profiteer in the midst of a pandemic'

Although it did not result in a substantive change, the increase in support for Noel Grealish, after his "spongers" rhetoric in Oughterard, and further statements in the Dáil, was troubling to Insider. However, the fact that a similar history of inflammatory rhetoric resulted in Cllr Noel Larkin being passed over for a nomination as mayor last month showed the positive impact, locally, of the global Black Lives Matter movement.

Housing remains an issue

The election of three former general election candidates - Sean Kyne, Pauline O'Reilly, and Ollie Crowe - to the Seanad will make the next general election here even more competitive, whenever it might be. As we continue to grapple with the ongoing threat posed by Covid, we are, of course, still dealing with existing crises in housing and public services, exacerbated now by both public health concerns and an economic collapse.

The Government now proposes to let renter protections lapse in a matter of days, which will allow landlords to profiteer in the midst of a pandemic, and to toss families onto the street should they fail to meet their demands.

Recent Government directives to tighten restrictions on those living in direct provision are going in exactly the wrong direction - as is the continued championing of 'co-living' developments - and worrying in light of the centrality of shared residential settings to the spread of Covid.

So, plenty of work to do in the coming months. In these difficult circumstances, we must, to quote Pip in Great Expectations, work "against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be."

 

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