By Niamh Ní Bhriain.
Back in February, when murmurs of Coronavirus seemed irrelevant to most of us, people came together in Ennis, Co. Clare, for a hustings event in advance of the general election. The sense of anger was tangible in the crowd. There was a chorus of outrage that shambolic policies by successive governments had left the county with a defunct health service. Similar scenes played out across the country where opinion polls showed that health was the single most important issue for the electorate.
Across Ireland people voted overwhelmingly to break the duopoly of Ireland’s two main centre right parties. We voted for change, and for a strong and consolidated alternative voice in Irish politics that would put the people at the heart of public policies.
Although the formation of the next Dáil has been delayed because of Covid-19, it has never been more clear our need for a government that serves the public good.
This crisis is much deeper than Covid-19
We need to be very clear – the crisis facing us at this moment is not just about a global pandemic. At the heart of this crisis is the ideology that has underpinned the functioning of the Irish state for decades: neoliberalism. Consecutive governments have unleashed a raft of policies and austerity measures on the people of Ireland that put greed and profit ahead of the public good.
Neoliberalism is ruthless. It thrives on individualistic societies where competition is key and we are pitted against each other to create winners and losers. Tax breaks for big business, free trade, and privatisation are all encouraged to boost capitalist markets and increase competitiveness.
If you lose your job, fall behind on mortgage repayments, and lose your home, the state will likely shrug its shoulders and shirk its responsibility to provide social housing even though you are in need – this is the face of neoliberalism. Vulnerability is structural, and if you are on the losing end it is your problem.
Healthcare for profit
Successive Irish governments have dismantled our public health system with neoliberal policies that prioritise profit over the health of those who so desperately rely on it. Our two-tier system means that those with private health insurance have access to private clinics, but can also jump the queue and receive treatment at public health facilities ahead of those who can’t afford it. Access isn’t based on medical necessity but on your ability to foot the bill.
Our health system allows for an ordering of lives based solely on how much money you have in your pocket. There is a ranking of life that is no longer about health. It is about economics. We are at the deep end of many decades of neoliberalism that has hollowed out all that is public to benefit private interests.
The Irish state has consistently neglected our public health system, and desperate calls from overwhelmed and overworked health care professionals for improved resources, wages and conditions, have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears.
As the virus began to hit our shores, a report published by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control ranked Ireland lowest among all EU countries with regard to intensive care unit (ICU) services. The pandemic was only beginning and we were already terrified. But our fear stemmed not just from the virus itself but how our substandard, under-resourced health service would be able to respond to it. We all know the massive strain that the system and our health care workers are already under.
Although the government acted swiftly to introduce restrictive measures, we feared that we would – like many other countries – be laying bodies out in makeshift mortuaries, unable to bury our dead because they were dying so fast. And we feared that these deaths that would have been caused not just by coronavirus, but by a prolonged and sustained attack by previous governments on our health system and health care professionals.
No going back
On 24 March, Minister for Health Simon Harris announced that for the duration of the corona pandemic, “patients will be treated for free and as part of a single, national hospital service. The state will take control of all private hospital facilities and manage all of our resources for the common benefit of all of our people”.
As Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party move towards formal government negotiations, we know that this historic duopoly of Irish politics will not deliver on the demand the electorate overwhelming made for change. We know that it will be more of the same.
It has never been clearer that this country needs a socialist agenda, in particular with regard to a nationalised health service to serve the public good. The right to life and access to dignified healthcare can no longer depend on wealth. We cannot return to a two tier health service that isn’t fit for purpose and puts lives at risk. We voted for change, we voted for a public health service where care is provided based solely on medical need. As a nation we deserve better, particularly our health care professionals.
There can be no going back. Privatisation has not worked. The future of our health system must be public.
Niamh Ní Bhriain is coordinator of the Transnational Institute’s War and Pacification programme. Follow her on Twitter @DondeNiamh.
Photo above shows People Before Profit’s Bríd Smith speaking to the media following her election as TD for Dublin South Central at the RDS count centre in Dublin in February. Photo by Niamh Ní Bhriain.