By Conor McCabe.

This article is the first in a four-part series adapted from the Unite union’s policy document, Hope or Austerity: A Road Map for a Better, Fairer Ireland After the Pandemic, written by Conor McCabe.

The Irish government’s initial response to the outbreak of COVID-19 was somewhat slow and hesitant.

The first death caused by the novel coronavirus was recorded on 9 January in Wuhan, China, and two weeks later the city was in lockdown. By the time the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a global emergency on 30 January it had spread to other countries in Asia, as well as to the U.S. and Europe. On 11 February the virus was given a name – SARS-CoV-2 – while the disease associated with it became known as Covid-19.

The first case on the island of Ireland was announced in Belfast on 27 February. This was followed two days later by the first case in the Republic of Ireland. Both patients had recently returned from skiing holidays in northern Italy. 

The slow Irish response was in line with other European states. Sandra Zampa, undersecretary of Italy’s Health Ministry, told the New York Times that “Italy looked at the example of China … not as a practical warning, but as a ‘science fiction movie that had nothing to do with us’.”’

It was a sentiment that appeared to hold sway across Europe, an apparent ‘othering’ of Covid-19 as a concern mainly for developing countries and not for ‘mature’ democracies with their state-of-the-art health systems. It was also assumed that the Chinese response – mass testing, quarantine and lockdown – was simply the blunt action of an authoritarian state and as such beneath the more ‘civilised’ west.

Legacy of cuts to health and social spending

Events quickly escalated. Deaths and infections in Italy and across Europe rose at an alarming rate, and with increasing numbers affected in Ireland the government’s strategy moved from one of containing the disease to delaying its spread.

Over the course of two weeks in March it cancelled all St Patrick’s Day events; closed schools, colleges and universities; ordered pubs and restaurants shut; and brought in greater social distancing measures before issuing a stay-at-home order on 27 March. The country, effectively, was in lockdown. 

All of this happened in the wake of a general election that was dominated by the legacy of severe cuts in health, housing, transport, and childcare support; as well as issues surrounding the pension age, the overall cost of living, and the need for greater social cohesion.

Ireland suffered a devastating financial crash in 2008, made worse by a disastrous bank guarantee, leading to an EU/ECB/IMF bailout in 2010, and years of austerity budgets. The Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar, wrote in November 2019 that Ireland had finally turned the corner and had achieved “record levels of employment, rising incomes, falling poverty and deprivation, and a budget in surplus despite a difficult and unpredictable global economic environment”.

In reality, the state’s social infrastructure is creaking under pressure. The accumulative effect of the years of cuts and underinvestment is still being felt, hidden beneath the headline figures of a booming economy.

The Irish health system has “the worst waiting time situation in Europe” with hospitals “working near full capacity”. The first full week of 2020 was the “worst-ever week for overcrowding” with 3,143 patients without beds, according to the Irish Nurses and Midwifes Organisation (INMO).

In terms of housing, which is severely constrained across the state, there were 68,693 households on local authority social housing waiting lists in 2019, with another 45,915 households in receipt of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), and 18,697 households in receipt of the Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS).

There were 10,148 people in emergency accommodation in February 2020. Rents are at an all-time high, with the average monthly rent nationwide at “€1,402 in the last three months of 2019, some €659 higher than the low point of the rental market, which was recorded in late 2011”. 

In terms of income, Social Justice Ireland found “the median disposable income per adult in Ireland during 2018 was €22,872 per annum or €438.33 per week” – the most recent figures available. It also found that at least 14 per cent of all adults in Ireland live below the poverty line.

For those employed and with small children, the average cost of full-time childcare is €184 per week, while the average part-time fee is €110 per week. On top of this, an estimated 1.83 million people are living in households that are unable to face an unexpected financial expense. This is at a time of effective full employment. It is little surprise that in a recent survey around 40 per cent of Irish workers said that they are living from pay day to pay day.

A vote for progressive change

Given the result of the general election, it is clear that a significant proportion of the Irish electorate has had enough of austerity and its legacy and wants progressive, structural change.

An overarching issue that did not factor heavily in the election is climate action. It is one that simply cannot be ignored any longer and one that requires huge investment and change in behaviour over the next ten years if Ireland is to meet its 2030 emission targets.

It is against this backdrop that the Covid-19 pandemic is being played out. And while the Irish government has appeared to embrace more socially and economically progressive thinking in its response, when we dig deeper a conservative continuity and deeply-embedded bias in favour of landlords and financial institutions is revealed. 

In its response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Irish government’s measures so far have been based on a ‘V-shaped’ recovery. It assumes that all who have been laid off will be quickly rehired.

It is increasingly clear, however, that this is not going to happen. The lifting of the shutdown, when it happens, will be staggered. Social distancing and other measures will remain in place in order to dampen the second and third waves of Covid-19. These will continue until there is a vaccine, which could take up to 18 months to develop. There will be no grand rebooting of the system. 

A gargantuan challenge

On top of this, the structural inequalities that already exist in housing, health, education, childcare, and workers’ rights, will need to be addressed. The recent general election was proof that people want change. Those that do not will use the crisis to thwart that desire. This is where the battle lines will be drawn and it is hugely important for the trade union movement to play a leadership role in this struggle. 

Proponents of neoliberal ideology will use this emergency to further their socially destructive agenda – an agenda that has done much to leave our public services and labour market less prepared for this pandemic than it needed to be. This will of course be aided by the fact that we live in a country, and at a time, where we are practically conditioned to accepting an austerity agenda. 

This is likely to be pushed aggressively (in fact it has already begun) by vested interests, an incoming government and a national media the majority of which operates as an ideological sect in these matters. 

The challenge facing workers, unions and communities in setting and delivering any alternative analysis that aims for a better society and learns key lessons from this emergency is gargantuan.

But it is one that we as a movement must take up on behalf of the silent majority in a manner our movement singularly failed to do in the economic emergency just over a decade ago.

Dr Conor McCabe is a research associate with UCD Equality Studies Centre, and the author of Money (Cork University Press, 2018). Follow him on Twitter @CMacCaba.

Read the full report, Hope or Austerity: A Road Map for a Better Fairer Ireland After the Pandemic, published by Unite the Union here. Follow Unite on Twitter @UniteunionROI.

Top image from Reuters.

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