Kathy Sheridan: Lo, in the fourth year of Covid, the ancient game of hindsight returned
The merchants of rear-window certitude never sleep. They haunt social media in their droves. The need to prove that they were correct presses deep in their psyche. They alone saw blindingly obvious solutions to a deadly novel plague infesting a small, tightly integrated society made up of large extended families.
First, a dose of context. In Ireland we were told – and believed with good reason – that our first duty was to protect our rickety health service, to prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed. We were relieved to hear that our politicians would be following the science. That was the deal.
This implied a serious personal onus to protect ourselves from disease. The notion that we might ourselves through carelessness require some of those precious ICU beds or a rare as gold-dust ventilator was unconscionable.
There were multiple dilemmas running in alongside this. School children needed school, but many school teachers would be returning home to vulnerable multi-generational households. Were they not entitled to defend themselves?
A man whose multigenerational business folded in the second lockdown was furious that it might have been prevented if masks had been mandatory everywhere, if alcohol sales had been banned, if house parties had been ended and every airport arrival tested and quarantined. Was he entitled to a voice?
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But complexities are no fun, and hindsight’s appeal lies in its risk-free simplicity. It comes with fascinating new data and stats on life and death, gilded by near-miraculous vaccines and medical discoveries learned on the hoof by desperate doctors.
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How many now remember those early March days three years ago? The apocalyptic scenes from Italy of coffins being stacked high into military transport, the scores of newly dug graves, the voices of desperate doctors in overrun hospitals pleading for help? To confuse a growing narrative, Italy’s “patient 1″ – the country’s first locally transmitted case – was not an 83-year-old “nonna” but a 38-year-old marathon-runner and amateur footballer. He remained in intensive care while his heavily pregnant wife was well enough to be discharged.
The primary mode of transmission – via airborne droplets – wasn’t officially recognised by the WHO or others for quite some time.
Boris Johnson told a Covid-19 press conference in early March 2020 that he had visited a hospital and made a point of shaking hands with everybody. There were hints at British herd immunity.
Despite the hindsight narrative, it wasn’t governments that alarmed people; it was the scenes before their eyes
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar levelled with the people as best he could on March 9th: “. . . What we’ve seen from other countries and what is available at the moment is that we could easily have 50 to 60 per cent of the population contracting Covid-19, for whom the vast majority this will be a mild dose. Maybe even asymptomatic. Maybe you won’t even know you have it. But there will be a significant proportion who will require critical care and a percentage that we don’t honestly know yet – it could be less than 1 per cent or as much as 3 per cent or 3.4 per cent mortality, we just don’t know.”
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There’s another growing narrative – that government terrorised the people into submission. But there is also a wide array of psychological research showing that when faced with a future that seems unpredictable – without markers for good or bad – people become more anxious. They needed truth. Despite the hindsight narrative, it wasn’t governments that alarmed people; it was the scenes before their eyes. Anyway, they had already made up their own minds. Weeks before the first official lockdown, many had stocked up and embarked on their own lockdown.
A learning review is becoming more urgent and is an area where good faith hindsight is essential
There was no template for a pandemic then and a new one will have to be constructed. Plenty of areas will benefit from a public review, such as nursing home deaths, school closures, the precise meaning of “lockdown”, the slow adjustment to masks and antigen tests.
Many of us are mourning people who died of Covid in nursing homes or hospital – Covid’s ultimate message – and those for whom it was a tipping point towards long and chronic illness. We know heroes who worked themselves to a standstill in the deeply tedious, complex, virtually unknown field of public health and those who raised their heads daily to deliver repetitive, depressing public briefings in an unprecedented, sometimes aggressive media cycle.
A learning review is becoming more urgent and is an area where good faith hindsight is essential. It could be made infinitely more productive for everyone if participants first had to agree to being scrubbed and disinfected of professional ego, reputation repair and the bad faith kind of hindsight. Anyone tempted to hammer at certain decisions made by others in the scorching heat should be careful to examine their own sometimes complex record before proceeding. That also applies to lockdown sceptics who were never willing to be upfront about the true dangers of the virus, never prepared to say how many excess deaths, or whose, would be a sufficient sacrifice.
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There may be other lessons to be gleaned in the meantime about leaks and agendas in all this. An intriguing feature of the loathsome Matthew Hancock WhatsApp messages – stupidly entrusted to his vigorously anti-lockdown ghostwriter who chose to pass them on to the virulently anti-lockdown, pro-Boris Johnson Telegraph – is that Johnson appears nowhere within their edited messages.
The unexpurgated messages, when published by the UK’s independent public inquiry, will be fascinating at several levels.