Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

Covid-19 restrictions Necessary – Irish Government’s Hesitation Showed Priority it Places in Profits over Lives

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No Border News (NBN) No Borders News is publishing a series of interviews about Covid 19 in many different parts of the world.

Jessy Ní Cheallaigh answers NBN’s questions about the Coronavirus Epidemic in Ireland.

Please provide a brief biography for yourself and any links to resources or websites you would like included in your interview.

My name is Jessy Ní Cheallaigh. I’m a 22 year old woman living in Ireland. I’m a socialist activist and a final year student studying Communications through the language of Irish in NUIG, Galway City. I’m a member of RISE (Radical, Internationalist, Socialist, Environmentalist) a democratic socialist political group. https://www.letusrise.ie/

Above from left: Dave Murphy; Jessy Ní Cheallaigh, Paul Murphy TD, Kay Keane and Nicole McCarthy

1. Briefly describe the state of the pandemic in your country or city. How many people are infected? How many have died? What do experts expect in the coming weeks in terms of how fast the contagion will spread.

At the current date (14/04/2020) the total number of confirmed cases in the Republic of Ireland is 10,647. Death toll has reached 365 as 31 more deaths were confirmed in the last 24 hours. In Northern Ireland, 76 new cases have been registered and 6 more people have died from the coronavirus. The tally in the North now stands at 118 deaths and 1,882 confirmed cases. 12,529 confirmed cases on the island with a death toll of 483. Overall Ireland has made a decent effort to flatten the curve as the spread is not as rapid as it is in other countries. The government announced that there has been a “very high level of compliance” with restrictions on non-essential travel over the bank holiday weekend. However there is still concern amongst experts over the “clusters” of the virus present in nursing homes around the country with very little healthy/qualified staff to help prevent spread. As of Saturday 11 April, there have been 6.5 deaths per 100,000 people in Ireland. These figures however are definitely not 100% accurate as there have been problems with testing in the lack of testing kits available/bought as well as the huge backlog in test results that have yet to be processed. When testing was first opened up it was under the understanding that anyone who suspected they had the virus could be tested, when large numbers of test were coming back negative they changed it so that the only people who were referred for testing were those who had two or more of the most common symptoms of the virus or those who were high at risk (immuno-compromised/underlying conditions etc.) This resulted in over 40,000 people being taken off the waiting list who then had to reapply. Lots of reports state that some of these people still haven’t received results and that was just under a month ago.

2. What practical measures has your national government taken to respond to the crisis? Have they acted responsibly or were they unprepared? Briefly describe measures your government is taking now to contain the virus and treat people infected with Covid-19. Is there a state of emergency, are schools closed, etc.?

Currently the Republic of Ireland is in lockdown with restrictions on travel. At the start of the crisis the government were hesitant to act (There is currently a Fine Gael-led (Capitalist centre right establishment party) coalition caretaker government in place as a new government has not yet been decided on since the last General Election on Feb 8th 2020) On March 3rd there were 3 confirmed cases and it was planned for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to still go ahead – big focus on tourism industry and the impact it has on the economy. However events developed rapidly and 3 days later (March 9) all parades were cancelled and the confirmed cases rose to 24. On March 12 it is announced that all schools, colleges and childcare facilities will close until March 29. Indoor gatherings of more than 100 people and outdoor gatherings of 500 are banned on this day as well. On March 15 the government asked all pubs and bars to close and strongly advised against house parties, 169 confirmed cases, 2 dead. Friday March 27, full lockdown is announced to last for 2 weeks – until Sunday April 12. The announcement stated that everybody in Ireland is asked to stay inside their homes in all circumstances with the exception of the following purposes:

  • Travel to and from work only when the work is an essential service and can’t be done from home
  • To shop for groceries/medicine
  • Vital family reasons
  • Visiting those who require care
  • 1 daily outing for exercise that can’t exceed 2km radius from home

The following groups of workers are considered essential under these restrictions:

  • Healthcare and social care
  • Public and civil service
  • Utilities
  • Necessary goods, foods and medicines
  • Financial services
  • Transport
  • Communications, including journalists

This lockdown period has been renewed to last a further 3 weeks on Friday April 10 with the new set date being May 5.

The restrictions in place now are necessary but as I said, there was a delay in implementing all of them at first. The government’s hesitation in the face of clear danger showed the priority it places in profits over lives. RISE called for the closure of all non essential workplaces before it was announced. We also called for sufficient PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for workers which still has not fully been provided. A hospital in the rural county of Cavan for example is the worst off in the country currently as the majority of workers/health providers in the hospital have contracted the virus due to a lack of PPE.

3. How has your health care system responded to the crisis? What are your health care system’s greatest weaknesses? What are its greatest strengths?

Ireland’s healthcare system was in a weak position going into this crisis and moving towards greater privatisation and private insurance-based healthcare. Due to years of underfunding there has been a trolley crisis in the hospitals for years with record numbers of patients stuck on trolleys in hallways due to a lack of beds announced every few months. There have been numerous cases of patients dying because they were left on a trolley and did not get a bed in time. We have one of the lowest numbers of ICU beds per 1,000 people in all of Europe.

There is also a crisis present due to the lack of healthcare workers in this country, especially nurses. Due to low wages a large number of trained nurses have emigrated in source of better QoL and currently most hospitals around the country are understaffed as a result. INMO (The nurses and midwife union in Ireland) called for strike action in Feb last year due to the understaffing, underfunding and lack of safe staffing in hospitals. 95% of workers voted to strike and 40,000 went on strike over a period of 3 days. The INMO leadership called off the second round of 3 day strike action after a weak deal was agreed on pay rises for some but not all staff, a decision which was praised by Fine Gael ministers at the time.

4. Describe the official political response to Covid-19 in your country from the far-right and conservative parties, to liberal and social democrat parties, and the parties of the left if applicable.

The far right does not have a strong presence in Ireland especially not electorally but amongst the unorganised layers of the far right in Ireland the main focus has been put on both Chinese racism and the need to harden borders but as well as this there has been more wide-spread hysteria over 5G wifi services that are being introduced with certain far right commentators spreading conspiracies that these 5G masts are the cause of Coronavirus. This is mostly dismissed as a wild conspiracy however there was an arson attack on one of the 5G masts in the county of Donegal last week which shows that this conspiracy has gained some traction . The Conservative parties FG (Fine Gael) and FF (Fianna Fáil) have had similar reactions to the pandemic – so much so that it was announced this week that they are prepared to form a “stable” coalition after years of being in opposition to each other (although their policies have no major differences) and weeks of vehemently denying that it would be a possibility. Even though the most recent election was an unprecedented break from the two party system the country has had for the last 100 years with Sinn Féin (Centre left Nationalist Party) making huge gains and the result being a three way tie between these 3 parties, FF and FG are pushing to keep the power, sharing it for the first time. Interestingly however, the language used by FG as it deals with the crisis has made a massive swing to the left, with words like “solidarity” being used in public addresses and of course the praise of key sections of “essential” workers. FGs approval rate has gone up in recent weeks as Varadkar pulls various PR stunts such as returning to work on the frontline as a doctor (doing contact tracing calls one day a week). Sinn Féin and other liberal, capitalist, centre/centre left parties such as The Greens, Social Democrats and Labour have not played a huge role in the crisis so far and have not provided many concrete opposition proposals to FG/FF so far. SF being the most vocal out of all of them. The Green leader, Eamon Ryan, actually suggested that we should all start to grow vegetables at home in the case that the chain of production collapses. The left wing parties (Solidarity[Socialist Party/ISA], People Before Profit [SWP/SWN] and ourselves [RISE]) have been making calls for workers’ welfare throughout the pandemic with a lot of our demands being taken up by FG days/weeks after we’ve made them. These include our demand we made early on for the shutting down of non essential workplaces and building sites as well as the demand for full pay for workers, including the students nurses who were recruited to the front lines for the duration of the pandemic. Included in this also, are the demands we made in favour of price controls to tackle the price gouging that started to appear, brought in by certain businesses on essential products such as hand sanitizer and face masks. RISE put out the call to people through the platform of our public rep, Paul Murphy TD, for submissions of examples of this price gouging that people came across. We received hundreds of messages and we publicised them, naming and shaming the companies responsible and the reach that these posts had resulted in a lot of these ridiculously high prices being lowered back down. There has also been a lot of focus put on the aftermath of the pandemic – Who’s going to pay for it? Oncoming recession. We can’t go “back to normal” etc.

5. How have trade unions responded to the crisis? Especially public sector, education, and health care unions?

Trade Unions in Ireland have a history of being quite bureaucratic and with less than genuine leadership however they have been making demands during the pandemic. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) have played a really weak and detrimental role so far. They have not led the way calling for non essential workplaces to shut down nor for full pay for workers. The main demand on their website is for “workers to wash hands with care”. The trade unions have a huge opportunity in front of them to unionise massive numbers of essential workers in low wage industries with historically poor working conditions, but we’ve yet to see any efforts to do this.

INMO (nurses and midwives) main demands have been for healthcare staff to receive regular and detailed updates as they occur, to ensure all staff have necessary PPE and safe working conditions and that pay for healthcare workers is maintained or improved during the crisis. Student nurses were asked to come to work prior to receiving their qualifications due to lack of staff and many are still not being paid currently although INMO made a demand that this be rectified and was agreed by FG, reports from workers is that payment is on the way but still hasn’t come through.

UNITE made the call for all construction sites in the country to be closed when lockdown was first introduced and construction workers were classified as necessary at first.

FÓRSA (union covering workers across the civil, public, private, voluntary and semi-state sectors) has made the following demands:

  1. Volunteers should be sought for higher-risk tasks and work areas wherever possible
  2. For the protection of patients, clients, the public and workers themselves, staff must have the training and qualifications required to undertake their allocated tasks and functions safely and effectively
  3. Adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), and training in the use and disposal of PPE, should be provided, along with any other necessary supports (eg, mental health support) that can reasonably be expected
  4. The individual family circumstances of staff should be taken into account when people are being allocated to higher-risk tasks and functions. In particular, those living with – or whose caring responsibilities demand contact with – elderly and other high-risk groups should not be obliged to work in high-risk areas except in very exceptional circumstances, and
  5. Wherever possible, such workers should also receive other practical supports from their employer, including childcare supports.

And ASTI (Ireland’s main second level teachers union) have supported the controversial call by the government to reschedule the leaving certificate (end of school exams for second level students) to the end of the summer rather than cancelling it like other countries have done. They encourage teachers to continue online teaching throughout the summer.

6. How have social movements (student, feminist, ecological, immigrant, indigenous, etc.) responded to the crisis?

My impression has been that social movements have generally slowed down due to the crisis as traditional forms of face to face organising obviously isn’t possible at the moment. However some groups within different movements are doing a lot online during the pandemic. The most prominent environmentalist group in Ireland, Extinction Rebellion, are currently looking to put pressure on the Green Party leadership to not compromise on yearly emission reductions and no new fossil fuel infrastructure. The Greens were considering going into the coalition with FG and FF but it’s looking like the younger and more radical membership are going to block this.

The movement for rights of asylum seekers and against the system of Direct Provision that is currently in place for immigrants into Ireland is playing a key role in highlighting the inhumane conditions that asylum seekers have to endure being incompatible with the social distancing rules. Currently in Direct Provision Centres across the country there may be up to 8 or 9 to one room. MASI (Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland) have been writing open letters to the government signed by hundreds of experts and :has raised awareness to the inhumane conditions that exist in the system.

There was an attempt to roll back on abortion rights in Northern Ireland, that were won earlier in the year, due to the lack of remote access to abortion pills that were accessible in the rest of the UK and in the Republic but for a few weeks were not available in the North. Petitions were shared by local pro-choice groups online and remote access was made available.

It’s clear that without the prior existence of these movements and the dedicated work of these activists, these issues would in all likelihood not be addressed.

7. Are there any efforts to make demands for social justice, national health care, emergency economic measures for unemployment pay, stopping rent and debt payments, etc.?

Currently in RISE we are making many of these demands and are releasing regular articles and social media posts regarding them using the platform of our elected national rep to spread these demands. Press releases and articles can be found here: https://www.letusrise.ie/coronavirus-1

Other left wing parties (Socialist Party, People Before Profit) are making similar demands.

8. Any final comments about the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and how you think it will impact national politics in the coming weeks and months?

I think that a deep and long lasting recession is on the cards as we entered this pandemic with a crisis on the breaking point already present in the capitalist system. I’ve outlined already how the two big establishment parties , who received an historically low vote in the recent election are now scraping together a “stable” coalition government to carry us through the crisis but I predict that their incapability of offering real concrete relief to ordinary working class people when the effects of this pandemic become clear and their fake acts of “solidarity” have been seen as disingenuous, the already seen shift to the left in Ireland will hopefully grow stronger and the left can make real gains in terms of a raise in consciousness amongst working people. However I do believe that there will be a period of real hardship and recession to struggle through before we can get to this point.

However I do believe that there will be a period of real hardship and recession to struggle through before we can get to this point. One important difference between this crisis and the last in Ireland is the fact that the workers movement has 6 revolutionary socialist TD’s – Paul Murphy (RISE), Brid Smith (PBP), Richard Boyd Barrett (PBP), Gino Kenny (PBP), Mick Barry (Solidarity) and Joan Collins – as well as 2 other left TDs – Catherine Connolly and Thomas Pringle.

From this position our movements are better positioned to fight against any attempts at austerity and for the radical socialist policies needed to improve the lives of working people while also proving the limitations and contradictions of the capitalist system especially when faced with a crisis such as this and guide them to the direction of marxist ideas as a way of organising society.

See Also :

International Viewpoint International Viewpoint and the ESSF (Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières) ESSF – an association for international solidarity

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