Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Phoenix opinion column, which has been running in the Waterford News & Star for more than 30 years

IT’S only three months since Christmas. We find ourselves looking back longingly at personal freedoms and facilities we had which have vanished in the face of the Covid 19 epidemic. A recent French media commentator wrote of, “people living in paradise with access to everything, who were convinced they were deprived and living in Hell”.Anyone reading social media posts about Waterford over the past few years would be convinced that it is some sort of hell hole. That was never the case. We live in a lovely area, in a reasonably well ordered city with access to most things we need. Of course there are deficits, but these exist everywhere. The simple pleasure of a walk through the People’s Park or an evening stroll along the quayside from Rice Bridge to Canada Street. A coffee in Blackfriars, a pizza in Antichi Sapori, a meal in the Bodega, a pint in Geoff’s. How exotic these seem now.

Many people know the book “The Revenge of Gaia”, by James Lovelock, Gaia being representative of planet earth. The book warned of climate catastrophe and the prospect that the planet would finish the human race if the human race did not respect the planet. The central point was that everything is connected to everything else. This has been brought home graphically by satellite images which show pollution free skies over China as industrial production ceased, albeit temporarily, and photos last week showing fish, swans and dolphins swimming in crystal clear lagoon waters in a tourist free Venice. The point of everything and everyone being interconnected has been drummed home to us all in recent weeks.

Maybe Ireland and the EU needs to re-examine the principles of globalisation which have united the world market while simultaneously creating an environment around transport and production which have presented us with an extreme and dangerous threat to our health.’

Things will be done differently after this outbreak is cleared. Social gatherings, retail, manufacturing, office work, all work, will change. Even shaking hands may disappear as confidence has been shaken. But people should remember that when Milton wrote Paradise Lost in the 17th century, he followed it with Paradise Regained. Life will return to normal, but the “normal” will be different.

What next?

In 1940 the British Labour Party entered into a coalition with the Conservative Party. In June 1941 Arthur Greenwood, the Labour MP and Minister without Portfolio, announced the creation of an inter-departmental committee which would carry out a survey of Britain’s social insurance and allied services: “To undertake, with special reference to the inter-relation of the schemes, a survey of the existing national schemes of social insurance and allied services, including workmen’s compensation, and to make recommendations.” Out of that in 1942, in the depths of a world war, came the Beveridge Report which is the foundation document of the UK welfare state and National Health Service. Whatever you may say about Boris Johnson and his current Michael Govian claque “we have had enough of experts”, you have to admit Beveridge was far seeing.

Our current government is too busy with the present epidemic to think what Ireland might do next, but that work has to be done. What will our health and education sectors look like? What will our industrial sector be like? Will foreign direct investment still exist? Where will our tourism business be? Will we continue to import stuff on a ”just in time “ basis from China and other parts? Is it sensible to have supply lines that long? Should Europe and Ireland be doing more to be food and technology secure? It is hard to believe, but there are many farmers in Ireland who have never planted a drill of spuds.

The idea that orchids grown in Chile, flown by jumbo jet to Amsterdam flower market, sold and brought by truck overnight to Ireland’s petrol stations and supermarkets can be bought by us on Sunday mornings, now seems risible. Will this change?

E. F Schumacher wrote a great book called “Small is beautiful” out of which grew the idea of “thinking globally and acting locally”. Maybe Ireland and the EU needs to re-examine the principles of globalisation which have united the world market while simultaneously creating an environment around transport and production which have presented us with an extreme and dangerous threat to our health.

Globalisation developed from the deregulation of the Thatcher/Reagan era and has been beneficial to many in the developing world. That world, even in the midst of an international pandemic, is driven by shareholder value, next quarter’s earnings and the DOW Jones average. Profit and the economy are the driving forces. What changes will they make?

Medical matters

Taoiseach Varadkar delivered a good speech on St Patrick’s Day. Of course it was written by speechwriters, as all major speeches are, but Varadkar came across as sincere and statesmanlike and set the scene for the struggle ahead. The stark figures from Italy bring that home in no uncertain terms. Remember though, that the current epidemic has not made Simon Harris a better health minister than he was. There is determined leadership from the system now and HSE CEO Paul Reid deserves plaudits, but the plight of Ireland’s health services in these dangerous times can be traced back to decisions taken by Fine Gael in the government of 2011/16.

Ireland has only half the European norm of Intensive Care beds and UHW probably even less. When the Dunmore Wing was being built, consultants at UHW pleaded to have one level completed as an ICU floor for the hospital and the region but this was ignored because grandiose political priorities lay elsewhere. Like a massively oversized, budget bursting busting folly called the National Children’s Hospital. Normal regional healthcare vanished in a sea of Dublin and Cork hubris.

No one asked James Reilly to plunge the acute hospital sector into complete chaos with his 2013 hospital group strategy at a time when money was scarce. The impact on UHW was that it undermined services there. It looked like spite emanating from powerful politicians elsewhere in the South East.

As of now, no one is healthy, unless everyone is healthy, but where did these academic hospital groups come from? The HSE regions as they existed were bedding in although not without fault. It is hard to escape the notion that money, power, ego and desire for personal aggrandisement and control of resources in Dublin and Cork led the chase. No one voted for a hospital service centred only on Dublin, Cork and Galway, with the rest of us left to wither on the vine. How sensible is it now, in the midst of the Covid 19 outbreak, to be bringing people to Cork for anything other than the most serious conditions?

The South East has 500,000 people and is capable of standing alone in terms in normal regional acute hospital services. That must be the future.

It was nice to read in the Irish Times of March 19 of UHW being one of the few hospitals actually testing swabs for Covid 19. Staff in the South East’s only Model 4 hospital have always delivered excellent services even with the scarcest resources. Hopefully that will be acknowledged and remedied when the emergency is over.

In the meantime it’s nice that UPMC’s Whitfield hospital will be used by the National Cancer Control Plan as an aid to UHW cancer centre’s day ward for oncology and haematology. What we now need is an immediate commencement on the second cath lab at UHW to strengthen interventional cardiology services in the aftermath of the epidemic. Forward planning and good sense needs to prevail over vested Cork and Dublin interests.

Response to WCTU

A letter from WCTU re the UHW cleaners strike in the column of March 10 appears elsewhere in this paper. The column posed two questions of huge local importance: 1. Why are cleaning standards regularly criticised as low on social media? and 2. Why has Limerick UH 900 staff more than UHW? The staff figures for both hospitals were clearly printed to demonstrate a comparison which obviously must impact on cleaning services. These figures are implicitly critical of the HSE and hospital management and would be understood to be so by any neutral reader.

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By Phoenix
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