By Quentin Fottrell, MarketWatch
DUBLIN — Ireland is a nation of saints, scholars and the status quo.
This small island on the northwestern periphery of Europe is ruled by two old foes: the right-of-center Republican Fianna Fáil party and the fellow Christian-democratic Fine Gael, which have been on opposing sides of the political divide since independence in 1922.
Under an agreement reached in June, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin took the reins as taoiseach, or Irish prime minister, from Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar until 2022. It is a polite, if imperfect, game of musical chairs to maintain stability during troubled times.
It was either form a minority coalition with 43% of the vote combined, or form a coalition with the left-wing Sinn Féin party, which gained a quarter of the vote in February’s general election, and started life as the political arm and/or voice of the Irish Republican Army, a terrorist organization.
What has all this got to do with coronavirus? The nation’s lawmakers have, perhaps more so than usual, been eager not to upset this delicate balance of power or upset the public by making any sudden moves or missteps as the nation reels from the economic effects of the pandemic.
The government has been accused of fiddle-faddling. That’s the local vernacular for dilly-dallying, which is colloquial for playing both sides of the fence in an effort to please everyone. But even this coalition is losing patience with a seemingly laissez-faire attitude to the disease.
On Saturday, Michael Cawley, chairman of the state tourism board Fáilte Ireland, went on vacation to Italy, despite the advice of the government to limit travel overseas. Cawley, who previously served as the deputy chief executive of Irish airline Ryanair /zigman2/quotes/204098489/composite RYAAY +0.24% , was forced to resign.
News that the chairman of Fáilte Ireland, the country’s tourism board, would take such a trip was greeted with a mixture of disbelief and disappointment among the public and lawmakers alike. Cawley is listed as a member of the board of directors of no-frills airline Ryanair.
Fáilte Ireland spearheaded a campaign to convince the Irish people to vacation at home and support local businesses. The Cawley resignation was regarded as a typically Irish affair of saying one thing and doing another behind, but it also reveals a larger context of relaxed attitudes to the virus.
Six months after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed here, the government finally decided to enforce the wearing of face coverings in stores. As of this month, people risk a fine of up to €2,500 ($2,947) or six months in prison. Prior to that, the government had only issued an advisory.
A growing body of research suggests that face coverings help stop the transmission of COVID-19 through respiratory droplets and may also encourage people to adopt more behavior recommended by health professionals, including not touching your face, and social distancing.
‘Huge level of compliance’
Martin told reporters at Dublin Castle of the new mandatory face-mask store policy: “As we have seen with face coverings on public transport and the many other requests that have been made of citizens over the course of the pandemic: When people are given a clear direction, they follow it.”
Martin’s comments might suggest that his previous “advisory” was not a clear direction and people did not follow it. Yet Helen McEntee, the minister for justice, complimented people on their “huge level of compliance.” But that depends what store you’re visiting, and how you define “huge.”
In June, Ireland’s government advised people to wear masks in stores. If you want to wear a mask? Be our guest. Knock yourself out. Help stop the spread of coronavirus and protect the health of the sales assistants in the store, though they may not be wearing face masks either.
And if you don’t want to wear a mask? OK, then. You risk an eye roll from a disgruntled mask-wearing shopper who is — depending on your perspective — suffering from “mask rage” or simply trying to get everyone to work as a team so we get through this without a surge of new cases.
And so life goes on in Ireland. In fact, you would be hard pressed to notice that there was — or is — a potentially deadly virus floating about. If you listen closely, you may even hear music from a house party or two. Few people wear masks on the street. Some do in stores, but not all.
Even if there was a “huge level of compliance,” it does not account for the cost being paid by those who are subject to other people’s lack of compliance. Face coverings are worn primarily to stop the asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic wearer from unwittingly spreading the virus.
As Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for three decades and an infectious-disease expert for four decades, told this reporter in an interview last month, “If half of people don’t do it, it kind of negates the overall purpose.”
More on the pandemic: Why are some people with coronavirus asymptomatic — and what makes them so contagious?
‘It should have been mandatory from the beginning’
“It should have been mandatory from the beginning; lives could have been saved,” says Elizabeth O’Connor, a 40-something homemaker in Dublin. “I think a lot of people have had COVID without knowing it and have probably spread it to others as they haven’t been wearing masks.”
“A seemingly high percentage of our teenagers, 20-somethings and 30-somethings think they’re bulletproof, and from their behavior have little concern for the more vulnerable in our society who can become ill with COVID with dire consequences,” she says.
The mask advisory led to awkwardness, including this little vignette outside a pharmacy in Donnybrook, a prosperous and leafy suburb of Dublin. An agitated senior woman in a mask asked a middle-aged father with his young daughter, both mask-free: “Are you not wearing a mask?”
Unless he was performing some kind of black magic, it was 100% clear that this man was not wearing a mask, and he was not happy about being asked about that fact. “I forgot it,” he replied without making eye contact. It made for an awkward, socially distanced queue.
‘It should have been mandatory from the beginning, lives could have been saved.’
Elizabeth O’Connor, homemaker in Dublin
In Dalkey, a small seaside town best known for where U2 frontman Bono lives, a man browsed a used clothing store on Saturday morning loudly complaining, “We are not allowed to count the church collection money after Sunday’s mass. We have to wait until Wednesday.”
Such protocols are put in place to avoid the spread of the virus. He left the store, exclaiming, “I have to go outside. This mask is very uncomfortable and I have to take it off.” The response online to such statements is typically: “A ventilator would be far more uncomfortable.”
Johns Hopkins University ranks Ireland as No. 15 in the world on a list of COVID-related deaths per capita: 36.5 per 100,000 with a case-fatality rate of 6.6%. For comparison, the U.S. is ranked at No. 10 with a fatality rate of 51.5 per 100,000 and a case-fatality rate of 3.2%.
On Saturday, Ireland confirmed 200 new cases of Covid-19; 66 more cases on Sunday brings the total number of cases to 27,257, a situation Martin described as “deeply concerning.” Deaths remain at 1,774. That, as with all such tallies, does not account for most asymptomatic cases.
Ireland, a country with a population of 4.9 million excluding the British province of Northern Ireland, has also recorded one of the highest rates of COVID-related nursing-home deaths in the world. Some 62% of fatalities from the virus occurred in nursing homes, a rate only exceeded by Canada.
Schools, meanwhile, are also reopening in September, despite the increase in cases. The government has recommended that all teachers and high-school students wear face coverings when a distance of 2 meters cannot be maintained. That, however, remains an advisory, not an enforcement measure.
Ronan Glynn, acting chief medical officer, told a press briefing Wednesday: “It is virtually inevitable there will be clusters when schools reopen. There is no zero risk so it is likely, unfortunately. But we have to balance the risk of infection versus their needs as children to educational attainment.”
Nor will schools be closed if a COVID-19 case has been diagnosed among students. “There will not be a blanket approach,” Glynn said. It may need to happen that a school closes, but the hope would be that in the main, it would only be children in close contacts with a case who might have to restrict their movements.”
‘Never will so many ask so much of so few’
And it all seemed to start out so well. Varadkar, the former taoiseach, gave a rousing call to arms on March 17. “Never will so many ask so much of so few,” he said in a televised address, appearing to pay homage to a speech by Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
To help rouse the public’s patriotic duty to wear face masks, Varadkar chose to make a speech on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, a national holiday to celebrate the country’s patron saint who, according to legend, drove all the snakes out of Ireland sometime during the 5th century.
(St. Patrick, a Christian missionary, was on something of a lockdown himself at the time. He was on a 40-day fast when he was reportedly attacked by snakes. Because he was so rudely interrupted, he chased them into the sea. It’s apocryphal, of course. Snakes never lived on this island.)
Back to the summer of 2020: Varadkar waited 10 days after that speech to introduce the nationwide lockdown. People were allowed to leave home to grocery shop and exercise within 2 kilometers of home, and the Irish — not known for always playing by the rules — mostly complied.
But why the 10-day delay between the March 17 speech and lockdown? It could be the same reason it took six months to introduce a mandatory face-mask policy: Political vacillation. Skittish politicians are quick to take the public’s temperature, and notoriously reluctant to rock the proverbial boat.
But flattening the curve of new cases does not mean that you have beaten the virus. Ireland, which is in Phase 3 of its reopening, last Saturday imposed travel restrictions in Kildare, Offaly and Laois, three counties in the country’s heartland, due to a rise in cases there, particularly in meat plants.
‘This will come as a blow to pub owners’
The lesson from all of this reluctance to take swifter action: Listen to scientists, not politicians. COVID-19 is highly contagious. That’s why 21 million people worldwide have tested positive, a figure that does not account for the number of people who are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, a onetime epicenter of the virus in the U.S., put the power in the hands of business owners by issuing an executive order in May to permit businesses to deny admission to anyone without a face mask.
New Yorkers — much like St. Patrick — peered into the proverbial belly of the beast. Remembering how scary that was, they now tend to give each other space on the street and, yes, stand six feet apart in the supermarket. Even in Central Park, most people walking around wear masks.
To be fair, the Irish government has taken other bolder decisions: In his speech to announce the mandatory-mask store policy, Martin said pubs, bars, hotel bars and nightclubs would remain closed. “I know that this will come as a blow to pub owners,” he said.
Pubs that serve food in Ireland — less than half of them — are currently open with table service only. There is no standing in line at the bar or socializing away from your table. You must book ahead of time, eat food as well as drink, and leave after exactly one and three-quarter hours.
Martin’s belated enforcement of masks, for this Irish-born New Yorker, is still welcome. The fir agus mná na hÉireann — the men and women of Ireland — woke up on Monday to another rule. The mysterious masked woman outside that pharmacy in Donnybrook should be pleased.
Martin, meanwhile, invoked the spirit of St. Patrick’s quest to vanquish snakes in his recent speech on the perils of coronavirus. “It remains as virulent as ever,” he said. “As dangerous as it is, we have shown that we can beat it. Each one of us has the power to suppress it.”
This essay is part of a MarketWatch series, ‘Dispatches from a pandemic.’
MarketWatch photo illustration/iStockphoto