When the house is on fire, the occupants rush to save what is most important. Likewise, a global pandemic has revealed the weaknesses of governments, but also to what extent they will go to save lives. What seemed impossible to do a month ago is routine now. It’s undeniable that a pandemic is terrifying but instead of succumbing to fear, today I’m writing about the positives of coronavirus for NI. Crises can be the time where anything is possible and where a society can make drastic and necessary changes. NI for so long has been stifled by a lack of political will and compromise, but with the alert sense of danger, it’s time to come together and agree to action. Let’s choose to look at what we could do to benefit NI.
A disclaimer: I am not an epidemiologist or a public policy professional. I’m a young person with a Politics BA who is quite naturally concerned about the global pandemic and wants to look on the brighter side. That doesn’t mean that my ideas are all wrong, but there’s merit in trying to brainstorm ideas for a better future rather than sitting in isolation worrying that everyone is going to die.
What a global pandemic reveals is the necessity of a universal publicly funded healthcare system. Without it, a government has no accurate information on the number of infected people, as is the case in the US, where the number of people with coronavirus is definitely higher than the official number, simply because healthcare is so difficult to access. Here in the UK, the NHS is being placed under strain (see the worries of an anonymous senior NHS official here), and it’s an old story that HSC NI (Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland) is under-funded with far longer waiting lists than in GB. It was only last November that Mark Jones of the Royal College of Surgeons said that, “Northern Ireland's healthcare system is at the point of collapse.” It’s clear that HSC NI is not ready for a pandemic.
What can we do? First of all, implement the Bengoa reforms. But the Bengoa reforms came out in 2016 - we need to go beyond those to deal with a pandemic. I’m not a healthcare professional, so these are simple suggestions: more funding, more infrastructure, more technology. Definitely we need more ventilators in hospitals in case it turns out that coronavirus only provides a short-term immunity and turns into a seasonal virus. The political will to fix our healthcare system is here. This is a chance to improve all forms of healthcare as much as possible, not only for physical health but for mental health as well, considering NI’s well-documented suicide crisis (and how much worse will our mental health crisis be when everyone is self-isolating?). With the possibility of the over-70s needing to self-isolate for up to four months, there needs to be rigorous standards in carehomes and investigation to prevent any abuses in hospitals such as the scandal last summer in Muckamore Abbey. Elderly people must be protected not only physically but mentally as well, with anti-loneliness programs. The young can connect over the internet - for most elderly their social contact is face-to-face.
Schools and universities are not yet shut in NI. When they do shut, it will be for a minimum of 16 weeks, likely blending into the summer holidays. This provides time to think about how the education system can change to cope with the coronavirus.
It’s no secret that the school system in NI is at a crisis point, just as much as the healthcare system is. It is in desperate need of funding. Now is the time to think about moving all GCSE and A-Level subjects to coursework examination instead of exams, which place less stress on a student and are reliable as an indicator of a student’s performance, as well as being able to be submitted online.
Universities can have as many subjects as possible move to coursework and online submission, with the caveat for some subjects this will not be fully possible (such as medicine, chemistry and more, which require laboratory assessment). With this pandemic, all students are under more stress than usual, especially international students and final-year students. Extensions on deadlines should be freely given and there should be no penalties for late submission. Student health must be prioritised first, as student halls and large university classes are places where the coronavirus can spread easily and quickly.
HOMELESSNESS, PRISONS AND DETENTION CENTRES
There are three groups which are highly at-risk of contracting coronavirus who are unable to self-isolate. The first is homeless people, those who are sleeping rough, who do not have a home to quarantine themselves in if they get sick and are less likely to receive proper medical care. To tackle the coronavirus and to save lives, housing must be provided. Humane housing with adequate space and sanitation, not arrest of homeless people and placing them in detention centres. First in order to save lives and, if that imperative is somehow not enough, secondly because homeless people can become carriers spreading it to others on the street. All human beings have a right to housing and to medical care.
The second and third groups are prisoners and asylum seekers in detention centres. Not only are these groups unable to self-isolate because they lack freedom, but if there is an infection it will spread quickly throughout the prison and detention centre population. Extra care should be taken to ensure that testing is done if anyone shows symptoms, that if anyone is infected they are quarantined/potentially moved to a different location and that prisons and detention centres are not overcrowded during a pandemic. Of course, detention centres like Larne House should be closed down and the asylum process speeded up and made easier, and the justice system should focus more on rehabilitative justice for minor crimes than punitive measures. But that’s harder to change, so let’s focus on what can be done now to stop deaths during a pandemic. Mainstream society must stop ignoring prisoners and asylum seekers and treat them as human beings.
The airline industry is facing what might be its worst crisis in modern history. As country after country closes borders and puts up travel restrictions, less and less people are travelling. This has already led to the collapse of Flybe, and the UK airline industry is expected to ask for a bailout of up to £7.5 billion to prevent wipeout. This is an opportunity to change NI’s view of the airline industry as being primarily about bringing in tourism and increasing business, but instead about climate change. Instead of wanting to increase usage of Belfast City and Belfast International airports (as many tourists fly to Dublin and take transport to Belfast and Derry/Londonderry), the focus should be on cutting carbon emissions. That brings up the protest of: but then the airports won’t be commercially sustainable? Well, if they cannot be funded then it is clear that the public do not see a need to have three commercial airports in Northern Ireland, when perhaps only one could suffice.
Air pollution in both China and Italy has dramatically fallen after strict travel restrictions were put in place. The same needs to happen all over Europe, UK and NI if the consequences of climate change are going to be slowed. No matter how disruptive and challenging the coronavirus is, this is only a test run for how the consequences of the climate crisis will affect the entire world.
One action that works against containing the spread of coronavirus is social distancing. Companies have moved to asking everyone to work at home. This is an accessibility that physically disabled and chronically ill people have been asking for and been denied, and after coronavirus is stopped, working from home should be an option for every office worker. This also means that rural high-speed broadband across all of NI is necessary in order to be able to work from home. Another consequence of coronavirus is that all workers should have sick pay and should feel able to take their sick days without fear or stigma or punishment. No one can work all the time without burning out and becoming ill. Workers are more productive with more rest hours and time to recover from illness.
The coronavirus does not care about who you are or what your politics are. Orange, green or neither, the virus affects everyone. This is a time for NI to come together and realise that our common humanity and fragility to illnesses is more important than the difference in our constitutional ideas.
Some stray positives of the coronavirus on the internet:
● The #selfisolationhelp hashtag on Twitter, started by Helen O’Rahilly @HelenORahilly, with 2500+ volunteers on the island of Ireland, including 60+ in the Belfast area. https://randall.ie/help/ lets you sign up either as a volunteer or ask for help. You can find people in your local community who are willing to pick up medicine, collect groceries, phone lonely people, among anything else that is helpful.
● The Metropolitan Opera streaming free nightly opera for every night they are shut down.
● For those staying indoors as a precaution: a chance to sleep more, to be resilient, to be startlingly aware of what we value in the face of danger. And a chance to enjoy Twitter memes.
Ciara Campbell is a 21 year old BA Politics (QUB) graduate, currently on a gap year. She is interested in European politics, creative writing and baseball.