ovid is no longer a thing, at least not for me. I seem to have erased all memories of what it was like to live under the various lockdowns. I know I hated it, but I can’t remember exactly.
pandemoniumA new report by two political journalists on how Ireland dealt with the crisis shows those who made the decisions hated them too, but also hated each other as different strains – economic, social, political and health – in competed against each other in the almost impossible task of finding the right political response.
The informants for pandemonium could also have faulty memories because throughout the book it shows various ministers, officers and public health officials remembering events slightly differently.
“That’s not how I remember it,” the authors must have often quoted when presenting unfamiliar positions to the interviewees. We’re all capable of remembering things incorrectly, so we’re the heroes and other villains, but those in public roles will have an added motivation to remember things differently.
Aside from self-interested interviews, there are also notable details of text messages between ministers and officials, their email exchanges, and some memos not normally seen by the public.
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Coming to the other side, it’s too early to judge Ireland’s performance. China was once touted as a role model and President Xi Jinping as a wise man, but now he oversees a dystopian incarceration of citizens with grave repercussions on the Chinese economy.
This book does not attempt to form judgments, and that is to its credit. Instead, it offers a fast-paced portrayal of the most sweeping crisis the state has ever seen. It reads quickly and was also written quickly. They feel it could have been done with a stronger editorial hand.
Making real-time decisions about Covid with limited data has been likened to reversing in the dark, and the book gives a sense of how little decision-makers knew.
What ensues is a struggle for power, with an unlikely person holding the reins. Former Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr. Tony Holohan became an important figure who was trusted by the public.
His followers saw something “Churchillian” about him. A more fitting analogue might be Éamon de Valera. Holohan appeared to operate like Dev, wearing down and isolating opponents, centralizing control through a new body, Nphet, that never really had any legal basis and simply emerged from the ether.
Holohan turns out to be someone who knew what he wanted and used and shaped Nphet to exert control over the advice going to the government. Both Health Secretary Simon Harris and Stephen Donnelly wanted to attend Nphet meetings but Holohan blocked this. It has been reported that the debate in Nphet was controlled by the holohan to ensure a specific outcome. Instead, ministers should receive “the advice”.
The former CMO was keen on a decision-making model that kept public health advice separate from the political and political consideration of that advice. Keeping advice and consideration of advice separate is logical, but it puts tremendous power in the hands of the person giving that advice.
It didn’t always allow this advice to be properly questioned and led to bizarre situations where Nphet met while ministers waited outside drinking tea for hours. Ministers were urged to “close your eyes and approve”.
Nphet’s advice always seemed to find itself in the media before the government had a chance to consider it. Usually this was done through leaks, but sometimes Nphet members went to the media, prompting one official to complain: “You can’t have both sides, you can’t be a trusted advisor if, before you give advice, you go on Tomorrow Ireland.”
The fighting at the center of government, even as the government moved from caretaker to the new three-party coalition, was often between Nphet and politicians – and Nphet always seemed to win. The fighting may have served to unify the parties in government somewhat, as they saw a common adversary in Nphet, a body they tried but never managed to control.
This is a remarkable story of power at the heart of government – and we can see that the normal lines of decision-making have often been blurred. It is revealed that “Holohan concluded… his advice was not safe in the hands of the Secretary of Health”.
But Holohan also shows how his determination and uncompromising attitude can get a system going. He ignored advice when what he wanted was initially rejected as impossible, and that’s how things seemed to happen for him.
In addition to his control over the Advice, Holohan’s power was also based on his popularity with the public. He was the most trusted public figure in Ireland for long periods of the pandemic. Neither Leo Varadkar nor Micheál Martin could afford to ignore his advice.
Fighting continued, usually fought in the media, with Nphet retaining power even as it took increasingly hard-line positions on issues such as antigen testing. By the end of October last year, it was clear the public had moved on.
Despite Nphet’s warnings to limit socialization, people did what they wanted and those at Nphet admitted they had “lost the space”. After that, politicians took back control.
Eoin O’Malley teaches politics and politics at Dublin City University.
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/book-reviews/pandemonium-goes-behind-the-scenes-of-covid-fight-as-fear-and-loathing-stalked-the-corridors-of-power-41647013.html Pandemonium goes behind the scenes of the Covid fight as fear and loathing stalked the corridors of power