COUNTY CARLOW, Ireland—Sunday two weeks ago, my wife and I joined four friends for a birthday dinner, making up what was then the maximum sized legally-permissible group, six.
An opportunity to forget about the coronavirus for a few hours turned into anything but when one of our host’s kids came into the room where we were eating and told us that they’d heard on TikTok that the country was moving to “level five.”
We all understood.
It was soon established that Ireland’s National Public Health Emergency team, NPHET, had written to the government, urging a move from the then-current patchwork of “level two” and “level three” restrictions to a super-strict “level five” lockdown across the entire country.
At levels two and three of the government’s five-level plan for “living with COVID,” which was launched last month, something resembling normal life in Ireland is just about possible.
Level five, by contrast, is essentially a total lockdown with restaurants (and our famous pubs) only open for takeaway; non-essential shops closed; hairdressers and salons closed; all social visits banned; weddings and funerals limited to 25 guests and individuals prohibited from traveling farther than 3 miles from their homes.
The following day, Monday, Ireland’s government did something extraordinary; it rejected NPHET’s advice. It said the entire country would move to level three instead.
Ireland’s deputy leader, tanaiste Leo Varadkar, went on radio and publicly chastised NPHET members. Varadkar said they were civil servants who had no conception of what it meant to be facing unemployment or having “to shutter a business for the last time.”
Varadkar added, “I’m not talking about the economy, I’m talking about something that could have happened to half a million human beings tomorrow and the reason why politicians make these decisions is because we’re the ones who can see the bigger picture.
“It’s not just about a virus and statistics around a virus. It’s not about a death rate. It’s about real people, and how it impacts on so many different people, and so many different communities, in so many different ways.”
Exactly two weeks after Varadkar made his defiant stand, the Taoiseach (prime minister) Micheál Martin stood on the steps of government buildings Monday night and performed a stunning u-turn.
A grim-faced Martin announced that the entire country would indeed go into level five restrictions beginning midnight Wednesday, after infections among Ireland’s 5 million people surged to over 1,000 a day. The government expects some 200,000 people will lose their jobs. The only chink of light is that schools are staying open, for now.
A key factor in the government decision was that NPHET indicated that a six-week lockdown would suppress the virus to as few as 50 cases a day by December, allowing reopening in time for Christmas.
Martin sought to tap into the national obsession with Christmas in his televised address, saying, “Every Christmas is important, but this year it is particularly so. Each of us have our own rituals for Christmas, and they will take on extra poignancy this year as we remember those who didn’t survive 2020. Not only those who have been taken by the virus, but also all those others who passed away this year and didn’t get the wakes and funerals and goodbyes that we as a people are so good at, and which they deserved.
“It won’t be the same Christmas that we have enjoyed in years past, but if we all pull together and follow the spirit of these new rules, it will be a very special time and will give us all some respite from the hardship of the last seven months.”
The resurgence of the virus has shocked many Irish, who congratulated themselves this summer after daily cases fell to the low twenties.
However, the reality is that Ireland is merely part of a vast new coronavirus wave sweeping across Europe.
And while Irish people are now living with the toughest official national restrictions in the world, it seems inevitable that much of the rest of Europe will follow.
Indeed, many European countries, including Spain, France, the U.K., the Netherlands, Belgium, Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Luxembourg all have 14-day cumulative numbers of COVID-19 cases per 100,000, one of the ECDC’s favored measures, above Ireland’s figure of 253. Many of those countries have severe regional or city-specific lockdowns and curfews already in place.
America is unlikely to be spared a second wave either; the state of Arizona, for example, has 7.2 million residents compared to Ireland’s 4.9 million and is seeing a similar number of cases of around 1,000 per day, and the Arizona number is on a sharp upward trajectory.
While Martin tried to hold on to the promise of Christmas, he also admitted in his address that the country was effectively set for a cycle of yo-yo lockdowns.
He rejected goals of zero COVID, and herd immunity, instead saying, “We work to suppress the virus when it is growing, and we work to reopen as much of our society and economy as possible when it is safe to do so. Until we have a safe vaccine, we must continue in that pattern.”
It’s a deeply depressing message. It’s also the truth, and not just for Ireland.