Author Archives: Julien Mercille

From top: Belvedere College, Dublin; Julien Mercille

Our government is now moving into a new strategic phase to address the Covid pandemic. I concede, on the plus side, it is very simple. The strategy is called “personal responsibility”. It is a significant shift.

Up until now, the government had set public health regulations for the whole country to protect the population against Covid, and NPHET guided the national response. But this will soon be over. And we will then all rely on “personal judgements” and “personal protective behaviours” in order to achieve “protection at a personal level”, quoting the government strategy.

It is all personal, which is another way of saying that the onus is now on you to ensure your protection against a virus that has not gone away, despite the optimistic mood.

Welcome to the land of personal responsibility. A land where the strong and responsible who get up early survive.

First, under the new regime, it will be up to individual children to use their “personal judgement” and conduct a “personal scientific assessment” of Covid levels in a classroom, and then conduct a “personal statistical analysis” about transmission risks. On that basis, 6-year old children can decide whether they should wear a mask or not, and hope that other children will reach the same personal conclusion.

But why, you may ask, wouldn’t the government direct all schools to endorse mask wearing for children, so that they and their families and teachers are all automatically protected? Surely that would be more effective than hoping that hundreds of thousands of children will voluntarily coordinate their mask wearing practices?

The government’s response is simple: Unfortunately, this is no longer possible, because we live in a regime of “personal responsibility”, which must be developed from a young age.

Second, under the new regime, parents will have to individually engage schools to ensure that they have enough HEPA filters and CO2 monitors and adequate ventilation standards. Whatsapp groups will prove useful, and parents can conduct online searches in order to know what are the requirements for ventilation for specific rooms. If they persist, they may get into email contact with ventilation engineers who could assist them in this respect.

But, you may wonder, why wouldn’t the government provide the requisite equipment, set those standards, and deliver on them through its oversight of the education system?

Because we live in a regime of “personal responsibility”.

Third, workers will also need to conduct their “personal assessments” of the risks in their workplace. They will need to discuss (individually) all related matters with their employer. Millions of such conversations will take place and if they are all responsible and well-informed, Covid will be held in check. The same applies to procedures if you are a close contact, a symptomatic or asymptomatic positive case, or if you require a test, or if you are wondering whether rapid testing or PCR testing is most appropriate, or a combination. All this should be determined through “personal conversations” with your employer.

But, you may wonder, why wouldn’t the government set strict industry standards guided by science and in dialogue with employers and unions at the national level?

It’s because we now live in a regime of “personal responsibility”.

Fourth, you will also soon be able to go to restaurants without a Covid certificate. That means that you will need to carefully check the premises before entering, and go around tables to ask all other customers if they have received a vaccine within the last six months, and perhaps ask them for a proof to ensure they’re not lying. Then you can conduct a “personal assessment” of whether the waiting staff is also vaccinated, and make a “personal decision” as to whether you want to eat there or go back home.

But, you may ask, wouldn’t it be possible to have some sort of national vaccine certificate system so you spend more time eating than assessing the premises?

No, because we now live in a regime of “personal responsibility”.

In summary, as you can see, it is all very simple. Government doesn’t have to do anything, and we’re all individually responsible for our well-being.

But, you may ask: is this a clear sign that government is cravenly abdicating its responsibilities, turning a cold blind eye to people’s suffering, and revealing its lack of empathy for the most vulnerable?

Rest assured – absolutely not. We now live in a regime of “personal responsibility”. Therefore, by definition, the government does not have to be responsible—you do. And if you get infected, it is not the government’s fault—it’s yours.

Julien Mercille is associate professor in the School of Geography at University College Dublin and member of the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group (ISAG).


From top: Dublin city centre yesterday; Dr Julien Mercille

We’ve been facing a big problem in the Covid pandemic for a while now. There is a lot of confusion and debate about how to respond to it.

In order to address a problem properly, the first step is to look out for successful solutions – what have others done that actually worked to tackle the virus? Then, we can try to adapt those solutions to the situation in Ireland.

But it has been difficult to do that in Ireland because the public discourse about the pandemic, coming out of both government and the media, has neglected to examine and discuss seriously examples of successful responses to the virus in other countries – of which there are many.

Instead, we’ve spent a lot of time debating the details of the government’s approach even if it keeps failing and has thrown us all into yet another lockdown, with additional lockdowns to come periodically if the virus is not stamped out of the country for good.

Radio and television have been saturated with endless talk about questions like, How many minutes should people be allowed to sit in a pub? Is €9 the right price for a pub meal, or should it be €10.25? Should we be at level 3, 3.5, or is it 2.5? Should we allow 15 or 20 people at a wedding? And what about funerals? Can hairdressers play a role in improving their clients’ mental health?

Another problem is that proponents of “herd immunity” who have no solution other than let the virus run rampant keep getting invited on television programmes to create a false sense of “balance”.

But we wouldn’t need to ask any of those questions if we could simply eliminate the virus from Ireland (or get near that point) – and that’s what we need to focus on. An effective and widely distributed vaccine will be of great help there, but we’re not at all there yet.

In the international quality press one can see many stories about an obvious fact: Asia-Pacific countries have done so much better than Europe and the United States and many have virtually eliminated the virus.

One can read about the many economic benefits flowing from that, with country after country in Asia releasing positive economic data because their economy can now operate more normally. It is even suggested that Asia’s more effective response to the virus could propel it to lead the world in the years to come.

For example, the Wall Street Journal recently ran articles entitled “Covid-19’s Global Divide: As West Reels, Asia Keeps Virus at Bay” and “As Coronavirus Surges in US and Europe, Other Countries See One Case as Too Many”.

They explained how the Asia-Pacific region completely out-competed Europe in eliminating the virus, showing clear graphs of Covid cases contrasting European with Asian countries making it unmistakeably clear that policy answers must be thought in Asia- yet such graphs haven’t appeared very often in our own media.

The articles explained, in reference to the Asia-Pacific region, that…

“…Life in these parts has returned to normal in most ways. Bars and restaurants are bustling. Rugby games and marathons are widely attended. Food festivals are sold out. Soap operas can film crowd scenes. Even mask-wearing has relaxed in many areas.”

And they reap the economic benefits: China’s GDP expanded by 4.9% in the third quarter; Taiwan’s growth was 3.3% thanks to a rebound in domestic consumption and strong exports; Vietnam is one of the few Southeast Asian countries expected to witness positive growth this year. One important reason? “All three have crushed the virus”.

Of course, a few articles make similar points in the Irish press, but they are exceptions. More often, what we hear are horror stories about the US, UK, Italy, France or Spain, with the implication that Ireland is doing well in comparison.

Also, we have articles implying that Ireland’s leaders are on the right path, even if compared to countries in Asia, they have, like Europe, failed completely.

A sample of headlines illustrates the point – all from the Irish Times:

“Ireland ‘Outperforming Almost All European Countries in Controlling Spread of Covid-19’”

“Ireland Ranked Among Best for Covid-19 Innovative Solutions”

“Ireland Has the Fastest Improving Incidence of Covid-19 in Europe”

Comparing ourselves to countries that have failed might give us false confidence but it won’t drive the virus away from the island. For those serious about dealing with the pandemic, Asia-Pacific countries are a better source of inspiration.

Some are islands, others not; some are democracies, others are authoritarian; some have communist traditions, others market-based economies. They provide plenty of creative examples to deal with the virus.

For example, one of Ireland’s key issue to address to achieve elimination is the border with Northern Ireland. It is often presented by politicians as an insurmountable obstacle which seemingly prevents them from doing anything other than their yo-yo strategy of repeated lockdowns.

However, the border is entirely manageable by drawing creatively from successful examples of border management that have stamped out the virus.

Australia’s border management is probably the most relevant and applicable case, but there are also interesting stories in Singapore-Malaysia, Vietnam-China, and Thailand-China to name a few. They have used “border community bubbles”, special arrangements with employers, special permissions for cross-border commuters, etc.

We should have a discussion about how these cases can be applied to Ireland, rather than ignoring them or dismissing them because they have differences with our country. Otherwise, we’ll keep making mistakes.

Julien Mercille is an academic at University College Dublin and member of ISAG—Independent Scientific Advocacy Group.