Shubhangi Karmakar says the angry response to NPHET’s call last week was the last crack in the rift between public health and public opinion.
IF FUTURE PRESS conferences are intended to feel like a punitive slap on the wrist, NPHET cannot dangle the carrot of a brighter future in one direction and occasionally smack the public with the stick of responsibility the Government has resolutely thrown away.
The Deputy CMO of NPHET Dr Ronan Glynn came under fire for his comments on Thursday, shared by RTÉ News with over half a million views, asking the public if they couldn’t “do just that little bit more”, or “go back to where [they]were a fortnight or three weeks ago”, to forge a path ahead for Ireland in the face of seemingly endless lockdown restrictions.
On Twitter, you could feel the simmering tension of the last few weeks explode, all voices together with scathing vigour. Lawyers considered bringing their parents’ ashes on the shelf to scatter them on Kildare St., while dads decided whether the college graduation or the Leaving Cert in the family wasn’t worth the celebration, sure it wasn’t.
We may as well have been running polls between the physio from Louth and the nurse from India, to decide by public opinion just who had that little bit more left to give, and who should get to see their family after over a year without infinite guilt for the year ahead.
A worn-out public
The ‘backlash’ didn’t arise from his expectations, or a sudden collective urge to rally against what are some of the longest observed ongoing Covid-19 restrictions around the world. The questions came from a public at 53 weeks past the end of their tether, being implored to try just about anything without NPHET’s directions in its official capacity of advising on public health measures.
While the government continues to play hide-and-seek with transparency and effective policymaking, and cases stall at the 500-mark, NPHET has increasingly become the regular face of the administration’s half-hearted, ill-timed and poorly implemented Covid-19 efforts.
The own-home-with-garden-and-private transport policies are widely criticised for leaving behind those who are forced to live in crowded city accommodation yet know nobody for support; school students and essential workers with no choice but to be exposed and expose others to the virus on public commutes home; older people in rural Ireland whose amenities are beyond their 5 km, and family who can help them further still.
Policies that have resulted in one in four adults giving up their jobs, giving up celebrating death anniversaries of family who passed alone in the first lockdown, giving up vital educational experiences, have created a palpable national exasperation.
And where the choice of communication was to substitute concise medical advice with thinly veiled public shame, the anger and blame would inevitably come.
Being told to do what they were three weeks ago for people who’ve been ‘staying apart, saving lives every week of the last year, and watching the government do no better than what they did three weeks ago, was the last crack in the widening rift between public health and public opinion.
Look to Government
Dr Glynn doesn’t look a thing like Jesus, but he talks like a gentleman. The Deputy CMO struggled to claw back good faith in his subsequent comments on Friday, asking the public to consider that “the theme of the press conference was gratitude from NPHET” if examined in its “entirety” when it was evident the communication may have stated gratitude but failed miserably at conveying it.
A non-apology to all quarters of Ireland, his comments allied him staunchly not with as a ‘Jesus’ of the people, as NPHET had previously been perceived with CMO Dr Tony Holohan at the helm, but with the government of ‘gentlemen’ — men in suits with masks off, congregating in meeting rooms to offset a lack of progress through infrastructure and governance, with a media strategy of individual guilt.
To make matters worse, around his platitudes Ireland continues to plunge further into crisis. After all, no amount of individuals ‘doing a little bit more’ can offset the government delivering on doing absolutely no better.
Allowing 36,000 vectors into the country without mandatory hotel quarantine, reporting somberly on 796 further cases on Sunday and 360 hospitalised with Covid-19, continuing not to prosecute unsafe employers, imposing fines on city residents biking to parks while being thoroughly ineffectual at stopping three violent ‘anti-lockdown protests’: these are all failures of the government, and not NPHET.
Perhaps more worryingly, they are not sole failures in their own right, merely symptoms of a wider issue. These failures bely a widening power vacuum, on who will race to deliver outcomes and secure the winning narrative to 4.9 million people, about being responsible for getting the country out of serial lockdowns.
NPHET’s messenger has already been shot for poorly compensating for the Government’s deeper flaws this weekend — a vital breakdown in public image that will need repairing if they are not to become synonymous with a flawed system they were once so good at publicly challenging.
Dr Glynn’s reasoning for his comments being ill-phrased as they’re “not media professionals” is simply untenable if his requests are to take root with a frustrated country of “individuals”.
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Effective science and public health communication seek to educate the collective by levelling with its hurts, not by alienating it with unfeeling pragmatism. Demonstrable, compassionate skills of communication as the country’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, who sides with an ailing public of his patients and not a diseased Government going increasingly unchallenged a year into stalling progress, are going to be vital for NPHET to stretch good faith “just a little bit more”.
And while they’re at it, it would be best if the public weren’t treated with a carrot or a stick, or as donkeys at all.
There is sound public health reasoning for NPHET to examine how previously online far-right ‘anti-lockdown’ lobbies are gaining traction, and do “just a little bit more” to stop the far-right galvanising any lost goodwill seeking a home, right here on the ground in Ireland if the Government won’t.
Shubhangi Karmakar is a medical student and advocate and is Editor-in-Chief of Trinity Student Scientific Review.