• Sat. Oct 29th, 2022

The Covid-19 story changes almost every hour, not unlike the Irish weather. But brighter days are ahead, writes Fergal Bowers.

Mar 20, 2021

The Covid-19 story changes almost every hour, not unlike the Irish weather.
For everybody, the pace of developments is breathtaking, and that includes the media. There has never been a story like it, and we all hope there never will be again. 
Distinguishing what is important and what is not, from the cacophony of voices and statistics, is a constant challenge. The media has a key role in this.
From a very early age, I wanted to be a journalist. It puts you in touch with people’s lives – often in a very personal way – and the issues that should matter in society.
There has never been a story like coronavirus. The news is unrelenting. This pandemic has gone deep into the fabric of Ireland and people’s lives.
A big part of a journalist’s job is to try as best as possible to be the people’s witness. The task is to be first with the latest developments, fairly reflect what is happening and try and interpret what it is that matters most.
In RTÉ News, there is also a requirement under law, under Section 39(1) of the Broadcasting Act 2009, to be objective and impartial in the news output. My job, therefore, is to objectively report on what is happening, but I do not express a personal view.
Given the nature of Covid-19 and how it has affected everyone for over a year, each person in Ireland has a perspective on where we are and how we got here.
Social media is awash with opinions on what has worked, what has not and who is seen as to blame. The view of experts, politicians and ordinary people also reflect that mix of opinions.
Since the start of the pandemic and especially as it has progressed into a third wave, I have received many emails, messages and social media posts about how it is affecting people’s lives, and various views about NPHET, the HSE, the Minister for Health, the Government and other key players.
The job is not to take any sides, but to report exactly what is happening, as well as asking pertinent questions. It’s up to the individual reader, listener or viewer to make up their own mind, on the basis of all they have heard.
All the journalists who attend the twice-weekly NPHET media briefings ask important questions. Due to the number of media and limited length of the briefing, for safety reasons, usually around three questions per journalist is possible. The public can also watch the full briefings and hear what is being said.
The journalists I encounter in my Covid work are diligent. The coverage across RTÉ News is 24 hours, on TV, radio, online and social media. Within a matter of hours, the story can change and the speed of developments is staggering.
A case in point was the news last Sunday morning on the pausing of the administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Ireland and elsewhere.
By Thursday, the European Medicines Agency had determined that the vaccine is not associated with an increase in the overall risk of blood clots. This means the vaccination for thousands of frontline health staff and people at very high risk can resume, which is good news.
The Covid-19 story affects everyone. Like the virus, no one is immune from the story of the pandemic. It is now woven into our daily lives. We eat, sleep and breathe it. There is no escape. A day will come when it will not be like this, but for now, we have to cope as best we can.
The latest NPHET view is that daily case numbers and other indicators of the disease have stalled, or plateaued. Marginal changes could prompt another wave. In mid-January, the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, said that by the end of this month, 700,000 people should be vaccinated. Certainly by the end of March, 700,000 total doses will have been administered. But it’s unclear at this point if 700,000 people will have got their first dose by then.
When we discuss vaccination, it is important to distinguish between first and second dose numbers because only those who have got the second dose can be considered fully vaccinated.
We all are looking forward to the time when we come out of hiding from coronavirus and can look on the world with fresh eyes. For now we are all caught up in a roller coaster and it has been the time of our lives, but in the worst way imaginable.
The streets of the capital were uncharacteristically quiet on Wednesday
Most of us never thought we would see a second St Patrick’s Day in lockdown. But now that it has passed, we look forward to the summer, brighter days and hopefully greater freedom.
The Government commitment, dependent on vaccine deliveries, is that a million people will be vaccinated in each of April, May and June. So by June, the vast majority of people should have received a first dose of Covid-19 vaccine. Many should have received a second dose and full vaccination by then, given that by late last week, well over 620,000 people had got at least one dose of the vaccine.
So by summer, Ireland should look and feel like a different place. The number of cases in hospital and in ICU should be quite low and the number of deaths should be very low too. Daily case numbers should be at perhaps low double digit numbers then.
That is what it looks like from this current perspective. But there is still a lot of uncertainty. The concern is that current daily case numbers remain very high, at around 489 a day. And we are now 12 weeks into this third lockdown, with a Government review looming shortly.
The biggest task facing the Government is the speedy and efficient roll-out of vaccination, especially when the volume of vaccine supplies is reliable.
Up to late last week, Ireland had received 758,490 vaccine doses. Up to last Sunday, we had administered 617,050 of these doses. The balance was being kept in reserve for second doses, or due to be administered this past week. The Department of Health says that 95% of vaccines are given to people within seven days of arriving in Ireland.
The Government faces the challenge of a speedy and efficient vaccination roll-out
Ireland gets a set proportion of the vaccines supplied to European Commission, under their agreements with suppliers. The Commission said this week that Pfizer and Moderna are honouring their side but that AstraZeneca is not. In this crisis, the reputation of AstraZeneca has taken a big hit.
The company promised Europe 90 million doses of its vaccine in the first quarter of the year but will only have delivered 30 million. It had promised 180 million doses for the second quarter but will only have delivered 70 million, the Commission said this week.
Thankfully, Ireland is not solely dependent on AstraZeneca. Indeed, the vast majority of vaccines delivered here have been the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine – over 511,000 doses to date, along with 40,000 Moderna and 206,400 AstraZeneca.
The good news is that we are not dependent on one single vaccine and more will arrive, including 600,000 doses of the single-jab Johnson & Johnson during April to June.
The story of Covid-19 should soon shift from a shortage of vaccine supplies, to vaccine delivery and the opening of all 37 mass vaccination centres.
The questions will then shift more to whether we have enough vaccinators, if the mass vaccination centres are carrying out sufficient immunisations each day, the progress in each of the 15 groups of people to be vaccinated, and the impact on the virus with greater numbers being immunised each day.
So in the months ahead, the story will change too.
As the debate shifts, so too should the mood music in Ireland. We will get into a new phase. We should see a reopening of society. Shops, restaurants, hotels and pubs and hotels will open their doors again, although sadly some businesses may never recover. More people will return to work, but not everyone. There will be some with large savings who may wish to spend. Others face mounting bills and no certain way of clearing them. The recovery will inevitably be unequal in different parts of society.
Some businesses may never recover from lockdown
But already people are hoping that this autumn and winter should be very different to what we witnessed in 2020. No one can say that Ireland will get back to normal; nothing will ever be quite normal again for this generation.
Reporting on this worldwide pandemic is both a big responsibility and an honour. To be the RTÉ Health Correspondent at this time and place is a coincidence of history. There has never been a story like it and I know I will never see one like it again in my lifetime.
The task at hand each day, along with my great colleagues and other media, is to set out the facts and the possible implications of each development. There are days when the news is bad, but equally others when there are positive developments.
The hunger for better days can feed us now and make us stronger. The priority is to avoid catching Covid-19, to get vaccinated and once again be able to see family and friends, in a more relaxed environment.
We are all witnesses to this unfolding history. People will come to their own verdict on what happened and how it was handled.
That verdict hopefully will be based on a fair reading of the facts.