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Alban Maginness

Public health officials in both parts of Ireland must co-operate in face of threat of coronavirus

Alban Maginness


Health Minister Robin Swann should get the full backing of the Executive in meeting this challenge which has seen two cases confirmed on the island, says Alban Maginness

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Health Minister Robin Swann

Health Minister Robin Swann

Pods set up to test people who think they have coronavirus at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast

Pods set up to test people who think they have coronavirus at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast

Health Minister Robin Swann

One of the most formative thinkers of the 1960s was the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who coined the term Global Village. As a media theorist, even before the advent of the internet, it was his view that the world had been shrunk into a Global Village by modern advances in communications and the effects of mass media on human thought and behaviour.

If we look at the impact that the non-stop news of the coronavirus is having on the international community as well as our own, then it is clear that McLuhan's prediction of a Global Village has become a living reality.

This can be bad and good for humanity.

However, it is too early to judge the ultimate outcome of the coronavirus. Its impact on health and welfare may not be as negative as the media starkly predicts.

To listen to some alarmist reporting, you could be forgiven for thinking that some media outlets are reporting on the Black Death that wiped out at least a third of Europe's population in the 14th century.

To date the virus has been spreading steadily, but not rapidly, throughout the world.

Despite the overkill in TV news and social media about the virus, statistically its impact has been limited to about 84,000 people worldwide and those are principally in the Hubei region of China, where the coronavirus originated.

The mortality rate is 2% and many of those who have died were elderly people with pre-existing critical health conditions.

The reality is that coronavirus is unfortunately advancing right across the globe, but not at a rate that should frighten or panic us

These sober figures put a proper perspective on the current scale of this outbreak on the world's population.

Absurdly, because the outbreak of the virus took place in China, there has been an irrational wave of anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the world. Some restaurants in Italy and Japan are reported to have refused to serve Chinese people.

In Britain and Canada Chinese people have been abused in the street. The Wall Street Journal had an offensive opinion piece headlined: 'China is the real sick man of Asia'. This denigrating headline harkened back to the imperialistic colonisation of China in the 19th century when it was exploited and humiliated by some European powers.

This article caused grave insult to the Chinese, resulting in the expulsion of three Wall Street Journal reporters from the country.

The confirmation at the end of last week that a woman living here had been diagnosed with coronavirus and was consequently isolated was bad news, but that should not have been unexpected.

On foot of that news, a further case of coronavirus has also been diagnosed in the south, making the public feel even more uneasy. But given the frequency and ease of air travel throughout the world it was inevitable that the virus would spread to Ireland. The reality is that coronavirus is unfortunately advancing right across the globe, but not at a rate that should frighten or panic us.

Naturally all our sympathies go out to the infected woman, her child and her family at this extremely difficult time for them all.

Healthcare is one vital area where close cooperation and coordination of public services on this island should be a top priority

But great credit should also be given to this woman for speedily attending her general practitioner and self-isolating at home.

Her good sense is a lesson to the public at large and her quick action should be an example to anyone with suspected symptoms.

It is fashionable to criticise the health service here and to highlight its failings, but in the main the health service does a top class job and we should have confidence that those dedicated medical professionals, both doctors and nurses, will provide a vigorous defence against the spread of the coronavirus in Northern Ireland.

The fact that the virus has been diagnosed both north and south of the border adds to the concerns of the public in both jurisdictions.

People are now naturally worried about its spread throughout the whole island.

Healthcare is one vital area where close cooperation and coordination of public services on this island should be a top priority. Nor should there be any politics involved in north and south health services jointly managing this imminent danger to the welfare and lives of everyone living on this island.

Robin Swann, the former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and now Minister for Health, is an able, enthusiastic and engaging politician who is well capable of dealing with any potential crisis here. The current uncertain and unpredictable situation is a serious challenge for someone so new to the job, but he and his team of public health officials are up to that challenge.

He should be afforded full moral and political support by his Executive colleagues and there should be no point-scoring by other politicians if things go wrong.

In this vulnerable situation, north-south public health cooperation should be an agreed goal.

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