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Eilis O'Hanlon

It's crucial to make people see the sacrifices they're making are working, and that's hard as it means imagining something that hasn't happened yet

Eilis O'Hanlon


It's of little solace to those whose loved ones have succumbed to Covid-19, but the truth is the situation could have been so much worse, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

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An empty Botanic Gardens as people continue to stay at home due to the coronavirus pandemic

An empty Botanic Gardens as people continue to stay at home due to the coronavirus pandemic

An empty Botanic Gardens as people continue to stay at home due to the coronavirus pandemic

If there's been one amusing part of these past few grim weeks, it's the people who are out and about during the lockdown complaining at all the other people who are out and about during the lockdown.

Everyone seems to think that their own reason for not staying at home is valid and that everyone else is just being selfish and stupid; and they're all taking to social media to point accusing fingers at each other, even posting pictures of the guilty culprits online to shame them into not going out, seemingly unaware of the irony that the only reason they saw other people disobeying the rules is probably because they were disobeying them, too.

There do certainly seem to be more cars on the roads than there have been for a while. People are tired of being cooped up and want to get back to normal.

The only problem is that the moment they do there's a risk that the coronavirus will flare up again.

That's why it's proving so hard to strike a sensible balance between opening up certain places on a controlled basis, where the risk of infection is low, such as cemeteries, and making sure that people don't get the message that the lockdown is now over and throw caution to the wind, thereby overwhelming the NHS in a second surge that would, ironically, extend the shutdown further.

One possible solution to the vexed question of when and how to come out of lockdown has been floated by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he hinted that the Government might in due course decide to unlock different parts of the country at different times. Brandon Lewis said it was "unlikely", but actually it makes sense.

Not everywhere is at equal risk. Cities are more dangerous than rural areas and the old are more vulnerable than the young. But who makes that call?

Scientists and doctors provide one sort of advice, but these broader questions about to do next can't be answered just by boffins with test tubes.

It's worth remembering, though, how much anger there was at the start of the current crisis when it was revealed that Downing Street was taking advice from so-called "behavioural psychologists" on the timing of the lockdown.

Critics angrily demanded that ministers listen only to medical and scientific experts - the sort of people who know how viruses behave and how to stop them - and that was understandable enough.

Most psychology is just made-up nonsense, as the more honest ones in the profession privately admit.

Spoofers though they may be, psychologists do still have their uses, as long as they stick strictly to crunching data to explain why people behave the way they do, just as supermarkets have to keep track of who's buying what, when and where so that they can keep supply lines running smoothly.

The Government's biggest mistake wasn't to ask how strictly people would comply with social distancing and self-isolation and how long they'd be prepared to do it before getting frustrated and defying the restrictions. The mistake was coming up with the right answer too slowly to avoid thousands getting infected in the meantime.

What's strange is how people demand that the Government listens to the science, but then if they don't like the message the science provides start demanding to hear from other scientists who might give them the answers that they secretly want.

School closures are an obvious example. The Executive was divided right at the beginning of the crisis over when to close schools. Sinn Fein made it seem as if Northern Ireland was in dire peril as a result of not sending children home at the same time as the Republic. That fear seems to have become deeply embedded in the general public with the news that schools here might not apparently open until September even if it's deemed to be safe to do so, because parents are afraid to send their children back anyway.

As it happens there's surprisingly little evidence that children spread Covid-19 to any great extent. Research from the Netherlands' National Institute for Public Health and the Environment couldn't find a single case where children had infected other people at all.

Children can certainly catch Covid-19 and, in extremely rare, tragic cases die of it; but in every case it seems that they were most likely infected by adult members of their own family.

It may be impossible to re-open schools in the short-term, but, if so, then it may well be for social and political rather than scientific reasons.

There are always unforeseen risks to every such decision. Another study has found that, while they overwhelmingly support the lockdown, it's making people anxious and unhappy.

That will have implications further down the line in terms of mental health, an area which has been traditionally neglected in Northern Ireland with tragic consequences for the suicide rate.

Alcohol misuse is another problem. People seem to be drinking more right now, not least because many don't have work to get up for in the morning.

That will have a knock-on effect for health outcomes in the long-term as well as increasing the risk of sexual assault and domestic violence for women and children.

Last week the American news network ABC also highlighted concerns by doctors that people's immune systems are being weakened as a result of being cooped up inside too long. We're not meant to live like this.

None of this is an argument in itself for getting back to normal yet. The virus is still too deadly. The number of dead in Northern Ireland has now passed 300.

But all these things will need to be considered in the days to come and it's good that someone is looking at how to encourage people to keep obeying the restrictions without stretching their patience to breaking point.

Otherwise everyone will just start doing their own thing - with disastrous results.

The crucial thing is making people see that the sacrifices they're making are having the desired effect and that's difficult, because it means asking them to imagine something that hasn't happened.

That probably sounds blasé to those whose loved ones have succumbed to Covid-19, for whom the unthinkable has already happened. But the truth is that the situation could have been so much worse.

We're still a long way from the worst-case scenarios which were outlined at the beginning of this crisis.

If behavioural psychologists can help to make people see why it's still necessary to stay at home, then it must be worth listening to them as well.

Belfast Telegraph