Barry Colfer (Cambridge University, European University Institute)
John O’Brennan (Maynooth University)
Covid-19 arrived in Ireland in late February 2020 when the first infection was confirmed and within three weeks had spread to every one of the country’s 26 counties. Over the following weeks and months, Ireland, like many other states, faced an existential crisis as transmission of the virus increased exponentially and the state was forced to put the country into ‘lockdown’ on 12 March. On 27 March 2020, the first ‘stay at home’ order was issued by the government, with all non-essential business and travel banned. Within weeks it became clear that Ireland’s social care model, centred on residential homes for older people, was taking the brunt of the Covid transmission.
Ireland presents as a paradox in any comparative analysis of how contemporary nation states managed the Covid emergency. On the one hand, the mortality rate from Covid in Ireland has been amongst the lowest in the EU27. There is solid evidence to suggest that the Covid crisis was managed relatively well by the Irish state. On the other hand, the experience of trying to manage the Covid crisis shone a light on many pre-existing weaknesses and fragilities within public policy and state structures, especially the health and social care spheres.
To gauge how Ireland’s response to Covid measures up against peer states, we acted as country experts for a new Bertelsmann Stiftung study, evaluating how well prepared countries were for the pandemic. A total of 41 EU and OECD countries were analysed. We found that Ireland ranked eighth overall in the response to the multiplicity of challenges thrown up by Covid. The data used for this analysis were drawn from the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI), which produces yearly assessments regarding the sustainability of political outcomes, the robustness of democratic standards and the quality of governance in developed countries on the basis of three indices, 157 indicators and detailed country reports. The full report will be published in November 2021.
Bloomberg, similarly, has undertaken a regular, comparative survey of nation states and how they managed the Covid crisis. In August 2021, it ranked Ireland fourth in the world in its Covid Resilience ranking, behind only Norway, the Netherlands and Finland. By the end of September, however, Ireland was ranked first.
Ireland’s top ranking came despite a dreadful beginning to the year, when Covid cases were amongst the highest in the world in relative terms. The later trajectory of success came from a capacity to hold down infection case numbers as well as hospitalisations and deaths, and one of the best vaccine distribution efforts in Europe. By early October 2021, Ireland had vaccinated more than 90 per cent of the population over 12 years of age.
Our analysis of the management of the Covid crises suggests Ireland was lucky in having very recent experience of managing crises of significant scale in the recent past to inform policy-making. Taking post-2008 austerity and Brexit as key examples, it is clear than when faced with these external crises, the Irish state responded well to both. In the case of the financial crisis, Ireland returned to growth in 2013 and thereafter posted increasingly robust growth rates as the economy stabilised.
Similarly, Brexit presented an existential threat to the peace process in Northern Ireland and occasioned an extraordinary response from the Irish state, both within Ireland and in European contexts. Arguably, the resilience engendered in the Irish State through confronting these two significant external crises contributed to the capacity of the State to respond to the challenge of Covid when it arrived on Irish shores.
Our Bertelsmann study situates Ireland’s Covid management performance against evidence from specific policy sectors of the pre-existing frailties and challenges within those sectors, particularly the healthcare sector. These problems manifest especially in a long-standing trend of significant overcrowding of emergency departments, protracted lengths of time which citizens have to wait in order to get a referral to a specialist consultant and a ‘two-tier’ system which provides preferential access to care for those who can afford private health insurance.
Ireland’s hospitals came under extreme pressure during the first wave of Covid in spring 2020 and again in January/February 2021, as infection numbers peaked. A relative paucity of ICU beds at the beginning of the crisis left Ireland ill-equipped to respond effectively as hospitalisations with severe illness increased exponentially. Important mistakes were made, especially in the early stages of the response to the pandemic. The failure, in early 2020, to provide proper Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) in healthcare and social care settings undoubtedly endangered both healthcare staff and patients alike. The failure to properly protect nursing homes and other residential care settings cost many lives. The decision to re-open the economy and society in late 2020, in order to provide what the government called a ‘meaningful Christmas’ undoubtedly led to thousands of needless deaths as case numbers spiked in early 2021.
What does the comparative data tell us about how Ireland managed the Covid emergency? Ireland’s two significant lockdowns were amongst the longest in the world, especially the second (30 December 2020 to 22 June 2021). The evidence shows that by October 2021, Ireland had recorded more than 5,300 deaths from Covid, out of more than 400, 000 recorded infections. The death total represented just over 1000 per one million people.
Examining the comparative data for deaths, it is clear that Ireland is one of the best performing countries in the world at protecting its population. By the end of September 2021, official data showed Ireland had the sixth lowest mortality rate among the EU27 (1,059 per million) and the 12th lowest among the 38 OECD countries. Only Denmark recorded a lower rate within the EU (461 per million).
Further examination of data for comparable peer states within the EU reveals that Austria recorded 1,230 deaths per million; Belgium 2,209 deaths per million; Czechia 2,845; Lithuania 2,022 per million; Portugal 1,781 and Slovenia 2,293. Both Bulgaria and Hungary recorded in excess of 3,000 deaths per million people, with the epidemic seemingly out of control again in the latter country (and in Romania) as winter 2021 approached.
In late 2021 Ireland was eighth in the world in respect of the proportion of the population (76%) fully vaccinated against Covid. The vaccine rollout can thus be viewed as a huge success, especially in light of the patterns of ‘vaccine hesitancy’ in many parts of the world and within the EU27, where, at the other end of the distribution spectrum, Bulgaria had only vaccinated 20% of its population and Romania slightly over 30% of its 18 million people by October 2021.
Ireland’s success in vaccinating its population needs also to be balanced by evaluating how the country has contributed to efforts to vaccinate populations in the poorest parts of the world. Irish contributions included significant planeloads of vaccines and equipment sent to India at the height of India’s crisis in spring 2021, as well as contributions to GAVI, COVAX, WHO and individual contributions to and through UNICEF.
Barry Colfer received his PhD from Cambridge University in 2018 and is currently a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute, a research fellow at St Edmund’s College at the University of Cambridge and research associate at the Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute (Mussi).
John O’ Brennan holds the Jean Monnet Chair of European Integration in the Department of Sociology at Maynooth Univeristy and is Director of the Maynooth Centre for European and Eurasian Studies.
The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author(s) and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.