Senior citizens abandoned

Covid-19 did not cause the crisis in our two-tier, two-jurisdiction health service. It did expose the utter failure of it.

In the South we have the longest hospital waiting times in the EU. The national health service in the North is the worst-performing region of the once-mighty NHS, having been run down, under-funded, outsourced and privatised little by little for over thirty years by both the Tories and the Labour Party and facilitated by the Northern Executive since its inception.

Despite some rumblings about the Cheltenham racing going ahead in Britain and the unhindered influx of thousands of tourists to Ireland for the cancelled St Patrick’s Day parade and the Ireland v. Italy soccer match, criticism has been muted. A consensus has been arrived at by the media and trade unions that government strategy is now working, that we are all in this together.

This could not be further from the truth.

The priority in the fight against the pandemic is to flatten the curve in the community in order to delay the spread of infections. This would avoid a surge that could overwhelm the health service, leading to many unnecessary deaths.

This priority has ignored the fact that older people are those most at risk, and those living in nursing homes in close proximity to each other are at extreme risk.

It’s not as if there were not ample warnings long beforehand. Willie Quigley of Unite has been screaming for proper PPE for his members in the health service for weeks.

To quote Prof. John Crown: “Did I just hear HIQA are now on April 18th sending teams into nursing homes to assess readiness for COVID? This would be 6 weeks after the nursing homes—recognising the potential for disaster—unilaterally and despite government opposition closed to visitors.”

As a result, 55 per cent of deaths from covid-19 are of residents of nursing homes, who make up only 0.5 per cent of the general population.

Why were nursing homes not a priority? Are old people a burden or an asset to the capitalist state? Was this an oversight, an accident, negligence, a lack of empathy—or a policy?

If the answer to this question is Yes, one could presume that these rates would be unique to Ireland. So let’s look at the data made available to the International Long-Term Care Policy Network. These figures, for the middle of April, are all that were made available; they have risen substantially since then (in Ireland’s case to 59 per cent).

DateNumber of deaths linked to covid-19Deaths of care-home residents linked to covid-19Deaths of care-home residents as proportion of total
France15 April 202017,1678,47949%
Belgium16 April 20204,8572,38749%
Canada14 April 202090351157%
Ireland*13 April 202044424555%
Norway16 April 20201368764%
Australia16 April 202063914%
Singapore16 April 202010220%

*NB: The figures for “Ireland” are for the 26 Counties only.

On 22 April a 61 per cent increase in care-home infections in the previous two days was announced, with 1,944 residents now infected.

Fine Gael have always liked to class themselves as pro-business and pro-EU; it appears they are not so pro-senior citizen. “We will make Ireland the best little country in the world to do business in,” Enda Kenny gloated on becoming taoiseach.

What are the needs of business? Old people, or people to operate the machines, to create the profits?

Kenny, on his plan for the health service: “I will end the scandal of people waiting on trolleys in our hospitals.” The first week of January 2020, just before the outbreak of covid-19, was the worst on record, according to the Irish Nurses’ and Midwives’ Organisation, with 3,143 people waiting on a hospital bed.

Covid-19 did not cause the crisis in health: it did expose it, and the failure of Fine Gael, along with successive Fianna Fáil governments, to give priority to our people over business.

The failure of the partition of Ireland has also been exposed by the two health strategies. The British strategy of “herd immunity,” to preserve profits and protect business, was reckless to the point of criminal. As a direct result there is a higher rate of infection in the border counties when compared with similar counties further south.

At present in the North they only register covid-19 deaths that occur in hospital. As a result, we don’t know the total number of deaths in care homes for Ireland. Old people who die in care homes in the North don’t count, it seems.

There can be no going back to “normal,” as this political failure has been exposed for all to see. The ruling class must be held to account for all these unnecessary deaths of our senior citizens, who account for 450 out of the total of 769 covid-19 deaths in the South at the time of writing. This is not an isolated outbreak: this is affecting the majority of care homes. It is no accident. The figures speak for themselves.

The trade union movement, as the largest working-class organisation, must hold the line against austerity and cuts. It must lead the fight for a fully funded all-Ireland public health service, to cover all our people’s needs, from the cradle to the grave.