Ireland is set to reopen at the end of June as we prepare to exit the lockdown following the outbreak of the coronavirus on our shores. However, health experts, the world over, say there is a good chance the coronavirus will be with us for a long time yet.
This reality means changing the way we interact, the way we work, the way we travel, the way we socialise and the way we care for each other.
A coronavirus-tinged world without a foreseeable end may be the cause of great fear for millions of people but with fear comes hope. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope for a “new normal” that works for the many.
As we learn to live with the coronavirus, we have an opportunity to focus on what a better tomorrow, what a “new normal” can look like and how we can work together to achieve it.
For example, in health, our “new normal” can end record high hospital waiting lists, put a full stop on unequal two tiered health services and draw a line under the sick business of health and elder care profiteering.
The Covid-19 crisis has given people across the world a renewed and deep appreciation of how we collectively rely on all essential workers. From our cleaners to our consultants health workers have spent the lockdown, in the trenches, keeping us safe and our loved ones healthy, often at considerable risk to themselves.
The sheer speed and scale of this pandemic has made us question what we value and seek where the solutions really lie. It has shown us what the State can do when it acts with urgency and mobilises the necessary resources and there should be no going back.
No going back to a broken system that discriminates, that denies access to essential services on the basis of what’s in a sick person’s pocket or health insurance plan.
The sole criteria should always be need, with universal basic services provided free to people funded through a progressive and sustainable taxation system.
Sláintecare represents a concrete plan and roadmap to make this a reality.
The plan, supported by the Irish trade union movement, was agreed in cross party committee in 2017 and adopted by government. The plan commits government to creating a modern, integrated health system, delivering timely care based on clinical need, for all.
The crisis has seen a fast-forwarding of Sláintecare — not only the use of public facilities for the public, but the sequestering of private facilities for the public good, so clearly when there is a will, there is a way.
The draft programme for government, yet to be endorsed by Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Green Party members speaks of plans to “further accelerate the implementation of Sláintecare” with appropriate funding measures to be examined in “advance of Budget 2022” but we need to go further.
The last few weeks and months has been a real wakeup call for all of us. We have paid a tremendously high price for underinvestment in our public care services.
This has been borne out by the unacceptably high number of deaths in nursing homes with 50% of all COVID-19 fatalities, as identified by the Department of Health, as having occurred in a nursing home settings.
The special Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee was told this week that one in five of the 30,000 residents of nursing homes were confirmed to have a Covid-19 positive diagnosis.
This is unacceptable. We, as a society, must do and demand better.
In the not too distant past, the State has promoted the proliferation of private nursing homes by designating them “industrial buildings”, eligible for tax breaks against construction and refurbishment.
This deliberate, rampant outsourcing of elderly care means that 82% of nursing home care is now provided by private “for profit” organisations with wealthy investors and ever demanding shareholders.
If we can learn anything from this pandemic it must be that public service delivery of this care, with established staffing levels, safe skill-mix levels and decent pay for workers rooted in the community is the only fair future for elder care services.
It is beyond doubt that the failure of successive governments to invest in health, coupled with ideologically driven cutbacks and outsourcing policies, has led to critical failures in patient care systems.
The time is now for these systems to be reimagined to make sure we, as a society, don’t go back to the tried and tested care models of the past and build an inclusive and democratic dialogue about the nature, operation and delivery of all our public services.