Saturday 21 November 2020
By Pauline Stahl, Dublin
“Ireland is like a guinea pig for Europe,” says a hairdresser who had to close her shop in Dublin. The Irish were the first European country to impose a second lockdown due to rising Covid-19 cases. That seems to be paying off.
Restaurants and most of the shops are closed. The black roller shutters of the hairdressers stay down even on weekdays. Irish music and the smell of beer and fish and chips do not invite you to stop off at any of the countless pubs in Dublin – it is dark and unusually quiet. Only “essential” stores, such as supermarkets and pharmacies, are allowed to open their doors during the strictest restrictions since mid-May. Those who can should work from home. Visits to other households are prohibited.
Sport or a walk in the fresh air are allowed – but only within a radius of five kilometers from your own home. So the government tries to prevent travel and meetings. Since the new regulations came into force, more and more police officers can be seen at train stations and tram stops in Dublin.
With the measures, the current lockdown is very similar to the one that severely restricted the Irish for around two months in the spring. However, unlike in April, schools and kindergartens are still open. “This is necessary because we cannot and will not allow the future of children and young people to become another victim of this disease,” said Prime Minister Micheál Martin in a televised address.
The current regulations are also known as “Level 5” – this is the highest and strictest level of a plan developed in September to “live with Covid-19”, as the government calls it. The decision to do this was the result of more than 1000 new infections daily. Two weeks before the decision, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), the health team that advises the government on Corona, had recommended the transition to Level 5. However, Dublin initially refused.
But the number of infections has continued to rise, almost continuously since August. Almost 70,000 people in the republic have been infected with the virus since March, and more than 2000 have died from it. So Martin announced a six-week lockdown three days in advance at the end of October. The health department said at the time: “Ireland is now in an acute system that is working close to capacity.”
The number of cases is falling, as is GDP
New infections began to drop dramatically just a week after the lockdown began. While there were 1284 cases on October 18, the number on October 31 was just under 400. Ireland is now the European country with the longest-lasting downward curve in terms of new infections. The numbers are currently around 400 cases every day.
At the same time, however, the negative effects on the country’s economy are becoming increasingly evident. According to a forecast by the Ministry of Finance, gross domestic product will fall by 3.5 percent this year.
Pub and restaurant owners who are only allowed to offer take-away or delivery food also suffer from a lack of customers. Brian McClean is currently staying afloat. The 33-year-old pub owner is certain that closing the restaurant was the wrong decision. “Maybe other countries will learn something from it, but at the expense of gastronomy and our existence.”
The 57-year-old Lorraine Bradley, who runs a barber shop in the south of the Irish capital, sees it similarly. She can understand the government, but points out that she had specially developed a hygiene concept. She had bought disposable masks and organized the seats so that the customers could keep their distance. She is not only concerned about herself, but also about her customers: “Going to the hairdresser contributes a large part to people’s mental health,” she says.
A guinea pig for Europe
Because what all the closings and bans bring with them is also the lack of social contact that the sociable Irish suffer from. In the past weekends, small groups have gathered in front of the pubs and on the Grand Canal, which meanders through Dublin, to enjoy a Guinness with friends – even if only to take away in plastic cups. However, this has become so prevalent that this is now also prohibited and can be punished with fines.
Nevertheless, the numbers give hope. From October 22nd to November 11th, Ireland was the country with the largest gap in new infections after Iceland, with minus 55 percent. Germany is up 201 percent in the same period. “Ireland surpasses all European countries in controlling the spread of the coronavirus,” says the NPHET.
With the first lockdown in April, the country reacted unusually early to the development of the infection. Although the numbers rose sharply on the island, they remained relatively low compared to other European countries. There were no dramatic conditions like in Italy or Spain, and at no point were the hospitals overcrowded.
The hairdresser Bradley thinks that the rest of Europe can learn something from her home country, “whether this is a good or bad thing remains to be seen”, she does not want to commit herself. “Ireland is like a guinea pig for Europe,” she added.
The country is currently preparing to exit the lockdown. The aim of the strict restrictions was also from the start to enable Christmas with family and friends. In his televised address to the nation, the prime minister at least made hope for a “very special time” and hoped for holidays as a “respite from the past tough seven months”.