Eilis O’Hanlon: The coronavirus death toll should not be used by Irish people to score points against Britain

Comparing the numbers who have died in the UK with those in the Republic is a pointless argument, but both governments still have legitimate questions to answer over their handling of the pandemic, says Eilis O’Hanlon.

Who’s been most effective at handling the coronavirus crisis — England or Ireland? That question, like everything always is when it touches on the relationship between the two countries, has become depressingly politicised as Covid-19 has run its course, as if it’s some kind of ghoulish contest and there’ll be awards handed out to the ‘winners’ once it’s all over.

The latest round of the eternal battle between Ireland and Britain was ignited by a series of posts on Twitter which sought to compare the responses in the two countries in order to demonstrate that Britain was too “slow” in responding to Covid-19 and that many people who should not have died were losing their lives as a result.

It has now been ‘liked’ more than 62,000 times and retweeted by more than 32,000 people, many of whom seem to be taking an unseemly delight in Britain’s larger death toll while ignoring all the other evidence from doctors that it’s not possible to just take two different countries and put them side by side. If that was so, then you could equally say that Ireland is doing far worse than India, which, despite having a population of over one billion people, has roughly the same number of cases and deaths, amounting to a mortality rate of 0.3 per million compared to 74 per million in Ireland. If you said that, people would instantly reply: “That’s stupid, you can’t compare Ireland and India.” And they’d be right.

It’s only because Ireland and Britain are close neighbours, and seem to share many features of life and society in common, that makes people think they can conjure up equally meaningless comparisons between them, even though that is if not equally silly then certainly unscientific.

Britain is, for one thing, a much more crowded country. It’s been pointed out repeatedly that Ireland’s population density is around 201 people per square mile. The population density in England, which has been hit hardest in these islands, is five times greater, at 1,098 people per square mile.

That matters enormously when you’re talking about an infectious disease which carries from human to human.

England is also more urbanised. Cities are particularly vulnerable to virus outbreaks, which is why Belfast has been hardest hit in Northern Ireland, and that’s nowhere more apparent than the UK capital, where half the British cases have occurred. As virologist Dr Simon Clarke told Sky News last month: “It’s not just the number of people in London. You have to look at the proximity to one another on buses and Tubes. There are more social reasons, too. There are more theatres and pubs and there are more opportunities for mixing.”

Poor air quality in towns and cities also contributes to the death toll. Those who live in towns and cities are exposed to dreadful pollution every minute of the day, which inevitably weakens their resistance to respiratory infection, so, when a disease such as Covid-19 strikes, it hits them harder than more rural societies.

It was always likely to be the case that Britain would be more badly affected than Ireland. The central urban area of London comprises 671 square miles, which is about the same size as Co Laois. That part of Ireland has a population of around 84,000. By contrast, that part of London is home to nearly 10 million people.

Even the Republic’s second biggest city, Cork, only has around 208,000 inhabitants. There are 38 built-up areas in the UK bigger than that. Its third biggest city is Limerick, with 94,000 people. That’s only around 40% of the number who live in Milton Keynes alone.

There are only two urban areas in Ireland with a population over 100,000. In England, there are 95. There are only 44 places in the Irish Republic with a population between 10,000 and 100,000. In the UK, there are 951.

It’s easy to see that it’s not comparing like with like to simply put the figures for the dead and infected in Britain and Ireland side-by-side and conclude that Ireland must be getting its response right and Britain getting it wrong.

That the UK is, for a whole range of complex factors, more exposed to a deadly virus such as Covid-19 does mean that the British Government should probably have been better prepared and should’ve had testing kits and personal protective equipment ready to go, as well as closed schools and locked down sooner than it did.

There were warnings at the time that letting the Cheltenham festival go ahead between March 10 and 13 was a high-stakes gamble.

When other countries were struggling to cope with their own outbreaks, it can’t have come as a huge surprise that the NHS might soon come under perhaps unbearable pressure once the virus reached British shores.

All these are perfectly valid criticisms to make of the Government’s response, even if it was based on the advice of medical and scientific experts. The warning signs were there. There’s also nothing wrong with urging Britain to follow Ireland’s lead when it comes to increasing community testing.

But that’s not what critics in Ireland are generally saying when they compare the impact that Covid-19 has had on the two countries. If they were simply angry with governments which mishandled the situation, they’d be equally outraged at Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, whose death rates by head of population are in excess of that in the UK (though that may change in due course).

They’d also condemn the Irish Government when it did get things wrong, such as not shutting down air travel from affected areas and continuing to insist that face masks are not just unnecessary but may even be counterproductive.

Instead, those other countries barely get a mention, because it’s not really about which strategy works best. It’s about denouncing the old enemy across the water. Brexit made Brit-bashing respectable again; Covid-19 has intensified it.

There is much less room for smugness when comparing the Irish response with countries such as Denmark, which has a population comparable to that of Ireland, and a population density almost twice as big, but which has had fewer confirmed cases and fewer deaths.

If any British observer used Danish figures to point an accusing finger at Ireland and disparage the country the way the Irish constantly feel entitled to talk about Britain, there’d be hell to pay.

All deaths are a tragedy. They shouldn’t be exploited in order to score cheap political points.

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