This piece was published in the Andersonstown News before the Irish government measures to deal with the rise in the incidence of Coronavirus.

This week would wind you up. 

What do we know about the science of pandemics, virus control or anything of that sort? Unless dear reader are at the cutting edge of practising modern medicine you and I know as much as each other about the Coronavirus – nothing.

But when did that stop anybody? Covid 19 is on everyone’s lips. In a conversation ranging from “sure it’s only a flu” to “we are all at risk and 10% of us will die”, the streets of Belfast have suddenly become populated by experts on all things epidemiological.

People do not generally feel comfortable saying “this is scary and Ive no idea what that actually means for me or my loved ones”, so instead they go and buy toilet rolls. Despite the fact that the virus gives you a fever and a cough, not the runs. 

The random ill-informed chat doesn’t stop in workplaces or coffee shops, I see and hear commentators who are more comfortable talking about polling stats now giving “expert” opinion on public policy in the face of a pandemic.

I was caught out myself being asked live on air if the St Patrick’s Day parade should be cancelled, my answer resembled Fr Jack facing the bishop saying, “that would be an ecumenical matter”. 

I admire Jurgen Klopp who when asked about the virus looked quizzical and demanded not to be asked and advised the journalist to go ask an actual expert. Good advice from a confident yet modest man who knows his job and doesn’t pretend to know everything.

In the face of what we do not know what can we do in these days of watching a “containment” policy slowly curve towards a “mitigation” phase? Maybe do like the Liverpool manager and stop waffling about those things we do not understand, and really think about the public policy we do understand. 

We know that if schools and other essential providers have to close down for a period of time, or workers have to go into isolation that how we pay our workers will come into sharp relief.

Those with clear and funded sick pay arrangements will be OK, those who work sessionally, on zero hour contracts or in jobs where there is no access to sick pay, will not.

And in a week that saw women out celebrating International Women’s Day, the messaging celebrating women rang even more hollow than normal.

Those in sessional and insecure contracts are overwhelmingly women. Creches and schools closing will require women to stay at home, without pay. Classroom assistants and care assistants not working, overwhelmingly women, will not be paid. 

Women populate the caring professions that are required to care for the elderly and the sick, those most at risk in the coming weeks, yet still in 2020 employment contracts, terms and conditions and pay structures do not protect those we rely on in normal times let alone in a time of crisis. I found International Women’s Day winding me up last week as we saw the few women who have done well, despite structural discrimination, celebrated and women kept down because of it asked to throw flowers, many of whom will be vulnerable in coming weeks.

If an ill wind blows no good surely this virus should see some change to the epidemic of insecurity in employment.


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