After months of pressure, the Irish government recently announced travel quarantine measures. However, Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin argues they fall far short of what’s required, another example of the government putting the wealthy first.
At the end of January 2020, US president Donald Trump declared a ban on all foreign nationals travelling from China to the United States. The move was widely seen as a racist one and came as Trump described Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” and sought to ramp up anti-Chinese sentiment at every opportunity.
It did little to prevent Covid-19 from entering the US and from a public health standpoint it could only be described as closing the door long after the horse had bolted. The first death in the US was reported at the end of February 2020 in Washington State, but at that point it was only the state’s fourth identified case. This would indicate that the virus had spread widely in the US before cases began to be reported in any significant way.
Over a year later, with many new variants of the virus in global circulation, pressure to introduce a Zero Covid strategy and calls to prevent new cases from entering, the question of travel and quarantine measures have become major points of debate in Ireland. Micheál Martin’s government recently followed the Tories in introducing mandatory hotel quarantine measures. The legislation came after weeks of pressure from opposition parties.
But what will the legislation achieve? A look at the measures being introduced reveals an approach that is more Trumpian than scientific.
The initial list of countries designated for mandatory hotel quarantine was made up of mostly sub-Saharan countries with little travel to Ireland and low rates of Covid-19. On Friday, thirteen Central and South American countries were added to the list.
Travel without hotel quarantine remains open between Ireland and many countries where Covid-19 is rampant – the United States and many parts of Europe, for example.
The stated objective behind these new rules is the prevention of new strains from entering the country, but they are doomed to fail. Whether out of cynicism or pure ignorance, the government has latched onto the origins of the various strains in circulation, referring to the “South African” or the “Brazilian” strains and basing their restrictions around this concept. This is to ignore the fact that these strains have already spread beyond the regions where they were first identified.
The one European country on the Irish quarantine list is Austria, ostensibly because the “South African” variant has been detected there. However, it is likely that Austria has been ahead of the curve in detecting the virus because of their superior genomic sequencing programme. Even so, cases of the South African variant were still discovered in Ireland as early as January.
The government’s new quarantine measures are the equivalent of closing a window while all the other windows and doors in the house remain open.
Case numbers remain high in the United States, in Britain and across Europe, yet no action is being taken to enforce mandatory quarantine from these countries. This means we run the constant risk of new, more dangerous or vaccine-resistant strains of Covid-19 entering the country. It also means Zero Covid is more or less out of the question.
Accommodating the Ultra-Wealthy
Why have they acted in this way? Health Minister Stephen Donnelly this week didn’t seem to notice the irony of declaring that a hint of “xenophobia” had crept into the debate around quarantine. This from a Minister who is applying mandatory quarantine restrictions on countries largely from the global South – but it is the kind of hypocrisy that we have become accustomed to from Donnelly since he took up his position.
While the Irish government has been happy to introduce local travel restrictions of 2km and 5km at various stages during the pandemic, they have been immensely slow in putting any restrictions on travel from abroad. This would greatly inconvenience a business class that has free reign to travel as they please.
The ruling parties have bent over backwards to accommodate the ultra-wealthy. At the beginning of the Covid crisis, the then Fine Gael-led government changed the rules on tax exiles so that they would not have to pay any tax if they found themselves accidentally having to spend too much time on Irish soil.
Of course, this eventuality is to be avoided at all costs, and both Covid-era governments have stubbornly refused to introduce any quarantine measures that would impact on the business class.
The restrictions introduced last week amount to nothing more than lip service – a concession to the public mood that does not fundamentally change anything.
Mícheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and Stephen Donnelly all repeat the mantra that Ireland is an “open” economy, despite the stark reality that major sections of the Irish economy have been firmly closed for the guts of a year. Yet there remains an unwillingness to implement the kinds of measures that have worked in New Zealand and Australian and have seen those countries live largely without restrictions for long periods.
Nor can the selective application of quarantine measures be divorced from the wider global context of increasingly militarised borders and growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the global North.
The EU’s border police, Frontex, is currently under investigation for taking part in illegal pushbacks of migrants in Greece. The Greek coastguard has been filmed shooting at refugees, sabotaging lifeboats and pushing them away from Greek waters. For her part, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, described Greece as “Europe’s shield” last year, even as these atrocities were taking place.
All of this is happening against a backdrop of global medical apartheid. The richest countries have hoarded vaccine supply and plan to continue vaccinating their entire populations even as frontline healthcare workers and the most vulnerable people in the global South remain unprotected.
Unless intellectual property rights are suspended so that vaccines can be produced on a global scale – and at this point this seems unlikely – it could take several years before the poorest countries gain access to vaccines. By that time, it is highly likely that new, vaccine-resistant strains of Covid-19 will have developed.
If the ruling classes have grasped that allowing this to happen will inevitably mean the spread of new strains of Covid-19 once again in wealthier countries, the knowledge is not enough for them to support the production of vaccines at scale in order to prevent this from happening.
However, the vaccination of wealthier countries coupled with the deprivation of poorer ones could serve as further political justification for increased security measures at the borders of the global North.
All of this foreshadows what we will see over the coming decades as climate breakdown accelerates: millions of people becoming displaced due to climate-related disasters only to be faced with higher walls, stronger fences, and militarised police that push them away from the borders of the wealthier countries.
An Effective Quarantine System?
But if we accept that mandatory quarantine measures are necessary from a public health perspective to prevent an influx of new cases and to help move us towards Zero Covid, what would an equitable, effective quarantine system look like?
Australia and New Zealand have been praised for their use of mandatory quarantine, which, despite the occasional hiccup, has largely been effective in keeping Covid out and allowing people to live freely within these countries. But while the systems have largely worked from a public health perspective, they can hardly be described as equitable.
The cost of two weeks in quarantine is around $3,000 (almost €2,000) in both countries and must be paid out of the traveller’s own pocket. This means that only those with the financial means can afford to travel. Meanwhile, there has been considerable anger among Australians and New Zealanders working abroad for whom the costs of quarantining on their return are prohibitive.
A more just system might therefore see people pay a fee in proportion to their income. Those who can afford to pay more ought to do so and those wishing to return home after working abroad should not be prevented from doing so because of prohibitive costs. Flexibility in costs should also be retained for emergency situations; in cases of bereavement, for example.
And while global travel during a deadly pandemic should be discouraged, that’s no reason to make the accommodation in anyway punitive or unpleasant.
All of this would have to be done as part of a broader Zero Covid strategy that would aggressively go after the virus and eliminate community transmission. Much of the focus in recent weeks has been on borders, while Covid-19 is still widespread across the island of Ireland. A half-hearted lockdown that has allowed a lot of non-essential work to go ahead means the period of restrictions is likely to drag on for even longer.
The call for proper mandatory quarantine measures must also be accompanied by calls for the suspension of intellectual property rights for vaccines so that they can be produced at scale and distributed swiftly and equitably across the globe. Neither can such a call be separated from social and economic demands, such as isolation remuneration, rent alleviation eviction bans, and much more.
Only then can we begin to see the possibility of an end to Covid-19.