The Brave new world of COVID19

Like a lot of people I've been working from home since early March. In fact, because the company I work for is Swiss, and because they also have a significant presence in Hong Kong, my employer was wised up to this long before most, so we were sent into social distancing mode back in early March, something many found bewildering. Initially we were told not to intermingle in any of the other 5 or 6 offices in our country, so some were quite annoyed to find themselves barred from the company canteen in the other office around the corner. By the 2nd week of March this had extended to splitting the office into 2 and only 1 group coming to work. By 12th March, we were already about 5 people to a huge room about the size of an average house, and were told the office was closing for us. Everyone in my part of the organisation has a laptop and VPN setup - so we were all sent home indefnitely, but working, on full pay, we got our bonuses in April and the company quietly held its AGM behind closed doors where they annouced a generous dividend. I have never felt so priviliged in my life.

Here is where it gets complicated for Ireland. If you've ever travelled to the Far East, you'll know that - aside from the fact that medical mask wearing is a perfectly normal thing to do - going to pubs really isn't. Yes they have bars, but they are mostly small, often cater to either tourists or the Chinese community (outside of China) and NOTHING like the enormous social fixture they are in the UK or Ireland, where it is considered "odd" to NOT go to pubs. On the contrary, if you walk around working class districts of Hong Kong like Mong Kok, you'll see how people socialise outside, on the streets, in the parks, with large groups doing their Tai Chi together in the park or pottering.  Prior to March 2020, in Ireland this was patently odd. If you follow my twitter feed, you'll know that I was sent to a meeting last year complaining about insistence on leashing dogs in public parks, an area deeply emotive to dog walkers and at the same time by far preferred by literally everyone else. It so happened that my hairdresser is one of the ringleaders of the group opposed to this (and also the accompanying plan to add seculed areas - which they describe as "cages" - so people like them can have runs for dogs to go unleashed). One very fair point my hairdresser made is that very few people actually use parks - it was mostly dog walkers and joggers who used parks. Now that is probably an exaggeration, but it is fair to state that prior to March, the vast, vast majority of people didn't walk outdoors at all, or very rarely, and probably only visited parks a few times a year.  As I work 23km away I did walk there over lunchtimes (something I've done for over 5 years) and likewise, parks are - or were - quiet spots.

Not anymore, with thh options of shopping, pubs, restaurants, cinema, theatre and music removed from the social calendar, people who literally never walked in their lives have discovered the outdoors. This has resulted in a good deal more congestion outside. It got very bad in April and early May as what I describe as "Zombies" - people unused to walking who are going outside out of boredom were sudeenly shuffling around purposely, gawking into buildings, noses in the air, mouths open - completely surprised by this new thing.

At the time of writing Ireland has close to 24,000 known cases, 1500 deaths and significant numbers of people seriously ill in hospital (including 2 family members, one of whom is close). It would seem of diagnosed cases here, about 6% will die. About 20% overall of the diagnosed cohort end up very sick and require hospital care.  We also know that the true number of cases is at least double the official figures, due to asympotamic cases or very mild infections that may go unnoticed or be mistaken for something else.

The idea of something so infectious and so harmful to so many people (a 10% infection rate in Ireland would impact 490,000 people, leaving as many as 30,000 dead) was unthinkable. The idea that schools, shops and pubs might have to close was unimaginable, and the spectes of SARS, MERS and swine flu were to us "things that happen elsewhere" - not here.

So its clear that there are significant numbers of businesses and the social traditions they underwrite, will no longer be possible under the new reality of high infectiousness. I patently find it bizarre that publicans persist in the pretence that they can go back to normal when the government is talking about restrictions remaining on shopping centres until late July or early August. There is far more space per person in even busy shopping centres than there is in your typical pub.

So lets say the pubs do open on 10th August, albeit with limits on capacity and social distancing measures in place.  What happens if there is an outbreak impacting staff? Do they have to shut down?  For example, a regional branch manager in one bank told me they had to close 2 branches that she knew of (including one under her remit). So if banks, with a much lower footfall, have to close, what happens if a staff member becomes ill in a pub?  How can we be sure that there will be both full enforcement of public health regulations in a sector desperate to just get on with it?

The reality is that we cannot. If a sector wants to throw risk into the bag and run with it, unless you start hiring large numbers of health inspectors to specifically work until 3am at weekends counting heads in sweaty pubs, this is unenforceable. And the government know it.  The other issue, of course, is that many publicans are not doing their sums. If you need the house to be 75% full in order to break even, how are you going to survive with just 20%? When I visited my local and local favourite restaurant the weekend before they were closed, they had reduced capacity by about 50%. But full social distancing mandates 2m, which would half that again. How many of these could make a profit with 25% of the capacity? I can forsee a future of booking slots in bars with people queuing outside. But I don't think that is feasible. We are facing the end of the pub as we know it.

I know we are going to have howls of "whataboutery" from those who says BUT you can open up smoking areas safely. You can't. Many are enclosed by walls that reduce but do not eliminate the risks. Plus you cannot have your entire clientele yelling outside at 1am. So you can ban music outside, perhaps? This puts an absolutely end to night clubs. Of course you can also look at options like licensing open spaces without seating temporarily. But again there is the nuisance effect. People who live close to town centers are persecuted enough by boorish beer gardens without placing the entire clientele outside. And it is Ireland. As I write, it has been 8-10C all week. At night it is 5-8c. Not weather for clubbing outdoors. People are going to have to find new hobbies, and ways to socialise.


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