In Focus
Mar 14, 2020

Coronavirus: Has Ireland Listened To Its Academics?

A month ago, Trinity's response to the pandemic was considered proactive rather than reactive. Has that changed?

Gillian O’NeillStaff Writer
In January, academics gathered in the Science Gallery for a conference on the coronavirus.
Alex Connolly for The University Times

In today’s world, everything is contingent on data – and the coronavirus is no exception. What is clear, however, is that the situation that began in Wuhan, China – and that has now spread globally affecting every continent in the world except Antarctica – is bleak. There is no respite from the chaotic conditions, the swirling rumours and the organisational and logistical headaches. Medical professionals work with a dire shortage of protective clothes and specialised coverings, battling a relentless virus that’s firmly on the march.

With little clarity on the rapidly enfolding pandemic, it’s hard to figure out the nature and severity of the crisis. For colleges, then, taking the appropriate measures is a challenge without an obvious solution – but pre-empting and tackling the hysteria and discrimination global health issues can cause is a primary concern. With the Irish government announcing the closure of all schools and colleges in the country on Thursday this week until March 29th, Trinity – both nationally and globally – was well ahead of the pack in its response to the looming pandemic.

Speaking to The University Times last month, prior to the Irish outbreak, Prof Derek Doherty, an associate professor of immunology in Trinity, said that “Trinity has made a very balanced response to the virus” – one that’s “practical compared with other media responses, which are very fear-instilling”. Indeed, College even hosted a conference on the issue in January, where experts discussed both the implications of the coronavirus and the best ways of tackling it. For Doherty, “it is the fear of the unknown that has sparked off a lot of the hysteria in the media” – and that’s where colleges need to play a big role.


Indeed, while coronavirus was once considered primarily a “Chinese emergency”, it is now clearly an international one – and, indeed, a Trinity one. Following two detected cases of students with coronavirus in the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute (TBSI) over two weeks, College took all necessary precautions to the pandemic. It announced on Tuesday afternoon that all lectures and many course tutorials will be held online for the remainder of the semester and closing the Book of Kells, Science Gallery and Douglas Hyde to tourists to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. College announced yesterday that physical exams would be scrapped in favour of online assessments. However, with such a robust and rapid response from College – the first in the country to take such measures before it became governmental policy – there is a risk of instilling unnecessary fear and paranoia into the student population.

College even hosted a conference on the issue in January, where experts discussed both the implications of the coronavirus and the best ways of tackling it

Prof Samuel McConkey, an associate professor and the head of International Health and Tropical Medicine in the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland, also spoke to The University Times in January and said that although Ireland has the resources to deal with suspected cases, the risk is the spread of hysteria. It is at times like these, he said, that leadership and pragmatism are required.

“The key to hysteria”, McConkey insisted, is information. Rather prophetically – evidenced by the rapidly diminishing supplies of hand wash, hand sanitiser and toilet roll in supermarkets – he said: “Importantly, people haven’t really thought about the challenges of living in a world of uncertainty. They think that everything’s just definitive and therefore there’s always a single obvious right way to behave and to act and to speak.” He explained that this climate requires effective leadership in the face of uncertainty or lack of knowledge. As well as planning and preparation for a range of scenarios, he says: “It’s partly about sticking together. It’s partly about having teams of people that work effectively together and don’t descend into a dysfunctional arguing match in the face of a crisis.”

A situation like this, McConkey said, involves learning “how to make good decisions in the face of ambiguity – it’s how to be a leader when you don’t have all the data”. He added that it’s a test for everyone: government, businesses, charities and even students. “The challenge for all of us is to try and develop the best strategic leadership that we can in these situations where we don’t have all the data.”

Cultivating an appropriate and optimal response to an unexpected challenge, however, requires good contingency planning and control measures designed to deal with a range of scenarios. McConkey insisted that the Chinese response has been “dramatic and determined and aggressive in a good way”, and that “having the benefit of hindsight makes it really easy to criticise”. Concern, though, over the transparency of China’s reporting is nothing new – and it’s amplified in times of health crisis.

Dr Cillian De Gascun, a medical virologist and the chairperson of the country’s Expert Advisory Group – which provides advice on the coronavirus to the HSE and the National Public Health Emergency Team – hit the nail on the head when he told The University Times back in February when coronavirus was still very much a Chinese concern that when it comes to the coronavirus, “everything is susceptible to change in the coming weeks and months”.

Speaking to The University Times prior to the pandemic breakout in Ireland, Prof Ed Lavelle, the head of Trinity’s School of Biochemistry and Immunology, said developing vaccines is a crucial practical measure when faced with such a crisis like coronavirus – and he added that we shouldn’t only turn to them when an epidemic strikes.

It’s partly about sticking together. It’s partly about having teams of people that work effectively together and don’t descend into a dysfunctional arguing match

“The challenge historically”, Lavelle said, “is that vaccine development is really slow – 10 to 20 years”. He added that “if you had a vaccine [for the coronavirus] in 18 months or two years that would be incredibly fast”. With the “major outbreak of a new epidemic, people become much more aware of vaccines and much more pro-vaccine”.

The case fatality rate of the coronavirus is not as high as initially anticipated and the numerical estimations must be put into context. Doherty emphasised the uncertainty faced outside of the confines of Trinity’s campus, but insisted that a solution may be on the horizon.

“I believe that they will have a vaccine for coronavirus within the year. Vaccine technology has accelerated so fast and fears like this do lead to possible things like the generation of flu vaccines in a very short period of time, as seen by the Ebola outbreak.”

Counterproductive, spiralling hysteria and pseudoscience are necessary by-products of our era of information technology and globalisation. Across the globe, misinformation abounds, distrust is rampant and xenophobia is rife. Irrational fear, propagated by social media, presents a significant obstacle. Misinformation breeds panic. But even in the midst of the hysteria and distrust, facts and perception must go hand in hand.

As Trinity’s campus empties and the day-to-day grind of attending college is upended, it will take time to tell whether Trinity’s proactive response to the crisis in the past few weeks has been replaced by a more reactive response by the government – and whether the proactivity at January’s conference has been heeded or ignored.

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