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20/10/2021

OPINION: We're abusing Tony Holohan for simply doing his job

'Isn't it better to tread softly until we know we're on solid ground?'

OPINION: We're abusing Tony Holohan for simply doing his job

Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer and head of NPHET

There I was thinking journalists and politicians took all the flak and abuse online. Immunologists are on the list now and Tony Holohan as Chief Medical Officer (CMO has been up for shaving since last summer. 

Dr Holohan was seen as somewhat of a father figure for the nation last year at the outset of the pandemic. No one liked the restrictions or losing their jobs, but we accepted it. The first lockdown served as a pause for society. We were all in it together, or so we were told, but once the novelty wore off, we turned on our health chiefs - at least on social media.

Politicians are always in the firing line for criticism and that's par for the course, but on social media, it goes too far. The same goes for journalists. Tony Holohan has fallen into that category and now every day he advises caution or issues a warning about the Delta variant, he is lambasted by online commenters.

The comments section under an online national newspaper article about Tony Holohan issuing a Delta variant warning and urging young people to 'hold firm' until they were vaccinated became a vitriolic cesspit. The vast majority of these comments were critical of the Chief Medical Officer, while a small but significant number were downright disgusting.

One claimed "that man is only happy when he's scaremongering people. Sick of him," while another labelled him "Dr Death" and someone who "loves the sound of his own voice." They were bad enough but it got worse with two different commenters calling him "a parasite." Another said: "Why has he not resigned, surely seeing the whole country hate you would do it for me."

Imagine sitting in your GP's surgery with a doctor telling you you had to give up drink, or smoking or sun holidays or anything for the benefit of your health and you turn around and call him or her a parasite because you don't like their advice. That's what's happening with Tony Holohan. It is a by-product of the faceless nature of social media where people say things they wouldn't dream of saying to someone's face.

There appears to be a feeling out there that Dr Holohan is getting some sort of kick keeping indoor dining closed or asking young adults to hold firm and avoid gathering in crowds indoors until they are called for their vaccine. 

This is a man who buried his wife earlier this year and after a break has returned to work for our country. There is no doubt that lives have been saved over the last 18 months because of his public health advice to the government. We've had over 5,000 deaths but could have endured many more had it not been for his expertise and guiding hand. On the one occasion the government pushed back against his and NPHET's advice in the name of a "meaningful Christmas," it was a disaster. Nursing homes were eviscerated and we all lost loved ones. Every town and village in Ireland was hit.

Dr Holohan didn't say 'I told you so,' he just kept doing his job and advising the government on rectifying the situation. We again endured as a people with an extended lockdown but it was for a common good. Goodwill seemed exhausted after 2020 and that is understandable but it doesn't mean Tony Holohan deserves to be sacrificed before some sort of online firing squad. Many of us were blinded by our own self-interests. I too have cursed NPHET and the government over this pandemic and their handling of it. I haven't always agreed with the restrictions or measures but one thing I don't doubt is that Tony Holohan has the best interests of the country and our people at heart. 

Some on social media seem to have an opposing view and have painted Tony Holohan as some sort of villain in all of this. That's what is happening now as he tries to steer Ireland away from the clutches of the Delta variant as it races across Europe. Every online post that mentions his name or shows his photograph is set upon by hateful me feiners; people who look at the small picture and think a pub is more important than an extra patient in ICU, or their precious package holiday should come above protecting our nurses and doctors from another surge in hospital admissions. 

Of course, these people are reading this and readying themselves to launch into a tirade about the vaccine rollout and how the link between cases and hospitalisations and serious illness has been broken. The death rate of the Delta variant is lower in populations with an advanced vaccine programme like ours and therefore we should shrug our shoulders at it and let the pubs and the planes play ball. 

The health chiefs like Tony Holohan have said the link between cases and serious illness and death has been weakened but not broken. Only half of our population is fully vaccinated and while that's positive, the Delta variant can still undo much of that work. The other half of the population, although younger, are still at risk from this more transmissible strain and susceptible to variants we don't even know about yet. Why risk one of those taking hold and maybe being resistant to our vaccines?

What Tony Holohan is doing that people don't like is looking at the big picture. While we look at the UK and think how great it would be if we could eat indoors and gather in crowds like they are for Euro 2020 matches, Tony Holohan is watching and wondering if that a risk worth taking. Maybe it is, and perhaps we'll regret our prudence in time but isn't it better to tread softly until we know we're on solid ground?

I can understand the frustration. I'm frustrated. This virus is still impeding our freedoms. It's not enjoyable to always be looking over your shoulder or worrying while watching the news every evening, but that's our reality. We also need to look outside our bubble in Ireland and realise large swathes of the globe are not vaccinated at all and could be brewing vaccine-resistant variants that might one day land on our shores. 

This isn't the scaremongering the media and the CMO are so often accused of. It's about being prepared and acting responsibly. None of that is consolation for people still out of work or publicans unable to open fully. We can all complain about delays in vaccine passports and digital certs and all the rest of it, but other countries in Europe have rushed and got it wrong. Why can't we get it right? Isn't it better to wait and do that than plough on regardless? 

It would appear not among some on social media. I've also heard the anti-Tony Holohan and NPHET rhetoric in normal conversation. We're rebellious by nature in Ireland but sometimes with zero regard for the consequences. No matter how much reason you try to bring to a social media pile-on, you will always be overwhelmed with wanton hatred and misinformation. It is a virus all of its own and for that, there is no antidote.

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