Monday, 23 March 2020

COVID-19 and the euro

On March 4th I presented a report in Brussels to the GUE-NGL group of the European Parliament. It had been commissioned by Luke Ming Flanagan MEP and was titled ‘THE EUROZONE CRISIS: WAS THE EURO ITSELF A PRIMARY CAUSE?’.

By the standard of many such reports to the European Parliament on various subjects it was a lengthy and a weighty tome, for which I duly apologised; 17 chapters taking us on a journey from the concept of the euro/EU (they were intertwined from the start), through the fundamentally flawed design and the disastrously flawed crisis response, to eventual belated quasi-stabilisation (many of the original flaws are still there).

Had I been compiling it today, however, it would have been even longer; there would have been one more chapter.

Remember that foul and insulting acronym, the PIIGS – Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain, to which was shortly added little Cyprus? Have a look at this table, in which countries are ranked in terms of Death/Total Cases of COVID-19 – notice anything?

Those six countries are highlighted in red; in yellow, below them all, is Germany.
(Extracted from

A few qualifications to make, on the statistics: while Deaths/Total Cases is used to rank the countries, the final column, Total Cases/1 million population, is very pertinent. It gives us an idea of where each country is in terms of progression of the virus and here we can see that it’s looking bad for both Greece and Cyprus – they’re only in the early stages but already recording a high mortality rate.

In Ireland’s case, in terms of progression we’re beyond Greece and Cyprus but behind the others. We’re also well behind Germany yet already we’re worse off – albeit marginally – in mortality rate. Hopefully, however (and the numbers do give us a small glimmer of hope) we won’t be as hard hit as Italy and Spain.

In the report there is an entire chapter dedicated to Germany, for very valid reasons.

There is no doubt whatsoever that there are a number of explanations why some countries are harder hit than others in this vile viral pandemic, no doubt either that Germany has responded quickly and decisively to this crisis, as was recommended by the World Health Organisation. But there is also another reason  why Germany isn’t suffering as much as others, and it is a significant reason, a reason that occupies a central place in the report and which was itself central to the euro design – neoliberalism and its conjoined twin, austerity.

As part of the cost-cutting austerity measures forced on the periphery by the European Commission and the European Council, and enforced by the politicised and weaponised ECB, public services were decimated, most particularly, public health services. The result of those cuts, the result of those absolutely unnecessary austerity measures, are now stark, plain for all to see in that table.

A word too on Netherlands, France, Belgium, in the table above. While not included in the ‘PIIGS’ (in fact they were among those leading the assault on us), they too have been enthusiastic embracers of neoliberalism and austerity.

Anyway, this damage is done. But by Jesus, when it’s all over, when COVID-19 has been consigned to dark history, there has to be a reckoning. And in that reckoning, and unlike what happened after the financial crisis when the blame and the cost were transferred from those who caused it – the 0.1% –  to us, the 99.9%, this time the voice of the people WILL be heard.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020


For nine years this blog was the voice of the #BallyheaSaysKnow campaign as we fought to bring the injustice of the bank-debt imposed on the Irish people to the fore, and to right that wrong. I failed, obviously.

Arguably, however, this is the single most important blog I’ve ever written, or ever will write.
Though I've been in more than my fair share of hairy situations in my time, I don’t really frighten easily. These days, I’m fearful, in the fullest sense of that word.

I read a lot, always have done but even more so now that I’m retired, and have been following the progression of this coronavirus (COVID-19) for some time, with growing alarm.

It’s like nothing we’ve ever fully experienced before within the lifetime of anyone in this country. It’s not that it’s more deadly than any flu we’ve ever known (it is, but most people who contract it will survive it), it’s the speed with which it takes hold of a country, the additional deadliness then as hospital services are overrun and hard decisions are made at the admission stage – who to save, who to just let die.

To try to stem that tsunami, early, comprehensive and decisive action is of the essence, with all three of those elements as crucial as each other. China, then Italy, was a warning to every country – delay would be fatal to many who could otherwise be saved.

We’re hearing about exponential growth, and perhaps many don’t quite get it – how many of us really understood algebra, in school? But it’s like this: in ordinary circumstances if you lose a day at the start of something, you can just work that day extra at the end, or perhaps throw in a bit of overtime during the project, and get it back. Not with this baby.

So fast-moving is this virus, a day lost at the front end of dealing with it can never be made up – never. And the cost will be measured in lives lost.

In our reaction at the start, we lost many days, we weren’t comprehensive enough, we most certainly weren’t decisive enough. And we’re still behind the curve in all three areas.

There are those of us being attacked now on social media for pointing this out, for urging our government to take faster and more drastic action.

Favourable comparisons are being made between us and the UK/USA. Christ!

As a long-time Man Utd fan I could say we’re doing really well in the Premiership in comparison to Norwich City and Aston Villa, but are they the benchmarks? Really? The true exemplars are Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and we’re about as close to them on the notional coronavirus ‘reaction’ table as Man Utd are to Liverpool.

Praise is being heaped on Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris for their great leadership; everything I’ve read states very categorically that they’re ‘following the advice from the health experts’, so, who the hell is actually leading?

From hard experience of the banking crisis we should all know the cost of government leaders slavishly following ‘expert advice’ – look where that got us. And worse, many of those same ‘experts’ have now helped recreate that same situation, where banks and financiers are again making obscene profits at our expense.

As I said, I read a lot. A major lesson I learned from the banking crisis is that ‘expert’ opinion can cover the entire spectrum, from black to white to any and every shade in between. To this day, and in spite of all evidence now to the contrary, you’ll still hear economic ‘experts’ in this country who will tell you that everything the government did was fine, that there was no alternative, that neoliberalism and its ugly twin, austerity, are the best way forward.

Basically, there are people who are just better at their job than others. And in this case, I prefer the advice of such as Professor John Crown to that which we’re hearing from government sources.

I know from many personal experiences of the outstanding people in the frontline of the HSE. But we all know, surely, of the absolute long-term incompetence of those charged with running that same service. Likewise, we all know of the absolute long-term across-the-board incompetence of this current government, which is why we voted overwhelmingly against them in the recent election.

I’m not writing this blog now to have a go at those incompetents; I'm writing because unlike in the banking crisis, this is a war in which we can all play a major part, every single one of us.

Transfer by touch is a factor with this virus, and washing your hands often with soap and warm water is a must.

But most infection will be airborne; a carrier exhales it, a victim inhales it. Don’t be that victim, don’t create that victim. As much as you possibly can, keep your distance from everyone, because everyone is a potential carrier, and a potential victim. Do that, and we can drastically reduce the pace at which this spreads, and thus allow our emergency services to better cope, save more lives. 

Our government still doesn’t seem to get that simple fact, still has our ports and airports open, still hasn’t made the move to lockdown that is now so badly needed. Don’t wait. Do it now, yourself, and help save lives that will otherwise be needlessly lost.

Thanks, and sorry for banging on and on.