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Eoin McShane
Essay // Active Citizenship in the Time of Coronavirus

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What does it mean to be a citizen? The question would likely produce a wide range of responses if posed to a sampling of Irish society today. Any dictionary definition of the word itself references legal recognition by a State, and consequently the associated rights arising from that recognition, as intrinsic to an understanding of citizenship.  “I am a citizen of Ireland and therefore I have a right to vote, to an education, to free expression etc.” But the reading of citizenship solely as a vehicle for the rights imbued by a State, is too limited a formula for understanding a term so laden in historical, cultural and societal subtexts. For a wider exposition of what it means to be a citizen, it is valuable to consider the idea of civics. Civics is defined by Oxford as “the study of the rights and duties of citizenship”. Using civics as a basis for understanding citizenship adds an important qualification: While the concept of citizenship as guaranteeing rights is immutable, those rights are accompanied by duties or responsibilities which are incumbent upon the citizen.


It was this idea of transactional or “two way” citizenship invoked by John F Kennedy as a guiding principle of his New Frontier. His conviction that citizens of the United States were bound by a duty to their fellow citizens, and thus their society, was immortalised in his inaugural call to action:  “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” This often-quoted, and indeed parodied, famous refrain underscores a more nuanced entreaty which is little understood, less so practiced: citizenship is not just theoretical or notional, it demands activity and participation from those who enjoy it. Over the last few weeks in Ireland we have seen a brand of “active citizenship” find expression across our society, in a manner that would surely have pleased the Wexford President.


Kennedy’s espousal of citizenship as participatory actually reflects the original spirit of the concept, as invented by the Ancient Greeks around 670 BCE. In the highly-militarized society of Ancient Sparta, dominance on the battlefield depended on the impenetrability of a phalanx of spear-wielding foot-soldiers, or hoplites. Each hoplite carried with them into battle a shield, roughly a meter high and wide, which protected large areas of the torso and legs from attack. When these shields were interlocked, the phalanx became an impregnable wall of bronze, renowned and feared across the Greek world. Of course, within the phalanx, each hoplite’s survival, and thus the integrity of the entire structure, depended on their ability to brandish their shield properly to protect themselves, and also the flank of their immediate neighbours.


It was supposedly a bright spark called Lycurgus who authored a package of reforms into Spartan society which, amongst other things, endowed citizenship upon each Spartan. Lycurgus’s logic was that it was expedient to foster a foundation of equality amongst an army of hoplites drawn from every strata of social class. In the front line of a phalanx, which likely encompassed labouring farmers as well as merchants and landowners, any show of social disunity in the face of an advancing enemy would risk decimation. In a revolutionary move, every Spartan was thus to be subsumed into the State as “citizen,” the individual subordinated to the collective for the cohesion of society, and the protection of the phalanx.


Given the intrinsic relationship between war and the inception of citizenship in Ancient Greece, it is perhaps unsurprising that political leaders from Donald Trump to Leo Varadkar have invoked distinctly “war-time” phraseology when describing the threat of Covid-19, and framing the effort required by society at large to defeat it. Whereas Trump designated himself a “war-time” President in the face of invasion from an “invisible enemy”, closer to home our own Taoiseach, in an ironical riff on history, invoked the Blitz Spirit of the old enemy when he soberly declared in his St Patrick’s Day address: “Never will so many ask so much of so few.” Showing considerable restraint, he stopped shy of “we fill fight the virus on the beaches, fight it in the nursing homes...”


Whatever the propriety of drawing World War Two parallels to help inspire the public response to a virus which unites humanity in its threat to all life and does not recognise the borders of nation states, war-time rhetoric offers an easy motif, seeped in imagery from popular culture, from which a communal understanding of the “Home Front” effort demanded by the crisis can be conjured. While the historical similarities between World War Two and Covid-19 are at best negligible, it is a good example of prescient political messaging.


The “We’re all in it together” sense of unity, and some of the scenes associated with it – banging pots and pans in a show of support for healthcare workers, for example – is remindful of the national effort of the 1930s Home Front, which might be aptly renamed the Stay-at-Home Front for the current crisis. However, by creating these emotional parallels with the war effort, we are largely co-opting a historical experience which we, for the most part, did not endure in Ireland. Our shared consciousness of the Second World War is as likely derived from generations of film, TV and books, from The Great Escape to Dunkirk, as it is from a lineage of collective national memory. When I asked my grandmother, who was very young during the “Emergency”, whether the two experiences were comparable, she thought about it for a moment before conceding, “Not really, no. We could still go out then, and anyway that was mostly Britain.” She paused, before adding, “I do remember it was very hard to get bananas during the war.”


Placing the dependability of cultural memory aside, the mobilisation of Irish society in the face of the crisis, particularly in the early days and weeks of the outbreak here, was a heartening display of active citizenship which seems all the more pronounced when considering the hesitant reactions of other countries. Whether it was local community and group activation – such as Scouting Ireland deploying its adult members in late March to provide support to the cocooning elderly – or simply by swallowing our national penchant for roguish anti-authoritarianism and obeying “stay indoors” promulgations, the country really did display a united front.


In terms of the State response to the Coronavirus pandemic, one institution which has epitomised the spirit of active citizenship in its approach to the prevailing crisis has been the Civil Service. So readily dismissed as a place of sluggish bureaucracy by the public-at-large, the Civil Service responded to the COVID-19 crisis with a nimble proactivity which surpassed many of its international counterparts and is worthy of examination here.


The first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Ireland on 29 February. I was sitting at my second-floor desk in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment on 16 March when I received an email from Human Resources, seeking volunteers for contact tracing training. The fact that I worked in a telecommunications policy division was immaterial; the normal order of business was upended as climate specialists, geologists, legal advisors and more offered up their services to work 7 days a week for an indefinite period of time, in order that the job of healthcare professionals – who will inevitably be recognised as the true heroes in this sad chapter of history, when it comes to be written –- might be made that bit more surmountable, that bit less daunting.


The scale of the contact tracing operation in Ireland, and the rapidity of its deployment, was remarkable. Without initial recourse to the cutting-edge digital tracing app available in places like Singapore, or to the vastly greater number of Government employees of larger EU Member States, the success of Ireland’s contact tracing project depended instead on smart systems management and the indefatigability of its volunteers.


Contact tracing in Ireland began on Friday 13 March, with 40 army cadets. In a matter of weeks, a robust system had been conceived, developed and operationalised which, as of mid-April, saw 200 trained personnel placing up to 2,000 calls a day, operating out of nine centres around the country. The system, devised and managed by the HSE, was forward-looking in that it could be scaled up as appropriate, based on the forecasted increase in infections. While 200 contact tracers are “active” at the time of writing, some 1,700 more had received training, with the expectation that the volume of calls-per-day would be increased from 2,000 to 5,000 over a matter of days. At the time of writing, over 60,000 personal contacts had been made by the impromptu coalition of Civil Servants, army cadets and HSE staff who were called upon to carry out the national contact tracing strategy.


In his book The Fifth Risk, investigative reporter Michael Lewis examines the nascent Trump presidency in the US through the prism of the American Civil Service. Here, Lewis shifts from the typical focus on well-traversed portents of doom, such as nuclear war with North Korea or Iran, and  instead looked at a cast of public sector jobsworths and Government pencil pushers, who had been swept out of their positions by the Trump administration’s anti-intellectual, anti-expert guiding ethos. Lewis’ central thesis examines the notion that, instead of accidental nuclear war, natural disaster or cyber-attack, the biggest risk – the eponymous fifth risk – to the security of the US is, in fact, an inability for internal systems to adequately respond to emerging crises, as a result of poor project management.


Less sexy than other speculative causes of the end-times, certainly –- nobody has yet to approach Matt Damon to play a renegade Higher Executive Officer who clashes with Department of Social Protection top brass in a race against the clock to rollout the Social Services Card in Connaught/Ulster – but the warnings articulated by Lewis arguably foreshadowed a particularly disastrous response to the coronavirus crisis in the US.


It is by no means a given that Government Departments and Public Sector Agencies will function efficiently when placed under severe and unprecedented strain. That countries such as the United Kingdom abandoned their own contact tracing operations lends further significance to the achievement of the HSE. Writing in The Irish Times, Public Health Specialist Dr Greg Martin outlined this point baldly: “Most countries have not even attempted this. Most countries didn’t think of this as something you could do. Ireland has done something that is, in my opinion, quite remarkable.”


In a modern society such as ours, in which instant solutions are expected, it is easy to decry the Civil Service as outmoded, lethargic and complacent. In the past, I have been guilty of this myself. Such an attitude is culturally reinforced by the often-harsh realities of neoliberalism, in which the permanent tenure and perceived job stability of Civil Servants can seem like an affront to those struggling in an increasingly precarious job market. It is inevitable that at some point, everyone will encounter a barrier to a Government service, or be unduly prevented from a resolution which should seem routine. Whether being faced with an onerous form when trying to reclaim tax, or being pawned off on the phone when enquiring about the rollout of rural broadband, everyone can no doubt recount a story of ire-inducing frustration at some Civil Servant or another, standing between them and the outcome they desire, probably deserve, and were likely told would be easy.


The temptation, when this happens, is to use that particular experience to broadly denounce the Civil Service or Public Sector in its entirety. But to paint in such broad brushstrokes is to homogenise what is a multitude of professions and niche functions, lumping into the same basket front-line social welfare workers, climate specialists, town planners, communications experts, geologists and the rest to boot. The narrative that Civil Servants are lazy or inept is also, conversely, impossible to combat precisely because there is no centralised “Civil Service” to offer a counter-argument. Thus, the characterisation of the Civil Service as ineffective has been allowed to take root and grow unchecked in the public imagination.


The point here is not to posit a holistic defence of the Civil Service, or to presume to rehabilitate it in Irish society’s estimation. Government is supposed to run smoothly, and when it does not, as is often the case, the senior Civil Servants in the responsible Department should absorb their fair share of the blame. Civil Servants, from what I have perceived first-hand, understand this, and no credit or thanks is solicited for the good, in acknowledgement that to do so would merely invite further reproach for the bad.


But we should also be mature enough as a citizenry to recognise the exceptional efforts of the Irish public sector during the COVID-19 crisis, and the extent to which it exceeded, perhaps, the bar of public expectation. In this respect, the contact tracing campaign is but one illustrative example. Working from their kitchens, spare rooms and attics, using personal laptops and with limited access to files, Civil Servants of all grades worked to ensure that emergency legislation was passed, vital services continued, and the harshest edges of the crisis were blunted.


In the Department of Foreign Affairs, the consular division in Dublin – which previously had an operating staff of 38 – drafted 90 additional members to help in the effort to repatriate Irish citizens stranded abroad, in the face of international border closings and mounting panic. From Australia to Peru, the “Bring Them Home” effort saw over 1,800 citizens returned to Ireland by early April, by every means possible.


In the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Civil Servants built a national social welfare programme in rapid order – the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Support payment – and had processed 625,000 applications from 16 March to 14 April. This staggering logistical feat represented the equivalent of three years’ social welfare payments in a month.


In all of these areas, then, the Civil Service embodied the sort of active citizenship espoused by the Greeks and resuscitated at great trying moments throughout history. But these efforts would have rang hollow were it not for the similar engagement of the public at large, the citizenry itself. Notwithstanding the redoubling of its efforts during the COVID crisis, the Civil Service is necessarily supposed to be the fountainhead of citizen-centric policy in the State. That is its raison d’étre. But it is the many tiny ripples of active citizenship across all aspects of society which have enabled the relative success of the national response. The coronavirus pandemic is, in some respects, a unifying force; a virus does not discriminate between gender, class or age. In order for its harshest effects to be effectively mitigated, it demands a response that subordinates a seemingly entrenched culture of individualism to the collective. As in Ancient Sparta, the individual has been sublimated into the society as a citizen, for the protection of the wider unit.


The interdependence of all members of a society, and the symbiotic relationship between the actions of millions of people who have never met, underpins the idea of participatory citizenship. When the ambitious national contact tracing effort was first launched by forty army cadets operating out of the Curragh in mid-March, each cadet had to trace at least forty people for every confirmed case of COVID-19. Had this trend held steady, the system would surely have been overwhelmed, and the contact tracing operation would likely have been rendered unviable and abandoned. This would have had a knock-on implication for the healthcare system, as infected individuals carried about their daily business, in many cases with no symptoms or awareness of their infection. The rate of infection would have been untold, and the consequent demand on frontline medical staff incalculable.


But by the general public choosing to adhere to social distancing and isolation guidelines, in a matter of weeks the number of individuals each contact tracer had to identify was reduced from forty plus, to around three per person. Thus, it became possible to alert practically everyone who was at risk of carrying the disease, and an overload of our hospitals was avoided. When individuals across society made personal decisions to forego the comforts they had come to expect from a modern, materialistic culture, as during the COVID lockdown, they tacitly expressed their citizenship in a vein that incorporated the full dimensions of civics. By making sacrifices and taking precautions, we each protected ourselves, but also our neighbours. Thus, our phalanx remained a cohesive, inviolable unit; battered, perhaps, and rattled, but still intact, and moving forward.


Of course, to expatiate on the essence of citizenship in this manner will be of little condolence to the many thousands of citizens in this country who experienced the loss of a loved one at the hands of the “invisible enemy”. And while we might present the disease as unifying in its precipitation of a society-wide response, that is not to suggest that the virus impacted everyone equally. For some, quarantining measures and enforced social distancing represented a minor inconvenience, and may have even offered a welcomed respite from the overwhelming demands of modern life in some instances. For others, no doubt, the experience was tantamount to living hell. And while citizenship posits the theoretical equality of everyone within a State, that naturally does not translate to actual equality of opportunity. There are still fundamental flaws in our society which may never be addressed, and I am not naïve to a certain glib presumption in asking a citizen to participate in a society when they have been roundly failed by that society. But the structural failings of late-stage capitalism are not reason enough to throw out the inherent value of being a citizen, nor are they reason enough to divest from the idea that we might examine that citizenship, engage with it more deeply, and express it in more active terms and deeds.


And if anything is salvageable from the entire COVID-19 experience in Ireland, it is perhaps that people, for the most part, recognised that we are not fundamentally isolated beings. Think of the fragmentation of our politics at the last general election and the upending of the old political paradigm; think of the fault lines in our value systems as exposed in the referendum on the 8th Amendment; or the bubbling tensions between both sides of public opinion during the Paddy Jackson trial; think of how younger people source their news versus how their parents access theirs. Despite a society increasingly trending towards atomisation and polarisation along cultural and generational lines, we nonetheless tapped into some latent sense of communal struggle, a commonality of effort which, if not resolving societal divisions, then at least muted them to combat the threat at hand. This is the essence of citizenship. By acting as citizens, we came together so that we might tame the savageness of the virus, and if not quite to make gentle the light of this world as Aeschylus hoped, then at least to make it more gentle, more bearable, that we might persevere and emerge a more humble, more collective society.

Eoin is an Irish writer and Civil Servant, in that order. Drawing upon his recent experience in a ‘Government job’, his writing currently seeks to deconstruct societal interpretations of State institutions, and also create greater appreciation for the value of the public sector, through a sometimes comedic lens.  He has written and directed for the stage in Dublin and performed stand-up comedy nationwide.

Of the essay featured here, written in May 2020, Eoin states:


‘COVID-19 has affected us all differently on an individual level, and collectively on a societal level. For many, it has engendered a feeling of isolation: from friends and loved ones, workplaces and centres of social activity. This physical isolation of millions of citizens, conversely, has allowed us to collectively mitigate against the worst effects of the virus as a society and a community. By choosing to isolate individually – to cocoon, socially distance and restrict movements – we are tacitly choosing to participate collectively in something bigger and more encompassing than ourselves. As a writer and civil servant, I am particularly interested in examining themes of citizenship, civics, and the roles and obligations of citizens in a society. The COVID-19 crisis has accentuated the interplay between these themes and revealed the extent of our personal sacrifice for a collective goal. This is the kernel of what I call ‘active citizenship’, although we are seldom encouraged to think and understand our behaviours in terms of citizenship. In writing this piece, I wanted to rehabilitate the idea of citizenship in what is often characterised as an individualistic or materialistic society, and in doing so place the efforts of ordinary Irish women and men during this pandemic within a broader lineage of active citizenship.’

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