John FitzGerald: The lessons we need to learn from the pandemic

On the economic front, Government decision to provide increased support for households and businesses proved exceptionally successful

While Ireland’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have been well-handled when compared with how many other countries did, it would still be valuable, three years after the outbreak, to conduct an expert review to consider lessons learned for any future epidemic. Any study of the past should concentrate on what might be done better, rather than trying to assign blame for any shortcomings that are identified. As the World Health Organisation’s Mike Ryan often remarked, in any fast-moving public health crisis, speed trumps perfection.

Any review should encompass a number of strands – the public health response, the implications for regular medical and hospital care, the development and deployment of vaccines, the education system in the pandemic, economic and financial management, and overall governance.

Research is also needed to tease out the long-term consequences on physical and mental health and wellbeing, on educational attainment and on societal behaviour. Some of those outcomes may only be fully known well into the future. The serious disruption of education and social interaction of schoolchildren and college students may have longer-term consequences, not just for their academic success, but also for mental health and social relationships. Longitudinal data such as the Growing Up in Ireland Survey, and the Tilda study of older age groups, will be invaluable resources in teasing out long-term consequences, and tracing them back to key factors.

An unexpected outcome has been the continuation into last autumn of an exceptional savings rate by Irish households

The rapid development of vaccines was crucial to the success of the response to the pandemic. At EU level there are also lessons to be learned on how best to incentivise production, and from the collective approach to procurement and the co-ordinated rollout of vaccines. A University of Chicago study has shown how alternative forms of contract for the development and manufacturing of vaccines could have done an even better job.


On the economic front, our Government, like others, relied on a classic Keynesian response of replacing the dramatic decline in demand by a major increase in Government support for households and companies. This action proved exceptionally successful, as is evidenced by how our economy and most others bounced back in 2022. In the Republic, as in most OECD countries, there have been limited legacy effects from financing this economic support because government borrowing was counter-balanced by higher household savings. These higher savings were recycled back to governments via the European Central Bank. Overall national indebtedness did not rise.

An unexpected outcome has been the continuation into last autumn of an exceptional savings rate by Irish households. As the lockdowns had effectively ended last spring, it is not clear why Irish people have been slower than our fellow Europeans to resume normal levels of consumption, or more cautious as cost-of-living pressures rose. Some of the economic consequences of the squeeze on real incomes could be eased if we resumed spending at a more normal rate.

In the Republic, France and the Netherlands, there has been a big increase in labour force participation compared with pre-pandemic levels. This may reflect the effects of more flexibility in working arrangements, making it easier to combine work and family life. In the UK, by contrast, workforce participation has fallen.

Two recent French studies have looked at how households handled household chores and childcare during lockdown. With childminders, creches and cleaners off the scene, there was more work to be done in the home. French fathers who were working from home during the lockdown felt compelled to increase their share of household tasks. However, men preferred taking over shopping and playing with children than less attractive duties, such as cleaning and laundry. With the extra chores to be done with families at home all day, many women felt pressures, while their partners took the “fun” jobs. The result was increased tensions in households, with most conflicts occurring around childcare and cleaning. It would be interesting to explore whether such impacts varied across societies with good childcare outside the home (which closed during lockdowns), and societies where external childcare support is much weaker.

We know that domestic violence went up here during the pandemic, with women isolated at home with their abuser. It will be important to track if there are long-lasting negative, if less extreme, effects on domestic relationships more generally from the switch towards more home-based remote working.

The pandemic also had other widespread social effects. Births fell very significantly in Ireland in 2021 as a result of the lockdowns, though they have since recovered. While the number of weddings was halved in 2020, 2023 may show a weddings boom as postponed nuptials finally take place.