Lessons we can learn from Covid

‘Is it possible that, as a society we could…put our best foot forward to tackle some other huge problems within our health service? Can we learn anything from the ordeal of the last two years?’

Like the majority of people in this country, I have been vaccinated twice for Covid-19. In recent weeks I also brought my son to the vaccination centre twice to get his vaccines. The organisation was superb on all four occasions. The whole experience reflected military precision by the HSE, so I left with a sense that when we really want to achieve a result in this country, we can roll up the sleeves and get it done – without any problem.

Having spoken to loads of people who went for the vaccines to the Abbey Hotel, Kilbride Community Centre, the AIT sports arena in Athlone or the Sports complex in Newtownforbes, I know that their reaction was similar – one of great satisfaction with the slick organisation, the control of the parking, the queueing, the filing systems and the actual jabbing itself.

This columnist is not going to comment on the arguments for and against the vaccination. It’s really a personal choice for everyone to make, but it’s the mobilisation of so many resources and the manner in which the Covid vaccination process was completed so effectively and so efficiently that has me thinking – is it possible that, as a society we could repeat this trick and put our best foot forward to tackle some other huge problems within our health service? Can we learn anything from the ordeal of the last two years?

The major issue facing the nation now is waiting lists for operations and surgery within our hospitals, so that was the first serious matter that came to my mind. We know there are huge delays for procedures like cataract operations, and that every month dozens of people are travelling north to get these done in Belfast hospitals. Is it possible instead that we could open our own hospitals on a 24-hour basis every weekend and on every bank holiday to tackle this appalling waiting list, using the same precision to get the maximum number of medical professionals and surgeons on board for a really short and sharp blitz on the waiting lists here too?

There are dozens of other areas where greater efficiency and resources might help improve the quality of life for hundreds of people overnight in this country. There are thousands waiting for scans and colonoscopies – and these lists have grown longer and longer due to the pandemic – with people genuinely waiting at home for months in a state of some anxiety as they await the opportunity to get their tests down. For many, it’s a really scary time.

The far greater role played by the community and voluntary sector during the pandemic is another issue that raises questions. Dozens of groups here in County Roscommon were out front in their voluntary work to try and help people who were living alone or found themselves in a vulnerable position during the lockdowns. Roscommon County Council coordinated the effort with Roscommon LEADER Partnership and others, and it proved highly effective for those who needed help. Organisations like the St Vincent de Paul and Meals on Wheels do this work all the time but, during the first and second lockdown, I saw dozens of GAA clubs and other community groups send their own members out to collect groceries and medical supplies for those who were cocooning within their own communities – especially in rural areas. It was a superb humanitarian service. In one part of the country I even saw a football team come out and make up the turf for a vulnerable elderly person – what a brilliant contribution!

If volunteers can be mobilised in situations like this, one wonders if more could be done all year around to try and help non-drivers and the elderly on urgent issues such as getting a lift to hospital appointments in Galway and Dublin. At the moment, I am aware of lots of individuals – especially in the north of the county – who simply cannot make it to their appointments and are stuck at home, often in some discomfort or pain while they wait for treatments. A person from Boyle rang me last week to stress the need for such a service in that area as she was aware that there already is a similar ‘supporting driver’ scheme operating in the south of the county – so wouldn’t it be great if some of the volunteers who cut their teeth during Covid-19 were given a regular weekly or monthly role in supporting the elderly and vulnerable folk who live alone and have no transport?

I was delighted to see the Gardai in Roscommon take the lead recently on another community initiative, started by the Lions Club movement internationally, that would really make a huge difference to those living alone or in remote areas either during the pandemic or any other time of the year.

‘Message in a Bottle’ is a simple idea that encourages people to keep their basic personal and medical details in a common place, where, in cases of emergency, the emergency teams can easily access them. The information required is very basic (details on medication, etc.) but very necessary and, once it’s recorded and stored in this little bottle in the fridge, it can be easily accessed by the emergency services if they have to call for a medical emergency. It really is quite easy to do.

Everybody in the community wins with the ‘Message in a bottle’ scheme. Older people, people not in good health, people living alone, people with life-threatening conditions/allergies, people with disabilities, paramedics, Gardaí, fire-fighters, hospital accident and emergency staff and local social services personnel are all helped by this system when it works. I would like to compliment Inspector David Cryan here in Roscommon who got his hands on hundreds of the bottles already and has pushed the new project in the last few months. Anybody who needs one should probably enquire at their local Garda station. If you’re a relative of a person living alone I would strongly recommend you go and get the bottle and make sure the health information is filled in correctly. Anything that can avoid confusion and delay when somebody actually collapses alone at home and needs a paramedic is surely worth the effort.

One other positive part of the legacy of the horrid Covid-19 pandemic here has been the arrival of the ‘Dinner For U’ service from the Melting Pot social enterprise project in Roscommon town. The new service, which is supported by Roscommon LEADER Partnership, was launched in June and aims to support the most vulnerable and isolated in our communities, especially during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, by providing a meals service and daily social interaction to members of the locality. The dinners provided by the service are of excellent quality and prepared by a professional chef of many years standing. They are  competitively priced at just €7, including cost of delivery.
  The dinners are delivered daily at 11.30 am, and the van drivers are fully compliant with the Covid-19 guidelines. Effectively, it’s a ‘meals-on-wheels’ type service that has already been provided efficiently by the Roscommon LEADER Partnership in the north of the county. I was lucky enough to be at the launch of this service in June when many speakers highlighted the importance that the social aspect of the initiative provides, noting the positive impact that social inclusion and regular social interaction can have for those in our society who are feeling isolated. It’s evidently not just about delivering the food – it’s about a friendly chat and a bit of social interaction for somebody who needs it.

Recently I was told the remarkable story by one post office staff member of an elderly lady in his area who had turned to writing letters to herself so that the postman in her area would call more often and chat with her. What greater example of the need for more social interaction could one need?

In the aftermath of Covid, wouldn’t it be great if we made services and initiatives like these part of the positive legacy to take away – and learn from – in the years to come?