This week twelve months ago, the first positive tests for the new coronavirus disease, Covid-19 – a virus we had begun to hear much about – were confirmed in Ireland. Next, on March 12th, speaking from Washington, then acting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar explained to the Irish nation that our lives would never be the same again (or words to that effect). He didn’t know what was ahead. None of us did.
Twelve months ago I didn’t really have a clue what anxiety was. As far as I was concerned it was something that was discussed on radio and TV shows by fuddy-duddy health professionals – and as someone who would never be affected by it, to be honest, I never paid much heed.
I know what it is now.
One thing the last twelve months has taught me is that anxiety and depression are real and present problems. There is no doubt that the amount of people affected has grown out of all proportion since the advent of this pandemic.
For example, the many people who have lost their jobs and have seen their businesses devastated and who, as a result, have been sitting at home. They have had far too much time on their hands. Time to think. Things that would never have kept you awake at night in the past now seem far more important than before. It’s a horrible feeling.
I have met scores of people over the past twelve months who feel abandoned, who are totally distraught since the arrival of Covid. Some of them went to Mass every day, or at least a few times a week. That was their social outing. Some went to bingo or to a dance or drama or night class, or they went to the pub for a couple of drinks. They went to matches on a Sunday. They had friends and family calling to them and they met people out shopping and in other social settings. Now, they are sitting at home scared to even answer the door as they listen to the daily diet of misery and bad news that pours out of the media. This is the hidden cost of this pandemic.
I shudder to think of what the fall-out will be for the economy when this is all over. The €40 billion or so that it is costing will have to be paid back at some stage. In terms of providing supports, the Government have actually done well in the prevailing circumstances. But there is not a bottomless pit of money there. The big question is how many businesses will collapse altogether when the supports are withdrawn (as they will be)?
For some people who have been lucky enough to hold on to their jobs and for others whose businesses have stayed open, this pandemic has been nothing more than a mild inconvenience. In fact, for some it has been a financial bonanza. With nowhere to go and nothing to spend their money on, their savings have gone through the roof. Good luck to those people too. They are the lucky ones.
Twelve months on and now we have household names that were unknown a year ago…Tony Holohan, Paul Reid, Sam McConkey, Cillian De Gascun, Kingston Mills, Luke O’Neill and Catherine Motherway are on the national media day and night and are now celebrities. They have been entrusted in guiding the Government and the people through this health emergency. They have done a good job in tough circumstances, but they are rarely asked hard questions about their strategy. As I write this piece Ireland has had the longest Level 5 lockdown in Europe – by some distance.
If someone like me questions their strategy we are totally dismissed because we are not medical or health experts. It’s very frustrating when you have genuine questions to ask. After all, these people are public servants.
The real heroes
My idea of the real heroes in all the chaos are the nurses, doctors and other health workers in our hospitals – and particularly in our ICU units. They have had to face the consequences of this horrible disease since last March. I sincerely hope that they have some respite soon.
I am not for one minute underestimating the severity of Covid-19 or the danger it poses. There are three members of my family working on the frontline in the health sector, so I understand what such people are going through. The restrictions have definitely been needed – and like most people I have followed them to the letter of the law – but, like many people, I am getting fed up.
For most ordinary people it has been a nightmare year. Friends, neighbours and loved ones have passed away and we have not been able to attend the funerals and give the families the support they so badly need.
Some young couples have had to postpone their weddings two or three times, there are no birthday parties, no graduation ceremonies, no nightclubs, no concerts, no socialising, no dates, no holidays, no summer jobs and no sport. My heart goes out to young single people from the ages of 15 upwards who have been the cohort hardest hit by this situation.
Parents who have had young children at home for most of the past twelve months have also had a very tough time. Parents and children alike need to see the schools reopening (a process that began this week).
People with family members who live abroad have had to abandon any chance of seeing them last year – and probably this year too. I am in that category myself. It is very difficult.
As the crisis continues, I believe that people in authority, whether it’s NPHET or the politicians, should be far more careful about what they say. Recently one of these eminent doctors said that we would have restrictions for three to five years. A prominent politician said that 2021 would be a ‘write-off’. I wonder do these people realise that there are so many in the community who hang on every word they hear on the national airwaves about this virus? They are adding to the tsunami of mental health problems and depression by their pronouncements. They have a responsibility to temper their language. They have to give the people hope.
In recent months Government politicians seem to be in a race to be the first to get to the media with the latest news, whether bad or good. One day we hear one story from Micheál Martin, the next it’s a totally different story from Leo Varadkar. Playing politics at a time like this is unforgivable.
The ongoing 5k limit is daft and with the weather improving the idea that 30 Leaving Cert students can be in a school hall together but that people cannot go out and play nine holes of golf makes no sense at all. Surely it would be better to have children out doing a bit of sports’ training in the fresh air rather than them sitting at home on the playstation? Children in Northern Ireland can now go out and train, but in this part of the island the gates remain closed. Try and figure than one out.
I read something this morning that has resonated:
“We are all NOT in the same boat. We are in the same storm. Some have yachts. Some have boats. Some are drowning”.
We all have to remember that.
Light at end of tunnel?
But I wanted to end this piece on a positive note. Personally, since March 14th last year, I realised that I would have plenty of time on my hands, so I began walking every day. I was not taking nearly enough exercise. Since then I have missed only one day on the road and now I walk for an hour every day. As a result, I lost a substantial amount of weight. From the numbers of people I see out walking it appears that I am not on my own on this one.
Sport has helped to keep me sane in the period since this pandemic started. I actually got a couple of months’ work while the GAA club championships were on last year and it was brilliant to be able to go to the games. Hopefully we will be able to get back to that very soon.
Working on a voluntary basis on the local community radio has also been a very positive way to use up my time and I have enjoyed that immensely.
Watching soccer, rugby, horse racing and golf on TV with no crowds is not the same as it was, but it’s better than nothing. Hopefully the GAA scene will be back soon too. Boris Johnson says that in May there will be 10,000 people allowed at sporting events in the UK. We are a long way away from that here, but hope springs eternal.
The response to this emergency in many communities, particularly in rural Ireland, has been phenomenal. There is a deep-rooted goodness in Irish people which always comes to the fore in times of crisis. Let’s hope that pattern of response remains until we are out of this horrible situation. People’s patience is wearing thin, but hopefully the end line is in sight.
The past twelve months have served to underline to us what is really important in life…family, our health, community, friendship, leadership and empathy. Hopefully when this is all over it will make for a better society.
Our biggest hope now is the vaccine rollout. We seem to be moving at a snail’s pace here in Ireland so far. We can only hope and pray that things improve as the months go on. A speedy vaccine rollout will save lives and livelihoods.
We have to all set our minds to the scenario we are in while also resolving that there are brighter days ahead.
I want to go back to regular work. I want to go back to a GAA match, and I want to go for a pint and a chat.
We all want our lives back.