How Was It For You?
How was it for you? The Lockdown I mean.
Depending on your point of view we are now at a watershed moment in the struggle with the Virus. The emergency is not over yet by a long chalk. People are continuing to die and in large numbers. The total number infected is nudging five million, the deaths well over 300,000, 90,000 plus in the USA alone. Both these figures are almost certainly underestimates. More testing throws up more cases and there is no agreed uniform way of counting and categorising the dead, with some stark differences in how individual countries report. (Here Ireland, with 1561 dead to date is among those most transparent and upfront.)
Yet there are signs of falling numbers for infections and new deaths in the countries of the Virus’ second Epicentre, with the figures falling or flattening in those countries most affected - Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Benelux, Ireland and Portugal, with Britain and Sweden just behind. The falling figures have prompted the first cautious moves towards relaxing countries’ individual Lockdowns, with shops and businesses beginning to reopen. There are similarities to what is underway in the USA, though the Europeans appear to have more concrete evidence to back up the growing belief that the worst is over. “Festina Lente” is very much the order of the day lest relaxation too soon generates a second wave of infection, as happened a century ago, undoing all the good work, for it is abundantly clear that social isolation and lockdown was fundamental in halting the progress of the Virus. Ireland’s cautious and carefully calibrated recovery plan will stretch over several months.
With the cranking up comes the New Reality – Life with the Virus. Whether temporarily, for a year or two, pending a vaccine or some suitable treatment, or far more long term as the Jeremiahs would have it, with wave after wave of Corona 19 and its mutated successors. But in any event a significantly altered lifestyle. Queues, social distancing, new rules , regulations, and restrictions in shops, restaurants, bars and pubs when they are once again open, and a new code of conduct with colleagues, neighbours and other people. There’s no doubt we will adjust; we’ve already had a foretaste with the weeks of the Lockdowns; and inconvenient as the experience was, it wasn’t a war, and there were few privations or hardship for those not personally affected.
Now, as we pick ourselves up it is to grasp that many everyday assumptions have been upended. Holidays this year look unachievable and certainly air travel on vacation can be largely written off for 2020. We have not yet grasped fully the economic cost from earnings and jobs lost in whole swathes of our economy (what future for the hospitality sector, for example?), nor how we approach leisure pursuits like spectator sports. Remote working and transition to a cashless economy have been given a huge boost and overall we wait and watch to see whether and how swiftly our economies and lifestyles will/can rebound.
The above predicated of course on the assumption that the worst is over. Certainly if wishes and hopes could come true then a vaccine or suitable treatment must be near. The optimists shout about three to six months, the more cautious somewhat longer, though all are agreed that the likely demand for a vaccine – in billions - when proven, will outstrip supply for some considerable time. 2020 can be written off; probably also much of 2021 - and that’s taking the optimistic view.
Whatever happens, expect a slew of memoirs and journals of the Corona Year(s). I won’t be writing one but a few brief personal observation. As someone in his seventies, and a Diabetic to boot, I have at least one hefty strike against me faced with a virus that overwhelmingly targets the old and infirm (even granting that “seventy is the new fifty”). So, together with my wife, we embraced the Lockdown totally and the “cocooning” the Irish doctors recommended. “No going out” did not of course apply to our modest but ample gardens front and rear. This provided some relief and our hearts went out to those less fortunate in cramped city apartments. With Portmarnock’s Velvet Strand a mere 200 metres away, the temptation to defy advice and venture out was strong but we stuck with it. It was all the more sweet when that first relaxation came and since then we have fulfilled our vows to walk on the beach daily. We talked to the neighbours, but the lack of contact with other family members proved annoying and upsetting - the phone, Zoom and Skype no substitute.
Our sons shopped for us, a task they performed heroically, always conscious of the risk of bringing the virus back and taking extreme care accordingly. Thank you boys! Shopping now involves queueing to get access; the supermarkets limit numbers to ensure social distancing, tedious for everybody, but where up to now bonhomie and good nature has reigned; a factor in this has been the absence of rain itself as April and May here have been unusually dry and sunny. A twenty or thirty minute wait in damp cold and wet weather might chill that cosy feeling. At least by the autumn appropriate covered waiting areas should be in place.
To minimise risks further we confined shopping to once, perhaps twice, per week. For the moment the luxury of the casual visit daily to the shop for one or two items has gone. Initially there was panic buying and consequent hoarding before restrictions were imposed. Toilet paper and paper towels were early targets for the hoarders (and online comedians), then eggs and flour supplies ran out. The supply line kinks have now been sorted though eggs disappear from time to time, less down to the virus and panic buying than to an epidemic of bird flu which has led to the slaughter of around half a million egg producing birds. Some days random items can be unavailable and if this is on the shopping day then….. tant pis for a week! Choice and opportunity are somewhat restricted though it’s a far cry from something akin to the old Soviet “perhaps bag” experience.
The Virus has also changed my reading and writing habits. I’ve rediscovered or caught up with authors after years away ( John Le Carre, Donna Leon, William Boyd and Martin Cruz Smith among them). My columns have also been affected: the Virus can hardly be ignored, but how to make writing about it at least readable and relevant?
And finally, personally, the reality of the Virus has stopped my fictional work-in-progress in its tracks. I had a theme, I had a plot, I had good characters and I had 50,000 words written. It was a novel about Ireland in a post- apocalyptic world devastated after a global catastrophe. It promised to be a sure fire success – in my mind anyway. Then came the Corona virus, probably, like the plot in my novel, a cock-up rather than a conspiracy. Clearly reality trumped fiction. I may change and adapt the novel. I hope the Virus does not do likewise!
Sean Farrell is a retired Irish diplomat and former Irish Consul General in Chicago in 2006-7. Previous posts included Irish Abroad Director in the Dept of Foreign Affairs & Irish Ambassador to Estonia from 2001-4. He was also an EC Peace Monitor in Croatia and Bosnia in 1991-2 before serving in Belfast from 1992-95 as Deputy Head of the Anglo-Irish Secretariat in Maryfield, a period that saw the first ceasefires and moves towards the settlement of the Good Friday Agreement.
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How Was It For You?