As we get closer to the peak of the crisis, we will each have to take more personal responsibility, writes Fergus Finlay.
We will all look back on this one day: “Do you remember that Paddy’s Day back in 2020, we’ll ask ourselves, when every pub in the country was shut, when the streets were quiet and solemn instead of bustling, when even the churches were all closed down?”
Happy Paddy’s Day, by the way.
I hope, and I’d love to think, that the memories of this period will be nostalgic rather than bitter. That we’ll only remember a couple of weeks of self-isolation, after a burst of panic-buying. We’ll feel a bit foolish, maybe, every time we think back to the mountains of rolls of toilet paper piled up all over the house. But sure we only did what we had to do to get through the virus.
But it’s much more likely, isn’t it, that we will all look back and remember this as one of those moments when the world changed, never to be the same again.
By the time we have passed the peak of this virus that has attacked the entire planet, all of us will be scarred to some extent. And uplifted too.
There will be acts of selfishness and stupidity, alongside many acts of decency and generosity. There will be anxiety and fear and loss.
There will be anger and frustration. And there will be recovery — physical and economic recovery.
We’ve been here before, though never in circumstances quite like these. I spent most of 1973 unemployed, but I was still one of the lucky ones, because I got a job just before the first oil shock. Those who lived through that will never forget the enormous queues for arbitrarily rationed petrol. People were willing to pay any price — to such an extent that it wasn’t until the crisis was over that we all realised that petrol was now, permanently, four times more expensive than it had ever been before.
We were miserable then, just as we were miserable when the world fell around our ears again in 2008.
Many of us will never forget the events of those days either — the jobs that were lost, the inability to cope with debt, the family stresses that overwhelmed so many people.
But this is different.
I know people now who are mortally afraid of this virus, who are determined to shut out the world until it passes. It’s hard, knowing that there is an enemy out there who could actually and casually do you real damage, and feeling powerless to stop it.
People are coping by isolating themselves, often from loved ones, and enduring the pain of loneliness in order to stay alive. And even though only a few days have passed so far, already for some it feels like an endless tunnel.
Nobody knows, of course, how long this tunnel is. We are not at the peak yet, and may not get there for several weeks more.
By then many more cases will have been confirmed, and we will have had to learn how to adapt to healthcare circumstances we have never seen.
That struggle — the struggle to figure out how to cope with all this — is going on every day behind the scenes.
As a member of the board of the HSE, I’ve been lucky enough (if I can call it that) to have been able to see the senior management of the organisation at close quarters, as they get to grips with a healthcare crisis for which no one in the world has any preparation.
I’m not allowed to break confidences, but I have to tell you that you’d be both proud and reassured to see them at work.
There is a level of professionalism and determination that I’ve seldom seen anywhere, throughout the entire senior management team and in all their dealings with the bureaucratic world around them.
Decisions that would, in the normal way, take weeks (sometimes months) to make, and involve many layers of scrutiny, are being made in days — and that may soon enough become minutes.
At the end of this, the health service as we know it will be unrecognisable. There may be a need to rebuild it from the ground up, but it will be in the hands of seasoned and brilliant people who have been tested like never before.
And even over the last week, I’ve had direct experience of the willingness of healthcare staff on the ground to do whatever it takes to adapt to this crisis. It’s been really heartening to hear stories of doctors and nurses going the extra mile — especially to offer reassurance and comfort to people who are afraid.
One thing this crisis has taught me already is that, whatever its structural deficiencies, our healthcare system is made up of some of the very best and most committed people we have in the country.
And then there’s the politics of it all. It would be almost funny if things weren’t so serious.
Every time we have a major crisis on our hands, it seems we heave a sigh of relief that Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar are in charge. Then, when the crisis passes, we can’t wait to get rid of them.
Mind you, you may have noticed that nobody is in a mad hurry to take over from them. A couple of weeks ago Sinn Féin were outraged at their exclusion from the process — and they were right — but they seem to have gone pretty quiet on that score recently. The Greens, on the other hand, everybody’s choice as the preferred partner in government, now seem to be hoping that nobody notices them anymore.
It’s part of the tragedy we face that democratic politics has become so peripheral to our concerns.
I’m a member of Ireland’s oldest political party, and I’ve been following the election process for a new Labour leader. There’s no doubt in my mind that Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has what it takes to rebuild a Labour Party based on values and vision, and I’m looking forward to giving him my number one vote as soon as I can.
But none of that matters right now, nor will it until this is over. The only thing that matters now is looking out for each other.
There are simple ways to do that, and they bear repeating again and again. Thoroughly clean hands, keeping a distance from each other, coughing (when you have to) into your elbow. They’re simple and basic rules. I admit I’ve found them some of those basics hard to adapt to, simple as they are. Maybe you have too. But they make a profound difference.
And it’s going to get harder still. As we get closer to the peak of the crisis, we will each have to take more personal responsibility, spend more time at home with our families, waiting our turn in the queue if we need testing.
But, and please forgive me if this is a cliché, but we can only get through this if we go through it together.
Trusting the genuine experts. Taking personal responsibility.
Helping our neighbours. Finding new ways to keep in touch with each other.
None of what lies ahead will be easy. But we can do it.