Juno McEnroe: This will be where the spirit of meitheal will prevail

Juno McEnroe: This will be where the spirit of meitheal will prevail
HSE chief Paul Reid at the launch of the ‘Be on call for Ireland’ recruitment campaign. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA

We are the lucky ones.

This is not a crisis, it is an emergency and probably the greatest in all our lives. The virus wave has yet to sweep over the country, but it is coming.

We have the power to change events; to save lives; to alter the course of the peril coming our way, through distancing and basic ‘cop on’, as ministers have said.

Other countries will not be so lucky. In India and similarly impoverished countries, the spread of the virus is only starting.

And it will hit them hard, where families do not have the luxury of space, health facilities are limited, and many already suffer from ailments or malnutrition.

India’s centre for disease estimates that if the same mathematical models apply from Europe, the country could face about 300m cases of Covid-19, of which five million may be severe.

Here, the number of cases is rising at a daily rate of 30%.

On this trajectory, we could have 600,000 cases in six weeks, Fianna Fáil’s Stephen Donnelly told the Dáil this week, as stunned TDs debated draconian emergency laws to shut down areas, events, and to detain sick people.

But that level can be decreased. As Donnelly noted, reducing the daily rise by just 10% to 20% would result in 60,000 cases over the same period.

Our nation once relied on meitheal — a tradition where families and communities gathered together, working in a team, to save crops. We can avail of that tradition once again.

Thousands of volunteers will be checking in on the vulnerable and elderly — isolated indoors for their own safety. For they are the ones who face the biggest risk of all of us.

The surge in the virus is potentially days away, when emergency hospital wards will be overrun, when all the machinery and frontline staff will be used to try to keep people alive and when, in some ways, order and normality in society could break down.

Already our schools, workplaces, bars, retail outlets, and travel routes have been closed. The key is to limit human interaction.

We can expect more restrictions in the days ahead, so the scenes in Italy this week — where truckloads of body bags were transported by the army — are not seen here.

Life has been turned upside down. And as much of the population as possible will likely be asked to stay indoors. This is inevitable when the death rate starts to creep up even more.

To overcome this dire situation, we are arming ourselves for a battle against the virus, as the head of the HSE CEO Paul Reid rightly said at Government Buildings today.

“It is a war against a very silent and dangerous enemy. It is not one we can win with armed forces. It is one that we can win with communities,” he said.

And this will be where the spirit of meitheal will prevail. The ancient and universal cooperation that helped generations before in the fields will now resurface in cities, on the streets, on doorsteps, on phones, through the gift of food and above all with empathy and solidarity.

This is the way to limit the impact of the virus. In the days and weeks ahead, we may very well see the State ask millions of people to stay indoors or at least the hundreds of thousands who are most vulnerable to Covid-19.

As Nina Arwitz, CEO of Volunteer Ireland, said, the country is now mobilising “an army” of helpers to go to those people — essentially those trapped indoors or alone.

We have already seen examples of that work in communities and services.

And that includes the potentially thousands of health staff returning, including from abroad, to the frontline here; Defence Forces veterans offering their help; the country’s 1,500 GAA clubs around the country coordinating help; the librarians who are tracing contacts and friends of the infected; and even the store workers who risk their own health to ensure communities can still stock up on food.

Waterford Green Party TD Marc Ó Cathasaigh put it well in the Dáil debate on restriction laws this week: “Díograis is one such word [to describe it] — a kindred feeling, a zealousness emanating from a sense of place and community that is now finding expression in our social solidarity and the selfless commitment of our frontline services.”

Equally, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s speech touched on the nature of the work and commitment of the ordinary people who will lead the fight against the virus. In a live address on TV on St Patrick’s Day, he said, in reference to health staff:

Not all superheroes wear capes, some wear scrubs and gowns.

The legacy of communities joining forces to slow the spread of the virus will also be remembered, he said: “In years to come, let them say of us, when things were at their worst, we were at our best.”

Our lives will have changed forever after this virus passes. People will have changed professions, we will have retrained, there will be a greater appreciation and a value put on on the everyday as opposed to the valuable.

The HSE’s Mr Reid also put it well: “I believe a new value system is emerging, which I think is great for communities. And the new currency, for me, is how much we care. And that’s a big currency.

And I know it is going to play a big role in the coming weeks and months.

Working together, we can reduce the death rate, save our loved ones, and get through this.

Even politicians are doing this. While the draconian laws to close events and even areas, and detain sick people, were passed without a vote in the Dáil with some grumblings from the opposition benches, in the main, non-government TDs accepted that these emergency measures are necessary.

The new laws, passed by the Seanad today, are to ensure the spread of the virus is limited. They may even include the ability of authorities to shut down house parties — a scenario feared if young people become frustrated in isolation and decide to get together.

Opposition TD concerns, if anything, centre on what might happen to the policing of protests when the financial impact takes hold on society, as well as the extent of the laws, who can use them, and how long they might last.

That is why a so-called ‘sunset clause’ of November 9 was agreed, where they will need to be reviewed again by the Dáil if they are to potentially continue.

But again, there was a political consensus that this is almost a wartime-like emergency and therefore requires battle-like measures.

Only in the weeks ahead will we learn if Ireland’s spirit of meitheal, of what Health Minister Simon Harris referred to as our ability to “come together as a country by staying apart” will have slowed the spread of Covid-19 and indeed won the war.

Then we will be the lucky ones.

Go outside this weekend, but stay apart. As Martin Luther King Jr once said: “The time is always right to do what is right.”

    Useful information
  • The HSE have developed an information pack on how to protect yourself and others from coronavirus. Read it here
  • Anyone with symptoms of coronavirus who has been in close contact with a confirmed case in the last 14 days should isolate themselves from other people - this means going into a different, well-ventilated room alone, with a phone; phone their GP, or emergency department;
  • GPs Out of Hours services are not in a position to order testing for patients with normal cold and flu-like symptoms. HSELive is an information line and similarly not in a position to order testing for members of the public. The public is asked to reserve 112/999 for medical emergencies at all times.
  • ALONE has launched a national support line and additional supports for older people who have concerns or are facing difficulties relating to the outbreak of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) in Ireland. The support line will be open seven days a week, 8am-8pm, by calling 0818 222 024

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