It’s taken almost 40 years but Conor Cruise O’Brien’s 1982 phrase — GUBU — has at long last been found wanting. The phrase, shorthand for grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented, can hardly adequately describe yesterday’s announcement that from six o’clock yesterday Ireland is in lock-down to try to contain the coroanvirus pandemic.
The closures are an unprecedented call for community-wide solidarity, concerted, deliberate and, if needs be, forceful action to ensure that every opportunity to beat this wretched, easily spread virus is maximised as soon as is possible.
O’Brien’s phrase was a negative judgement but yesterday’s announcement, made by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Washington, drew one positive response after another. Though the difficulties are unprecedented, especially for working parents with young children, one voice after another, one industry or union leader after another, one sports organisation after another and one political leader after another, recognised the gravity of our situation.
They, almost with one voice, showed an understanding of what will happen if we do not match efforts to counter the virus to the very real and growing threat it represents. For once, that old, often hollow, rallying cry — “we’re all in this together” — rang true.
Each voice also recognised, even if tacitly, that the lock-down is unavoidable if we are to avert a very difficult situation like that facing Italians today. They are almost prisoners in their homes because their government deferred difficult decisions. Sadly, there is no end in sight to their ordeal.
That evasion has led to a situation not too far off martial law in some parts of Italy, the European epicentre of the virus.
Yesterday’s announcement was as difficult as any a taoiseach has had to make but Mr Varadkar, and the rest of us too, can take comfort in reports from China just hours ahead of the Washington announcement. China has reported that the epidemic has peaked and that only 15 new cases were confirmed on Wednesday.
Authorities said new infections identified are now under 50 for five straight days. This is the first time China has suggested epidemic has reached a high-water mark. This situation was not easily achieved and Chinese authorities maintain a tight, unwavering grip to try to ensure that the epidemic does not return to earlier levels.
What a sad indication of how tremendously our world has changed that it is possible to admire how China has responded, while looking with increasing dismay at how America, specifically President Donald Trump’s America, has responded.
The pandemic and the WHO’s advice were at first dismissed by Trump as “a hoax”. That deliberate dishonesty continued when, just hours after US stock markets plunged by 20%, Trump imposed a ban, a virtual wall if you like, on visitors from Europe.
That he excused Britain and Ireland despite the fact that Britain has almost half the number of US infections but less than a fifth of its population suggests a less than rational approach. It was, however, described as a “hammer blow” by Irish tourism interests.
EU leaders accused Trump of playing politics with the outbreak, implying he is trying to exacerbate difficulties by driving another wedge between Brexit Britain and Europe.
Be that as it may the world can only hope that America’s electorate addresses these dangerous eccentricities when it votes for either a new, stable president or it entrusts Trump with a second term next November. In the meantime, the world can only look on and wonder where the very stable genius will lead his unfortunate country next.
In the meantime, our obligations are clear, if extremely challenging. The scale of that challenge has been, in a particularly Irish way, put in context by the GAA decision to cancel this weekend’s 33 Allianz League games and many other events at lower levels.
That couples planning a wedding in the coming days where more than 100 people would attend have been asked to defer celebrations is another indication of how very pressing the call for a community-wide response is.
It is difficult not to apply the same judgement to the tens of thousands of people who felt the pleasure of a few days racing at Cheltenham outweighed the all-too-obvious public health risks.
This is indeed a GUBU moment but the “grotesque” can be taken out of play if we act consistently, responsibly and maybe a little more selflessly than we sometimes can.
If we do no more than behave carefully and consider how our actions might impinge on others, relatives, friends and especially vulnerable neighbours, then it is reasonable to hope that we will in the next while, just as China has done, be able to report that the storm, that the worst of the pandemic has passed.
That prize is more than worth any short-term imposition.