Louise O'Neill: 'I was curious this week about when I had first heard the word coronavirus'

When the initial lockdown was announced, I felt calm at first.
Louise O'Neill: 'I was curious this week about when I had first heard the word coronavirus'

I was curious this week about when I had first heard the word coronavirus. I searched for it in my Whatsapp chats and I found this exchange between me and a friend. “Sporadically reading about the coronavirus too,” she wrote. “Which is nuts.” I replied, “What’s this virus? Or do I want to know…” I checked the date on the texts. It was the 23rd of January. (Yes, I know I was late to the party. My friend thought the same, texting back, “HOW have you missed this plague epidemic? It’s like something out of a dystopian movie.”)

Three months later, ‘this virus’ is all we can think or talk about. Wondering how long a vaccine will take, wondering when this will be over and our lives can return to normal, whatever that looks like. My days veer from the monotonous to the overwhelming, sometimes in a matter of minutes.

As Dan Sheehan said on Twitter,

the quarantine state of mind is having 3 solid days where you feel pretty well adjusted, followed by a sudden, unexpected dip into what we call The Hell Zone”

When the initial lockdown was announced, I felt calm at first. Ten minutes later, I started to (rather selfishly) worry about the building work I’m in the middle of, fretting about when we’d finish. Then it hit me that I wouldn’t be able to see my boyfriend for the foreseeable future – he lives in Dublin, I live in West Cork. Quite a bit farther than 2km apart – and finally, I made the mistake of reading a New York Times article about beleaguered hospitals in Bergamo and before I knew it, I was struggling to catch my breath with panic.

I know this anxious spiralling isn’t unique to me but it can feel very difficult to stem once it’s started. I’ve been journaling a lot recently, asking myself these questions – what will I learn from this experience? How can I lean into faith rather than fear? I follow a number of ‘good news’ accounts on Instagram and they regularly share heart-warming stories of acts of human decency in the midst of this pandemic.

Landlords telling suddenly unemployed tenants not to worry about paying rent until they’re back on their feet. A man in Detroit emptying his savings account to pay for petrol for medical staff as they go to work. Young Irish doctors flying home from Australia to join the frontline here. Nurses coming out of retirement to ‘do their bit’ for their community. We have never collectively experienced something like this on a global scale so we are all in this together. If I’m talking to a friend in LA or family in Sydney, we have the same stories — we are staying indoors.

Taking one walk a day. Maintaining a two-metre distance from those around us. It’s been unifying in a most unexpected way. And of course, there are all the reports of the impact this has had on the environment. In India, people can see the Himalayas for the first time in thirty years as pollution levels drop. The ozone layer above the Antarctica is healing. The waters in Venice are startingly clear, shoals of tiny fish swimming past. The photos are beautiful, and a stark reminder that it is not too late to repair the damage that we have inflicted upon the earth.

But this pandemic is not the great equaliser it has been touted as. It’s much more difficult to self-isolate in a studio apartment with small children than a large house with a back garden. For every story of a father talking about the joy of having more time to spend with his children, there is another of a family stuck at home with an abuser, without a workplace or a classroom to escape to for a few hours every day.

I’m sure for many people, the news that a woman in Wuhan, China can now hear birds singing is little comfort when they’re desperately afraid they might lose their house or their small business could go under.

Stop telling us to look for the positives in this, I imagine them saying, when my elderly mother is in a nursing home decimated by the virus and we’re afraid she will slip away from us.

Stop lecturing us on the ill-effects of capitalism and let us mourn our loved ones. Let us bury our dead. Give us time.

I think, for me, the greatest takeaway from all of this won’t be a new-found appreciation for baking or playing card games with my parents, as surprisingly enjoyable as both have been.

No, it will be this uneasy realisation of just how vulnerable we all are. I have never given much consideration to how easy something like this would be to spread, a cough here, a basket in a supermarket going from unwashed hand to unwashed hand, a couple of hundred people jammed into an airplane, breathing in each other’s air. And it’s highlighted how vulnerable we are in other ways too; that for many people, a month’s missed wages is enough to push them off the precipice into serious financial difficulties that could take years to recover from.

And now we know this, I’m not sure how easy it will be to forget.

Louise says

READ: The Switch. Beth O’Leary’s last novel, The Flatshare, was a massive success, and her follow-up is just as uplifting.

The Switch is bursting with love and warmth and it’s the perfect escapist read right now.

READ: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan.

There’s been a lot of noise around Dolan’s first novel and it more than lives up to the hype. Whip-smart, funny, and excruciatingly well observed, this is an incredible debut from a thrilling new voice in Irish fiction.

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