In a normal year, some of the more organised among us might have, last weekend, gone to the garden shed and renewed our acquaintance with that high altar of summertime conviviality, the barbecue.
The objective would have been to check if this 21st century campfire could be used to cook for family and friends next weekend, the Whit, or, if you are of a secular bent, the June bank holiday weekend.
Social distancing obligations limit that option. Barbecues past may, however, offer lessons as we reach a fork in the road in how we try to contain the pandemic. Most barbecues have a similar cast; lively, sugar-fuelled children more interested in each other than the cook’s glories; wives, sisters, sisters-in-law happy to take a seat and look on bemused as partners insist on cooking.
There will be a happy Uncle Yin whose glass is always half full. His brother, Uncle Yang, though as welcome, may not radiate optimism as his glass is usually half empty. Even if one is more comforting than the other, they are both occasionally right. As the momentum to ease restrictions gathers pace, we are confronted with a yin or yang choice, and it is hard to remember a decision where the stakes were so high.
We have had a modest easing of restrictions, but it too early to be emphatic about the outcome. Other countries have decided to go further and that cannot but influence how we view continued restrictions. That those rules bring terrible economic consequences adds to the calls for another round of back-to-normal relaxations.
That pressure increased yesterday when Japan ended its state of emergency. The announcement that tourists can book holidays in tourism-dependent Spain from July adds to that pressure. Hungary reopened its southern border for citizens of Serbia and Hungary from yesterday, although restrictions have not been fully lifted. Greece has reinstated ferry links to islands and will allow restaurants, cafes, and bars to reopen.
Two weeks after France lifted a strict eight-week lockdown, parks in Paris remain closed to city dwellers, many of whom spent two months in apartments with no outside space. That authorities in Italy have been attacked over an online campaign advocating continued social distancing is another indication of a changing mood.
In America, where the death roll edges towards 100,000, large crowds turned out for the Memorial Day weekend despite warnings about social distancing rules. Despite those longed-for first steps back to what was normal, medical and scientific leaders speak with one voice. They urge caution and patience, saying it is far too early to ease restrictions and underlining the threat the pandemic still represents.
Gerry Killeen, of the School of Biological, Earth, and Environmental Sciences at UCC, yesterday offered a black-or-white, Yin-or-Yang view. He said restrictions should continue so the virus can be eliminated from the country. Keeping restrictions in place for another two to four months would eliminate the virus, he argued — otherwise the cycle of lockdowns and restrictions could last for four years.
Infectious disease specialist Sam McConkey concurred and said reducing the two-metre limit metre could see the spread of the virus increase fourfold and delay school reopenings. Public health expert and epidemiologist Gabriel Scally concurred, saying he would “err on the side of caution” on the two-metre rule.
Yet, in coming days, the Government will decide whether to further ease restrictions or not. There is a growing social and political impulse to ease restrictions to try to kick-start a flat-lining economy. Yet it is very difficult to dismiss the instinct that, for the moment, an extremely cautious approach is necessary, especially as we have yet to find a silver bullet for the monster stalking our world.
It may be best to accept that our glass is half empty so that in time a more positive view, and a lively barbecue, might be possible. The risk and reward equation, unfortunately, is still out of kilter.