It’s the not knowing which is the worst part. Like a B-rated sci-fi movie, our world is being ravaged by a killer virus which will kill tens of thousands, maybe millions. No-one knows. The experts disagree. And there is no prospect of a superhero with special powers and a shiny suit to sort it all out.
In a world where for almost all illnesses, we have effective diagnosis and treatment, and international experience and research to guide management, Covid 19 is beyond our comprehension. We people who are accustomed to a “pill for every ill” must readjust to a new set of paradigms.
The prospect of arbitrary illness and possible death, without the presence of loved ones at the bedside, and for those of faith, the comfort of the sacraments, is terrifying. For families, being unable to have the beautiful and peculiarly Irish ritual of farewell, a wake and funeral to grieve and offer thanks, compounds the dread.
We know that the young and healthy are likely to come through this, and that it is our elderly who are likely to succumb. Many of the sacrifices we make are to protect the vulnerable and those who care for them. But there are no guarantees that any of us is safe. Its something that we in Aontú have always understood. Sometimes we all have to limit our personal autonomy to protect the most vulnerable in society. The slogan “my body, my choice” rings particularly hollow now when we realise that in reality we are all in this together.
So I’m going back to work. My early retirement plan, (never a very good one, since I went and got elected as an Aontú councillor on Derry and Strabane Council!) is now officially shredded. I’m dusting off my stethoscope, donning scrubs and going back to work in the NHS, the institution where I spent my professional career, and which I am proud and glad to be able to serve in whatever way I can through these coming months.
I’m only one of thousands to make this decision. Across the land, clinicians and ancillary staff have answered the call, and are going to do what they can to get us through this. I consider it a great privilege to have skills which may make even a small difference to the outcome of all of this. The heroic response of so many reaffirms what we already know-people are great.
However, healthcare while important is one service among many. In my local supermarket, the staff are at the tills, behind Perspex screens, cheerfully swiping tins and packets. They are afraid, you can see it in their eyes, but they are working to make sure people can eat and stay healthy.
The postman came this morning, our usual chat done at two metres. We still managed to cover our usual repertoire of politics, weather, health and families, while keeping one another safe. My washing machine packed in-well I think it’s a vital service, so there! I rang the man, fully expecting him to tell me to get lost. He told me he would look at it, but wanted to work alone, as his son is immunosuppressed. He came in the back door, I left the money in an envelope, and my clothesline now flutters with clean sheets. Bus drivers, binmen, (or refuse technicians-oh and bin-people) the folks in the tyre place, delivery drivers, the list is endless, all are at their posts, doing what is right.
I feel especially for our young people, the unique, primal mad impulse joy of teenage springtime pulsing in their veins with the first sunny days. They are staying indoors, chatting online, putting in the days, making mad memes for the craic and to keep sane. My niece, doing her Leaving, and with little prospect of exams, is still doing a bit of study, and helping her daddy plant spuds. Her school days ended without the rituals of parties and goodbyes.
Even our wee Fionnuala, my four year old grandchild, who lives with us and is the light of our lives in these dark days, knows that school is now at the kitchen table, because of the “bad germs” which might make people sick. She washes her hands hourly-and the floor and walls-with enthusiasm and great care.
Everywhere, people are doing what they must, often at great personal cost. They care for the housebound, phone elderly relatives daily, deliver meals and do shopping to those who can’t often while struggling with their own worries about work, bills and what the future will bring. They do these things cheerfully and in the best way they can. Superheroes don’t always wear fancy costumes, and they are all around us.
In these surreal times, we see our old certainties exposed as worthless. Often, they have been replaced by an older and more tried and tested value system. Let’s hope that these lessons stick when Covid 19 is a distant memory.
Dr Anne Mc Closkey is the Deputy Leader of Áontú and a member of Derry & Strabane Council