Horseman pass by

IT is difficult to add anything constructive to the debate about Coronavirus. This Biblical pestilence has brought fear, confusion and now lock-down to the population of Ireland as governments and underfunded health systems struggle to cope with a great wave of sickness not seen in our lifetime. It seems the darkest day has yet to come. The whole country feels as if it is trapped in a lost play by Samuel Beckett.

The administration in the Republic moved fast and Northern Ireland was not far behind for this sickness does not recognise borders and makes no distinction between catholic and protestant, British and Irish, unionist or nationalist. We have learned from the experience of good people in China and Italy who bore the brunt of this plague and paid a high price in heartbreak. They have generously shared their practises and knowledge and deserve our gratitude. Arguments about where this came from or who did the right thing at the right time are pointless. Now we must all do what we are told and hope this horseman of the apocalypse will spare our loved ones.

I wash my hands on an hourly basis and made a trip to the outside world for groceries yesterday, March 23. My tranquil seaside home in Bangor county Down has been transformed like small towns all around Europe and the world. The schools and shops are closed, the streets are empty. Even the church bells have fallen silent. Toilet roll and some basic foodstuffs are hard to find in the supermarkets. My part-time job with the tour bus company in Belfast is suspended and I cannot even take a walk with my friends at a safe distance. My children stay away because they love us and Mothers’ Day gifts were left in the porch. I asked my 94-year-old aunt if this was what it was like during the Second World War. She said: “No at least during the war we could get out of our houses.” I worry about her, a grandson who has asthma and my family who live in London. I worry about my nephew who is a doctor on the front line in England.

But worry will get us nowhere. I try to focus on the positive. I am in a much better position than many others who will struggle to pay their bills and care for their children while this modern day plague cripples our lives and incomes. I have a spacious house with a good garden. I have a wonderful wife and good neighbours. The winter is drawing to a close and the leaves returning to the trees. I will miss my daily stroll along the seafront for the Irish Times and a regular trip to the Enler River where I fish for trout but I have plenty of time for writing more short stories and playing music. I am trying to teach myself Bluegrass mandolin but suspect I don’t have enough fingers. I have time for all those household chores I have been meaning to tackle and to contact old friends by telephone. It helps to know we are not alone.

No one seems able to talk about anything else. Disturbing rumours are distributed daily by evil and stupid people on social media. Responsible journalists have been made key workers like those in health and food supply. This is only right because we must have accurate information from trusted sources. The message about the meaning of self-isolation must be delivered on a daily basis on our television screens, on radio, newspapers and social media. We must be constantly reminded of what is the right thing to do. Life as we know it must stop for the time being, queueing in the takeaway and family strolls in the park. We must not let our resolve weaken even when it means going without many of things we thought we could not live without. Above all we must have hope.

Our wonderful health service and its gallant staff are our best hope. They are already under tremendous stress at this time of year and a sudden spike in demand for intensive care is simply unmanageable. We cannot build hospitals, manufacture equipment and train people overnight no matter how much money we throw at the problem. But we must all do what we can to help them by acting in a responsible manner. The most upbeat predications suggest we face months of serious disruption to our lives even if we can slow down the spread of this dreadful pestilence, the like of which has not been seen since the Spanish Flu epidemic which swept this island and the world in three deadly waves 100 years ago. But all the scientific evidence suggests it will pass. Life will get back to normal eventually. It will take time but the economy will recover. Commerce will resume and jobs will return. We will be able to give our children a hug once again and share a joke with our friends down at the pub. This is a test of our humanity which we will surely pass. It can only strengthen our ability and resolve to deal with the other global challenges which face us, climate change in particular.

When it is all over, I look forward to joining a day of global thanksgiving. I will campaign for national recognition for those who saved us: the utility workers who kept the lights burning and the heating systems running; those who kept the supermarkets and the pharmacies supplied and open; the police officers and workers in the other emergency services and above all the doctors, nurses and healthcare workers who risked their lives for the sick and dying. 

Stay indoors and stay safe.


© Maurice Neill 2020

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