- 15 Apr 20
Covid-19 has changed everything. On the streets of Dublin, the foxes have stepped from the margins. Stranded indoors, we think about the meaning of solidarity. In heaven, the man with the long beard is looking down. Or is he?
I hate Covid-19.
Hate is not a word I use very often. It is an emotion, an attitude, a trap I try to avoid. It is a feeling that I can’t and won’t ever apply to people. I don’t like hypocrisy. There are many aspects of the way the world works that appall me. I find Donald Trump’s every utterance repulsive.
But hatred is of a different order entirely. The Merriam Webster dictionary says that ‘hate’ implies an emotional aversion often coupled with enmity or malice. It also mentions violent antipathy. The word sits comfortably alongside bigotry. We talk about hate speech for a reason. It involves the use of language as a weapon against a particular class or group of people. Hate speech is designed to isolate and marginalise. Or to inspire violence against. Lynchings. Houses being torched. Queer-bashing. People being shot. Or bombed into oblivion.
I know that the word is sometimes used lightly. People talk about pet hates. They use it in relation to porridge. Or asparagus. But that is not real hate.
Hatred is to be avoided. Hate is to be avoided. But I am not even sure that I can stretch as far as saying that I hate hatred. I want nothing to do with it. I want to immunise myself against it. I’d like everyone else to do the same. But that is not the same as saying that I hate it. I have an emotional aversion to it, but I lack the element of malice.
But there is one thing at least that I can say for sure that I hate, and that I will not stop hating. Not until it has been exterminated. With extreme prejudice.
I hate Covid-19.
It is quiet at night now. The best time to take a walk. Even in a place as well populated as Harold’s Cross, Terenure and Rathgar, in a half-hour’s tramp, you might meet three or four people. There is no problem with social distancing.
On an eerily silent Rathgar Avenue a cat is waiting. It looks lost and lonely and the thought is inescapable: it’s like a lot of people at the moment. It approaches us, comes close. Tries to make friends. Starts to follow, latching onto my companion rather than me. Should you shoo a cat away? What is the etiquette of social distancing with an overly-friendly feline? Has anyone got it figured out in relation to cats and dogs and other domestic animals? It’s inexplicable: four legged creatures have scarcely been mentioned in relation to Covid-19. Well, except for pangolins.
Having followed us for a stretch, the cat fades off back to where it had been standing. Waiting for something or someone. Waiting for the end of the world.
There is a feeling of spooky desolation. A car pulls away from a set of traffic lights in the distance. You see headlights penetrating the night sky, pointing up and then levelling off as a vehicle bumps up and over ramps somewhere else. The laneway that runs from Rathgar Avenue to Brighton Road is empty. There is a temptation to start whistling to fill the void, the way they do before something terrible happens in a movie.
Something terrible is already happening.
Terenure Road is normally busy, with cars and buses zipping by. Tonight, the scene is very different. Walking straight down the middle of the road is a Red Fox. As if it owns the place. Normally, these canny creatures of the night slip around the margins on solo excursions. But not now. Not in the reign of King Covid-19. A second fox joins the first in the middle of what is the main road into, and out of, town.
Alone like that, silhouetted in the centre of the street, they look like desperadoes preparing for a last gunfight. Out of the shadows, a third fox appears. Is it a peacemaker? No, you can tell from their body language now that they are all in this together.
Trying to make sense of it. Ten days ago, they’d have been mown down if they’d attempted a stunt like this one, ambling down the centre of the road like there was no tomorrow. Normally, there wouldn’t be.
Is it that their hour has come at last? No. These are no rough beasts. But as humans make themselves scarce, they are stepping forward. The tribe of Vulpes vulpes are curious. They are emboldened. They know that there is something afoot. But they don’t know what it is. Or where it might lead. Watching them take stock of the situation, neither do I.
On the footpath, two-metre distances have been marked out. Hand-written notices in shop windows explain the new protocols that are in force. Opening hours have been changed. Restaurants are shuttered. No one knows when the heavy metal might be raised again if ever. We are on a journey into the unknown, a bad trip of the kind that no one in their right mind could ever have wanted to embark on. The phrase ‘the shutters came down’ has acquired an even more powerful resonance.
On Garville Avenue, two more foxes amble. They seem less furtive now. Less scared. On the next street, more than fifty metres away, a bicycle presses on deeper into the suburban night. Even way off in the distance, you can hear the whisper of rubber on the road.
The cat is still hanging at the corner of Rathgar Avenue. It approaches us again. Looks even more lost and lonely. Tags along for a bit and then fades away for a second time, clearly reluctant to stray too far from home. We look back and it is motionless, staring after us.
The streets are deserted entirely now. We are the only humans abroad. Soon we will turn the key in the latch, and go and wash our hands for the fortieth time since sun-up.
Tone. We all know, from music, that it matters hugely.
It was a moment of high drama when on St. Patrick’s Day, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, appeared in the slot normally occupied by the Nine O’Clock News on RTÉ, and spoke to the nation about the introduction of new measures, to take the battle against Covid-19 into its next phase.
There were so many ways in which he could have blown it. You don’t have to look very far to find examples. In the US, Donald Trump has been making it up as he goes along – and making it up very badly. A narcissist down to his toe nails – which he thinks are gorgeous, great toenails, by the way – he revels in the spotlight the crisis affords, and then trots out whatever shit occurs to him on the spot.
We pretty much shut it down coming in from China/ It’s going to be fine/ One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear/ This is their new hoax/ Just stay calm, it will go away.
And then: If we can keep the deaths down to 100,000 that’ll be a great job/ There’ll be a lot of death.
Try singing it.
In the UK, Boris Johnson and his government have similarly offered a spectacular example of how to bullshit people shamelessly.
(Suddenly the Tories love the NHS).
The clinical advice is that the risk to the public remains low. Our country remains extremely well prepared... We already have a fantastic NHS, fantastic testing systems and fantastic surveillance of the spread of disease. Together we can send this thing packing within the next 12 weeks.
UK experts and scientists expect to start trials for the first vaccine within a month. We are massively increasing the testing to see whether you have it now and ramping up daily testing from 5,000 a day, to 10,000 to 25,000 and then up at 250,000.
(He didn’t say by what year).
We’re in negotiations today to buy a so-called antibody test, as simple as a pregnancy test, which can tell whether you have had the disease… It has the potential to be a total game-changer. Trials of potential vaccines are also under way with results expected by April.
Cue chorus: “Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly/ Loverly, loverly, loverly?”
And let’s not even mention Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Viktor Orban in Hungary.
Admittedly lowlife of this ilk establish a bar that’s stuck to the ground. But what Leo Varadkar had to say on St. Patrick’s Day was in a different league entirely. He emphasised the importance of recognising that we are all in this together as a community. He also expressed our solidarity, as a nation, with China, Italy and Spain – the three countries that were then leading the way in terms of positive tests for Covid-19 and for fatalities. Today he’d include the USA.
The speech offered none of the false promises for which Boris Johnson always gets first in the class.
It deferred to the experts in the Department of Health and the HSE. It explained the overall strategy in clear and straightforward terms. And it appealed to people’s socially inclusive instincts, to the values Irish people share and to the love that we feel for those close to us. Even political opponents knew that it was a speech that achieved the right level of gravity, persuasiveness and decency to get ordinary citizens, watching at home, on board.
He got the tone right.
That quality of engagement has been maintained throughout. The Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, has been immensely impressive in the department’s daily briefings, at once delivering the bad news and explaining how the campaign to hold back the virus is going with calm authority. The Minister for Health Simon Harris has been impressive too.
I vote socialist. But irrespective of your political allegiances, it would be churlish to suggest anything other than that these three – along with Paschal Dohohue and Simon Coveney – have handled an extraordinarily difficult situation very well.
The government has also made what are, broadly speaking at least, the right decisions in relation to keeping people connected to the companies they work for, and supporting business. Of course, there is more that needs to be done, especially in relation to musicians and the arts. But they have shed ideological baggage. They have committed to vastly increased government borrowing. They have effectively taken over the private hospitals for public use. And they have done a good job of encouraging people to accept the closures, the disruption, the isolation, the social distancing, the cocooning and all the rest, with relative equanimity.
This is not to say that mistakes were not made. Should flights from Italy have been grounded sooner? Was there a failure to communicate effectively and in a timely way with nursing homes? To what extent might the pressures on the hospital system have been avoided if we had applied different policies in relation to health over the past ten years? Should people who elected to go to Cheltenham have been warned that they’d have to self-isolate for two weeks when they got back? But in comparison to most of Europe – with the clear exception of Germany – we have done relatively well.
Make no mistake, there is endless hardship and grief to come. Many more people will die. Far too many of them will be young. The elderly will suffer disproportionately, especially in nursing homes. Families will be denied those often comforting final moments with their parents or grandparents before they pass away. Communities will be unable to express their love, friendship and solidarity with surviving family members at funerals. Isolation will hit some people hard. People’s mental health will suffer. Jobs will be lost. Many will never recover from the financial devastation.
The same will be true everywhere in the world that Covid-19 takes hold. We need therefore to plot a way forward that works for everyone. The message that we are all in this together has to be given real meaning, in the way that the burden is shared across all sections of society when we are in recovery mode. That is the true meaning of solidarity.
Where is God in all of this? I saw a Roman Catholic bishop on the RTÉ news. He was saying how wonderful it is to know, Masses having been cancelled, that so many people are watching the internet broadcasts. It sounded like a forlorn hope to me. “This is a time for more prayer, not less,” he said.
It is a mantra that has been repeated again and again by religious leaders of different stripes. The Pope went as far as doing a special ‘Urbi et Orbi’ gig in a deserted St. Peter’s Square to see if that might help. Not a bit of it. The bodycount keeps getting bigger.
It is as if the priestly caste collectively imagine that the man with the long white beard is sitting up there, somewhere, listening intently. However, we haven’t yet reached the tipping point in either prayer or suffering that would make him decide: “Right, enough slaughter. Let’s bring this bloody farce to an end.”
Some enthusiasts have urged that what we really need to do is to pray to Mary, the mother of God. She can intervene on our behalf.
It reminds me of the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, appealing to the mothers of Dublin gang leaders to ask their sons to desist from the murderous feud that had seen criminals, and a number of innocents with them, falling like nine-pins in the capital. Except, back then, the Archbishop had a greater reservoir of logic on his side. There was an actual mother. Who could speak to an actual son. Who might be the one deciding who would get shot and who not. One phone call might really make a difference.
The truth is, to believe that Mary might be able to intervene in the rise of Covid-19, you have to also believe that, like a gangland boss, God is pulling the trigger.
That’s the problem with prayer.
If God can intervene, anywhere, anytime, anyhow – which is surely the assumption behind praying to him to solve the current disaster – then he is an inveterate swine not to just do it off his own bat. This is obviously as true of famine in southern Africa, or war in Iraq, as it is of the spread of Covid-19. But somehow, the scale and speed at which this pandemic is sweeping across the globe make it seem unique. Why wait till he is asked?
It is spreading all over the world. No country or religion is immune. Covid-19 has treated Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Zoroastrian, Jehovah’s Witness, Moonie, Mormon, Scientologist and followers of Black Sabbath alike, with equal ruthlessness. Any impression that it has picked on British Tories more than most is wrong. Even Atheists are suffering.
I’m afraid that logic points in one direction only. Either God is a brutally vicious maverick who doesn’t give a shit about human beings; or – hoping we can satisfy Mary McAleese here – ‘she’ simply doesn’t exist.
The idea of a loving God that might intervene in human affairs never made any sense. But it feels more obvious than ever now.
We stepped out into the neighbourhood again this evening. The temperature was 6°, but with no wind it felt warmer. The stars were out. Venus shone brightly. It was what we call a beautiful night.
Our footsteps echoed through the silence. We covered the same circuit. We met foxes. Three cars. A different cat approached us and tried to make friends. Not a single human did we meet.
The end is nigh. The question is: what end?
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