For the last few months I have found myself in a rather unfamiliar category of employment: the somewhat nebulously defined “essential worker”. During the period of Covid-19 lockdown I have continued to travel to my 9-to-5 job, labouring within one of the many cogs of the international IT supply chain infrastructure. Or to be more accurate, I have travelled to my 9-to-whenever job as I and a handful of similarly labelled co-workers have sought to compensate for the absence of dozens of our less essential colleagues now residing at home. (While being acutely aware that many of our work-from-home associates continue to be paid three or four times the wages we are on.)
In that sense I’m fortunate. I still have a full-time job and may come out of this turmoil financially okay. Which is a lot more than many other people in the country can now say or predict. Being single I have only myself to worry about, aside from my elderly mother and the families of my younger siblings, while couples and parents are battling to stay strong for each other and their children in terribly straitened circumstances. And god knows how many frontline staff in the health services and elsewhere will never be the same again after all that they have witnessed and will continue to do so. They are the true heroes of this story.
In another sense I’m unfortunate as I’m all too aware of the risks I’m taking by being outside the lockdown shield and less than confident of the preventative measures being taken to protect me and others. Waking up with pains in my hands from the constant washing and alcohol wipes is a new experience and one that I wasn’t expecting. As is, more humorously, the amount of washing I now get through each week. There is hardly an item of clothing left in my wardrobe that hasn’t been boiled to death several times over.
However to add to the occasional moments of moroseness all my exhausted on-site teammates are experiencing we now have the knowledge that people in the wider community are beginning to ignore the stay-at-home advice of the Government and the health authorities. And to such an extent that a few are starting to behave like they are in the middle of a celebratory never-ending long weekend.
Again, this observation is not to deny the difficulties faced by individuals and families across Ireland trying to self-isolate in their homes. Hundreds of thousands of people, from Dublin to Galway, Cork to Belfast, have willingly placed themselves under a peculiar form of voluntary house-arrest for months now. And for most households this is incredibly hard, incredibly stressful. So I don’t blame people for getting, to use an apt Americanism, antsy. The last couple of weeks have been particularly trying as the days have gotten longer and the Spring weather has improved. We’re all feeling it.
But if you have been balancing the travails of lockdown with the challenges of holding a job down, to see some of the behaviour now apparent in public is just dispiriting. Neighbours holding house-parties, gangs of kids on the streets, increased traffic on the roads and the footpaths. The Irish public has been magnificently generous and community-minded since the coronavirus crisis began in earnest on this island. But if we begin to flock into the open-air and each others arms again, in the weeks and months ahead people are going to die. They are going to die before their time. They are going to die because the behaviour of others will have contributed to their deaths. To put it bluntly, your actions, your decisions will become matters of life or death for those you know and those that you don’t know across the rest of 2020.
The lockdown will eventually end. We are all aware of that. But it has to end in a carefully controlled manner, one that will extend across several months and possibly with periods of revived restrictions as we await the dissemination of future vaccination throughout the population (this being the only reliable form of herd immunity). Otherwise all the good work, all the sacrifices of the first quarter of this year will be undone. And we will find ourselves back where we started, but less hundreds or thousands of our fellow citizens.