Some people need to wash out their mouths as well as their hands

Radio review: Joe Duffy hears tales of social distancing prompting antisocial behaviour

 Liveline’s Joe Duffy has been urging his audience to wash their hands, using practically any opportunity to drive the message home.

Liveline’s Joe Duffy has been urging his audience to wash their hands, using practically any opportunity to drive the message home.

 

Having presided over many fractious on-air arguments in his time, Joe Duffy is well used to asking people to keep their language clean. In the light of the pandemic, however, Duffy’s focus has changed when it comes to bodily hygiene. For the past week, the host of Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) has been urging his audience to wash their hands, using practically any opportunity – breaking for ads, switching between conversation, pausing for breath – to drive the message home.

It’s a typically public-spirited act by Duffy, though his advice is in danger of getting lost as he collides it with his show’s text number, to spectacular agglutinative effect. “Fiveonedoublefiveonewashyourhands,” he repeats with rapid-fire regularity, as though voicing the infomercial freephone number. Still, Duffy’s metronomic plea for cleanliness is welcome, particularly as he hears of less altruistic souls who have dirtied their bibs.

On Tuesday, Duffy talks to Sophie, who shares an upsetting tale on how social distancing can become less benign. A single mother, Sophie had to bring her two-year-old with her on a shopping trip. But as she queued for sanitiser at the supermarket entrance, a man in front her shouted at her to move back from him. Sophie concedes she was possibly a bit close, but even after she stepped away, the man “very aggressively” harangued her for taking her child out. She was, she says, “embarrassed and humiliated”.

Sophie still sounds shaken that a minor breach of etiquette should trigger such a threatening behaviour. “Things are going to break down quickly if that keeps happening,” she says. Duffy does his best to reassure her, though he doesn’t sound entirely convinced himself. “We’re not all going to turn into rats,” he says. “Hopefully.”

Duffy’s confidence isn’t bolstered by his next caller, Danielle, who recounts a similar encounter when out walking with her son. She was strolling in a nearby forest, holding her asthmatic 10-year-old’s hand, when another woman started barking insults from afar. Danielle elides the exact language used – “the germ-ridden little you-know-what shouldn’t be outside the door” – but it’s still shocking. Some people clearly need to wash out their mouths as well as their hands.

By now, even Duffy seems disconcerted, judging by his heavy-handed attempt at humour as he tries to put Danielle’s innocent walk in context. “You weren’t pushing a hospital trolley with a mummified child strapped to drips,” he says, before somewhat superfluously adding, “it’s an awful image”.

The host’s perturbed reaction is understandable, not least because his callers may be canaries in the coronavirus coalmine. Certainly, their experiences underline the need for civility and tolerance. “People need to remember that we’re all in this together,” says Danielle, “or else this is going to break down completely.”

But amidst the anxiety and uncertainty, some sections of society remain depressingly consistent. Throughout the week, Duffy hears from callers who have been refused moratoriums on bank repayments, despite the announcement of such measures. It’s a familiar refrain of institutional inflexibility and indifference in the face of personal difficulty, which naturally prompts anger. The reaction of one man, Hugh, is typical. “Banks are still looking for their pound of flesh,” he says, furious that this attitude prevails “after we bailed them out.”

That some of the highlighted cases are subsequently resolved is small consolation, seeing as action is only taken after grievances have been aired on national radio. Duffy, for his part, has the fatalistic air of a battered class warrior, as he plays down the prospect of widespread debt forgiveness. “Capitalism doesn’t work like that,” he says dolefully. We’re all in this together, indeed.

Business as usual

The banks apparently aren’t alone in their determination not to be distracted by a mere global pandemic. On Tuesday, Tom Parlon of the Construction Industry Federation appears on Today with Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) to explain why it’s business as usual for the sector. Parlon highlights health construction projects as justification for sites remaining open. If anything, the emergency may have an upside. “There’s a massive build happening, and it’s without the planning, the red tape, the rigmarole,” Parlon says, seemingly referring to those pesky bylaws that prevent developers doing whatever they wish.

O’Rourke says that no one objects to such vital work, but wonders why luxury apartments need to be built now. Parlon answers that social distancing guidelines are being enforced and that workers who aren’t comfortable shouldn’t go on site, neither of which seem especially convincing arguments. When a construction worker texts to say there’s neither social distancing nor hand sanitiser on a site shared by 100 people, Parlon acknowledges this doesn’t sound safe. But he adds that given the “strenuous efforts” of his members, “I would be surprised if that is the situation”. Which calls to mind the immortal Marx Brothers line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” 

One can’t fault Parlon for robustly defending his industry’s right to keep going, even as the rest of the country shuts down. After all, the government seems to agree. But it’s an approach that seems to place self-interest above all other considerations, a macro version of jealously guarding the personal space around the communal hand sanitiser.

But it’s not all gloom. On Wednesday, O’Rourke talks to regular guest Dr Harry Barry, who proposes changing the language surrounding people most susceptible to Covid-19. Deeming the phrase “the elderly” both vague and demeaning, Barry proposes using the blanket description “citizen”, with those over 65 to be called “senior citizens” and those with underlying conditions “vulnerable citizens”. The term, he says, “only not implies we have duties and responsibilities, but it also means that things come back to us”. 

This may only be a small gesture, but it’s a quietly inspiring idea at a time when social bonds may start fraying. If only everyone was so civic-minded.

Radio Moment of the Week: Setting the record straight

These testing times seem to bring out the best in Pat Kenny (Newstalk, weekdays), who sounds more relaxed, particularly when it comes to music. His recent item on Elton John’s album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was a reminder of the days when he presented the enjoyable LP show The Outside Track on RTÉ Radio. Then on Wednesday, he discusses mental wellness with former New Labour press secretary Alastair Campbell. Leaving aside his guest’s part in promoting the Iraq war, it’s an absorbing piece, particularly when Campbell urges people in self-isolation to listen to records, if they still have them. This prompts an enthusiastic response from Kenny. “People are rediscovering their vinyl collections, which is wonderful,” he rhapsodises. “When you actually watch a little stylus bouncing up and down in the grooves, it’s amazing that such a sound can emanate.” It’s a reverie-like diversion, capturing the magic of both music and medium. Things may be bad, but it’s nice to hear Kenny get his groove back.

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