Covid-19: ‘I’ve come home from London. I was disturbed by the lack of action’

Niamh O’Connor had built a career in music that she loved over many years in the UK

Things were changing by the hour. Borders were closing, flights were cancelling and the number of global Covid-19 cases rapidly increasing. Friends were messaging asking if I was still in London and when I would return to Dublin.

I felt the rug being swiftly pulled out from under my feet at the thought of leaving my life in England. I envisioned taking a step down the career ladder I’d built myself over the last several years and reversing back to my teenage cotton-woolled self back in Dublin. I thought about the last number of years spent carving out my career in London’s electronic music industry, something of which I was immensely proud after a series of wrong turns in my early 20s. Moving back to Dublin to leave it all behind unnerved me at that point. But I knew so little about how serious the situation was going to get, particularly in the UK.

I couldn't ignore the fact that Ireland was well ahead with placing strict measures around the country as coronavirus began to take hold while life in London continued as normal. It disturbed me. The lack of action and information from the UK government kickstarted a sense of fear within me. Why were the restaurants, clubs, bars, pubs and shops all continuing to operate while it was the polar opposite back home?

In Peckham, toilet roll became a scarcity, which I found comical in the beginning until we needed to buy some for the house. The realisation that people were starting to panic buy hit me. The World Health Organisation (WHO) had declared a pandemic a few days beforehand, but the UK government still hadn't announced any significant measures or explained how our daily lives were about to drastically change.

I thought about my housemates. Besides my sister who rented a room in the same property, I knew little about my housemates. There were six of us and I’d no idea where they went during the day and how often they washed their hands. I felt nauseated at the likelihood of one of us contracting coronavirus and the whole house falling ill.

I thought about how civilisation as we know it was about to change. What we'd created as society was hanging by a thread. The lives we've built; the 9am to 5pm job, career ladders, commuting, salaries and buying products we don't need on Amazon. I worried what if the food supply chain broke down and what if electricity or running water were affected in such a densely populated city. Could looting and violence break out?

In the middle of these surging emotions, my gut roared at me to book a flight to Dublin as soon as possible. I needed to be around my family during this crisis. I spoke sharply to my sister and told her that we needed to leave and how she, as a graphic designer, could work from home if that was what concerned her. She objected at first until I wrote out a list of pros and cons about moving back. The one that swayed her being able to look after our parents if they became ill. Looking back at the list now, I feel a stab of guilt at seeing one of the UK cons – prime minister Boris Johnson – who would later be admitted to intensive care.

After hurried emails back and forth with our landlord, employers and parents, we flew from a shell-like London City Airport the next day. The flight was strange. My sister and I shared it with a handful of Irish passengers and the cabin crew looked visibly worried throughout before landing on a rainy and bitterly cold evening in Dublin.

I did not experience my usual feelings of happiness when I arrived at Dublin Airport. Although I was initially relieved when my flight hit the tarmac, my next thoughts were “we need to disinfect the handles of the luggage immediately”. I made a beeline for the HSE representative at the Covid-19 help desk who was there to answer my many questions. When I saw my parents waiting at arrivals I was relieved and happy to see them, and all I wanted to do was to give them a big hug. It was weird experience not being able to do that.

Looking back now almost six weeks since we left, I’m no longer in state of panic. I’m one of the lucky ones who isn’t working but placed on the furlough scheme, which means I’m receiving part of my salary. I’m grateful no one in my family is currently ill although I still worry about people close to me getting infected, especially those working on the frontlines.

I don't miss London. I don't know what's ahead or if I will go back for the long-term. I realise now that I lived in London because of work and that's about it really. I have friends there but because I took on a lot of work, which I enjoyed, I didn't have much of a social life at times. I never really saw where I lived as a home, more like a place to sleep and eat in so to be in a lockdown situation at my "real home" in Dublin where there's more space to cook, sit and be comfortable is great.

I’m enjoying spending time with my parents – time which was previously spent in snatches during the odd weekend visiting home. It feels like we are making up for lost time from over the years. I now appreciate the privilege of being able to live a cotton-wooled existence back at home in Ireland.