Tipperary woman in Washington: 'I miss the closeness of family right now'

Denise O'Reilly says the US capital city was slow to react to the coronavirus pandemic

Denise O’Reilly at Alexandra Pier in Washington DC

Denise O’Reilly at Alexandra Pier in Washington DC


Denise O’Reilly, from Roscrea, Co Tipperary, lives in Washington DC where she works as a chief operating officer for global data and consulting company Kantar Public ’s international division. She is responsible for the Washington DC office and offices in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Senegal.

When did you leave Ireland?
I left Ireland in 2005. I'd applied for a green card (which allows you to live and work permanently in the United States) in 2003 and was not successful, but I continued to apply. I finally got a green card and my adventure finally began on October 3rd, 2005.

How is Covid-19 affecting things there?
Washington DC was slow to react to the coronavirus pandemic working its way from China to Europe and into the US. I was watching the changes happening in Ireland, and across Europe and Asia so I'd already recommended that our teams start to work remotely with more consistency before it actually became a requirement here.

Watching the pandemic spread was surreal and the frequency of my conversations with my family, who were due to come to DC for Easter,  increased as we tried to determine the feasibility of going ahead with plans. Almost in parallel, the battle between the health agencies in DC and the White House was taking place here. We moved to work from home in early March, followed by the shutdown of the city with everyone confined to home within a radius of 2km. 

What is your day like at the moment?
My days are insane. I find my hours of work have increased three-fold as I try to handle conference calls and meetings to deal with the constant changes. We need to help our clients move from one mode of research to another and determine what research programmes can continue, need to be adapted, have to be delayed/suspended. Face-to-face interviewing is now cancelled in the US, Europe and across all our African markets, and the pressure to find new business solutions for clients who still need data for their programmes and funding streams goes on. It's now not unusual for me to be on early morning calls to the UK and Africa, and then to catch up with our DC teams for the rest of the day.

What are changes in Washington since Covid-19?
Many of us had used online grocery shopping, but now all of Washington does. It can take two weeks to find a slot to get your groceries delivered. For small items we can still go to the local stores, but restrictions, similar to Ireland, are in place. Although in my neighbourhood they do not restrict how many people go into the store at the same time, which seems crazy to me. I’m fortunate in that my condo building has its own grocery store, which is fully stocked. There's also a dry cleaner and hair salon in the building that are still open with restrictions around capacity and cleaning.

How is Washington DC faring?
Transport services are running daily but with reduced services similar to bank holiday weekend schedules. There's also a number of restrictions such as all passengers must wear masks or cover their mouth and nose with scarves. The transport system closes at 11pm. In general, people are supposed to stay in groups of less than five and are encouraged to stay home if possible. All parks, playgrounds, museums and movie theatres are closed until further notice. All schools are shut. Church services are being broadcast online. Funerals are restricted to just a few family members (local) and many services are being recorded for other family members to.

Washington DC would not be considered a Donald Trump haven of love by any means

While a lot of restaurants, coffee houses and fast food outlets are closed officially to indoor dining, most are offering delivery services. The food can be delivered “without interaction” to your building or front door, and tips are accepted online, but not in person. Many restaurants, including the Irish pubs, are doing meals to take away and also servicing the first responders with free meals. 

In terms of the political situation, Washington DC would not be considered a Donald Trump haven of love by any means so there is always the tension in the media here about US president’s attitude and approach to the entire pandemic. Many comments and articles in the daily paper show a sense of frustration and disbelief at his lack of sympathy and compassion for how the virus has impacted people in the country.

Has Covid-19 affected you?
From a health perspective I've not been affected thankfully, nor has anyone I know at this time. Likewise at home in Ireland. In Washington, people are looking out for elderly neighbours. They're checking to make sure they have what they need and dropping them out little treats so they feel connected and engaged with the rest of the community.  If one good thing is coming out of this, I believe it is the level of care, love and kindness being extended between people during this crisis.  From what I see, people are kinder, cities are cleaner, quieter and nature is blooming. 

Has the crisis affected the people of Washington DC?
A lot of people have lost their jobs or are on unpaid leave, and I believe the government was ill-prepared for the speed it has happened. Many businesses have quickly had to make serious decisions about contractors and part-time staff in order to protect full-time employees. The hotel, airline, catering, and transport industries were all hit quickly. In our area so much of the workforce is tied to government agencies, food and catering, and services industry so the impact was huge, fast and painful for people. Thousands of people commute into DC from Maryland, and that suddenly stopped. Those of us who live in the district noticed it immediately. It was like summer holiday when 95 per cent of the DC population disappears to the beaches.

I feel frustration and anger to weariness at the Trump administration, and would prefer to hear from health experts rather than Trump at the daily briefings. I don’t tune in to his daily updates anymore, but rely on the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) for updates. From what I observe, there’s a general sense of unrest and fear here  because nobody knows how long this is going to go on, whether social distancing will flatten the curve and when the situation will improve.

What is the food situation there? 
Stores so far have been mostly well stocked. There was the typical panic for toilet paper, tissues, kitchen roll and disinfectants, so in many stores the shelves in those aisles have been almost empty. I've noticed freezer sections have been hard to keep stocked as Americans are heavy consumers of frozen foods, mostly because it’s cheap and there are great deals on freezer meals.

How is technology making a difference?
People often worry about the impact of technology on society and the amount of time we're spending on screens, but during this crisis it's been a godsend. At work, we usually communicate with our business teams in Africa online so a lot of the tools needed to work from home, which many other companies are currently grappling with, we had already set up. So for me it was an easy transition to work from home. The company I work for had a work from home policy before the crisis and many on our team normally spend several days a week working from home as our calls start very early in the morning. Through this pandemic, I've felt the sense of connection we have through technology is helping us cope with the stress of trying to work in an ever changing environment.

I live on my own so I'm physically isolated from friends and family right now, but we're chatting even more regularly now than we used to. I think dealing with this crisis would be much harder mentally and emotionally without technology. 

Does being Irish count there at the moment?
Hugely, if for no other reason than our very good sense of humour. We, Irish, have a reputation for being hard workers, and being able to cope in all conditions while keeping a upbeat outlook, even when things are looking bad. I think Irish people are able to see humour even when surrounded by much sadness, and people rely on that at times like this.  

Is there anything you miss about Ireland?
I miss the closeness of family. Our family shrunk in late 2018 when both my mum and dad passed away in the space of 10 weeks. I was blessed to get home in time to be with both of them and will forever be grateful for being with them during their final days, and to be there with my sister and niece.

I miss the smell of Ireland too and the scenery. Washington DC is a wonderful city in terms of greenery and open space, and I love great weather, but there is something wonderful about landing at Shannon Airport and the smell of the fresh air when you walk out of the airport. I miss the food, but I bring back my Lyons tea bags, my Taytos, my Cadburys with me and the girls bring out full suitcases when they come. Not surprisingly, I don't miss the cold dark days as I love the heat and the humidity here.

If you would like to share your experience of how Covid-19 is affecting you there, email Irish Times Abroad at abroad@irishtimes.com

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