The great lie we keep telling one another is that this is the new normal. Because there’s nothing normal about any of it.
People are giving birth alone. People are dying alone, and we’re attending their funerals via live online video streams. Jobs, businesses, entire sectors seem to have disappeared overnight. We’re asking older people to lock themselves up at home. We’re delaying some big, important decisions – starting a family or buying a home or going to the GP to get that twinge checked out. We’re leaping into other ones – launching new ventures, working from home. And in between deadlines and Zoom meetings, some of us are rooting around for long forgotten memories of the aimsir láithreach or the Fibonacci sequence. On top of all this, our usual support systems – a yoga class, a pint, a walk with a friend, a hug – have vanished.
The only certainty now is that this will pass. But what kind of life will be waiting on the other side? How will Covid-19 change our everyday world? The Irish Times spoke to a number of people about how the pandemic has changed their lives and their outlooks, and what their hopes are as we emerge out the other side.
‘My baby can’t be rescheduled’
The first time Maura McElhone remembers hearing the word “coronavirus” was in a family WhatsApp group in January. Then, it seemed like a distant threat, possibly a bit of media hype, not something that would cast a shadow over the final months of her pregnancy, and the first of her child’s life. “I was thinking the baby is not due until May. That’s loads of time away.”
McElhone and her husband, Sean, were on a "babymoon" in the Lyrath hotel in Kilkenny, having a socially distant dinner in their hotel room, when Leo Varadkar made his "not all heroes wear a cape" St Patrick's Day speech on television. "You heard the emotion in his voice, and that's when [it] started to register that, okay, things are getting real."
On their way home from the weekend break, she got a phone call to say that Sean would not be allowed to join her at the next antenatal appointment, a routine scan. Then – because she has had an uncomplicated pregnancy – the appointment was changed to a telephone consultation. Now, “at the minute their restrictions are set to run to May 5th, which brings us to one week before delivery. So I’m preparing for the fact that Sean will be allowed in for labour and delivery and then I won’t see him again until we are discharged from hospital.”
She’s being philosophical and focusing on having a healthy baby, and the fact that her family are all well, but it has been a stressful time. Work on a house they have been building on Sean’s family farm, which was originally due for completion in August, has come to a standstill. “I had a lovely weekend planned in the North for my baby shower. They ended up doing a wee baby shower over Zoom instead.”
Of all the challenges she’s facing, the hardest is the thought that her parents might not get to meet their first grandchild right away. “That’s really tough . . . the fact that mummy and daddy might not get to meet them as soon as I would like. But a baby’s always a source of joy.”
What are her hopes for her life post-pandemic? “I’ll be a mother, all being well. It’s a brand new chapter. And it’s a chapter that’s happening imminently. My baby can’t be postponed or rescheduled. This time is such a worry healthwise, so I just hope in a year’s time my partner, my family, my baby and I are all happy and healthy.”
She adds something you don’t hear too often from expectant mothers – she hopes that the baby arrives late so there’s more chance of life having returned to something approaching normality. “I’m ever the optimist so I’m hoping that I’ll go overdue.”
The spiritual leader
‘There’s a tailback of grief for an awful lot of people’
"Funerals have changed radically," says Very Rev Maria Jansson, Church of Ireland Dean of Waterford. "Now I give a funeral in the church for only 10 people, which is so different for Ireland. I've had to learn YouTube. "
After the pandemic, there will be memorial services for people who died during this time, but “the emotional support for the family won’t be visibly there for six months. Ireland always did death very well. Everybody turned up, and the family were held for those awful few days after a death, they were wrapped in this artificial bubble of conviviality and friendship, where we’re laughing and crying sometimes in the same sentence.”
Coronavirus has left “a tailback of grief for an awful lot of people. A man buries his wife and his mother can’t be there. This is hard.”
We’re experiencing other types of grief too: the grief of separation from people we love. “When will I see the people I love again? That’s the big question that has been striking everyone this week.”
When she thinks ahead to life after the pandemic, she hopes “that ideally everybody will be alive. That we’ll recover what we do best, which is caring for each other. That we’ll reach out to each other in friendship. I think people have seen increasingly the emptiness of consumerism, and all the effort that went into accruing money and status – that all looks very facile now.”
She hopes this period will give us a chance to “recover an appreciation of the beauty of the landscape around us; a proper sense of our connection with nature and proper sense of our connection with each other. I would like if people recovered a sense of spirituality. I’m not worried about religion. I don’t give a toss about that. But if people recover a sense of spiritual connection with life, with wholesome values, with God, with nature, with each other”, then something positive will have come from all of this.
And personally, she is also just looking forward to just “sitting in the sun, having a cup of coffee with a friend. That’s heaven.”
The first-time buyer
‘Our outside space is a balcony the size of an ironing board’
"I would have been on property sites every day having a look at where the fingers are going. That hasn't changed for me," says Aleesha Tully, who has been saving hard for the past few years and was planning to buy her first home in 2020.
The pandemic has thrown up lots of questions for Tully, as it has for all prospective first-time buyers. There’s the question of what will happen to property prices, what will happen in the wider economy, and how banks will respond – whether, for instance, they will start asking for employer guarantees that an applicant’s income won’t be affected.
“We’re really lucky in the grand scheme of things,” she says – she and her partner are both still working with their incomes unaffected, they’re healthy and their families are well. “That’s my biggest concern. But there are days when you get a bit down with all the ambiguity. I graduated from college about six months after the recession started. So I had about three years of kind of doing unpaid internships.”
Her peer group was already trailing previous generations in terms of being able to set in place the traditional pillars of adulthood. “Now there’s even more ambiguity about when we’ll kind of get to do all those things. I just don’t know if that’s going to be delayed by six months or delayed by two years.”
Living through the lockdown has focused her mind on some of her hopes for the future. “We live in an apartment and it is a lovely apartment. But we don’t have any outside space, apart from a balcony the size of an ironing board. That has put the goal of a little garden at the top of my list.”
‘Half of my calls today have been related to mental health issues’
The Killester, Dublin, practice where Dr John Ball is one of seven GPs "went over the course of two days from face-to-face to nearly all phone-call based. Our role changed very quickly because we were central to the referral pathway: we were deciding who was getting tested and who wasn't, and we were adapting to the national guidelines, which were changing very rapidly as the virus progressed. It's been a big team effort and everyone's role has changed."
One of his concerns for the future is that people may be neglecting other health worries during the pandemic. “I would stress to people that if they are anyway concerned about their medical issues to touch base with their GP, because we are still open for business.”
He is worried, too, about the prevalence of mental health issues post-Covid. “At least half of my calls today have been related to that. If you have a predisposition to it, this time can be very challenging, and a lot of the usual supports are not available.”
Video consultations, he predicts, could become a more common part of practice life, in limited circumstances for patients with whom the GP already has an established relationship. “As a GP, you really value one-on-one interactions. There are a huge amount of nonverbal cues you pick up on, and rapport-building that is at the core of what we do. But in the future, straightforward things like a review of medications could be done over the phone or over video.”
A year from now, when he looks back, his hope is that “we can say we didn’t let the ball drop. That’s going to be a bigger challenge as time goes on, and our natural instincts kick in.” He believes this time will remind people of the things that really matter in life, that they “will really value their health; value their ability to exercise and value the vulnerable people around us”.
The music promoter
‘I am never not going for a pint again’
Every Tuesday night for the last 21 years, music fans have gathered in Doyle's pub on College Street in Dublin for the Ruby Sessions, an acoustic gig featuring four live acts in a stripped down, candlelit setting. Every Tuesday, that is, until March 10th this year. "We had a an act from the UK and an act from Belfast. Up to two hours before the show, we still weren't sure whether we could go ahead," says promoter Conor Donovan, who co-founded the sessions with Niall Muckian.
“In the end, we felt that we couldn’t in good conscious go on – it’s a lot of people squashed into a confined space. So we pulled the show. Even at that stage, we felt like we might be jumping the gun.”
Over the following week, it became apparent that not only had they not jumped the gun, the Ruby Sessions wouldn't be returning in its usual form any time soon; by March 31st, Muckian and Donovan had put a plan in place for the first Ruby Sessions at Home.
Now, every Tuesday, two artists perform a free Ruby set, which is then streamed on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram at 9pm. "We treat it like a broadcast TV show – we have a five-day turnaround, and a monster effort goes into producing it." Nobody is getting paid for their time, and all the money donated goes direct to the Simon Community. Last week's set, which featured Saint Sister and Lisa Hannigan, attracted 11,000 views from places as far away as Malaysia and New Zealand, and raised €3,000 for the homeless charity in less than 40 minutes. Other Ruby Sessions At Home have featured Villagers and Wallis Bird, and Gavin James and JC Stewart.
“It’s opened up a whole new revenue stream where we can raise money for the Simon community remotely, streaming it worldwide. It’s a game changer. There’s no going back to normal gigs.” He always thought the Ruby sessions would lose something outside the physical space, but he has seen that’s not the case.
In the events space, “nothing is going to come back until September at the very earliest, so that’s a very scary time for people. Selfishly, it’s been great for myself to have something to do. That’s currency for me. I’m blown away by the response,” says Donovan.
“I’m out of work, and I’m down on income but I’ve re-evaluated a lot of things in my life, not just with my Ruby hat on. I’ve had the chance to think about what’s important to me in my life. I’ll be spending a lot more time with my family. I’m exercising, which is a shock even to me. I think I’ll be more social. As one of my friends said, I am never not going for a pint again.”
‘We need to have a big national celebration when we come through this’
"Day one of week one, we had a team meeting, and I said to everyone, we're stopping interviews and we're not going to fill vacant positions in the kitchen. Day three of week one, I had to tell them we're going to a three-day week. Day five, we had to go to temporary layoffs," says chef Robert Bullock of Le Patissier, which had been supplying two million handmade desserts to the corporate sector and events, as well as to Dunnes Stores.
“Because so much of the business was corporate, everything stopped. The weddings were all gone. I still had a stack of cream, milk, butter and eggs in the fridge.”
So the following week, he began selling direct to consumers via his website, hastily adapted in the space of a weekend by a family member, so it could take online orders. "Word of mouth spread, mostly through social media, and the orders were flooding in. By week three, the full lockdown happened, so I had to start delivering myself. My sons are in one of the vans; myself and my partner Louisa are in the other van, and we're delivering all over north Co Dublin."
The dessert delivery service has been such a hit “that after the pandemic, we’ll definitely continue in some shape or form”..
In the background, he's been using the extra time to work on a pet project – developing a pastry tartlet shell for the home market. "At the moment, the tartlets used here in the catering sector are imported from the Philippines. For about three years, I've been talking about creating one for the island of Ireland."
When he looks ahead to April 2021, “I hope I will be manufacturing the tartlet shell for the island of Ireland. I hope we’ll be back working with hotels and corporates. And I’d love the door-to-door deliveries to be happening nationwide, and not just in Dublin.”
He is hoping there will be an opportunity for a national celebration involving food producers and the hospitality sector from all over the country. “We need to have a big celebration when we come through this, just to say we’re back, we’re still together, let’s support one another.”
The teachers’ teacher
‘Nothing will ever replace the magic of the classroom, but children will have a digital schoolbag’
Primary teacher Ciara Reilly's role as a lecturer in digital education at Marino Institute of Education means she was, in some ways, better prepared for the revolution of the past few weeks than many people – although she never imagined the transition to the virtual classroom would happen so quickly. "My modules are going to be forever changed having lived through this experience."
Throughout the closure, she has continued teaching her own students online, while juggling the care of her daughter at home, and is also offering informal support to other teachers. “The day the schools closed, my phone started buzzing immediately with friends, colleagues, former students asking for advice and ideas.”
Before the pandemic, the extent to which online learning was integrated into the classroom depended on the appetite of individual schools and teachers. Children will come out of this period, she predicts, with “a digital schoolbag . . . an online space where they communicate with the classroom remotely.”
For all her enthusiasm about “the blended learning space”, she adds some notes of caution: “nothing can ever replace the magic of the classroom”; adequate funding will need to be in place for schools and, finally, that we’ll need to ensure the education gap is not being widened further. “It’s well and good for me to be talking about G-suite [which Google’s video-conferencing Google Meet is part of] for education or this app for the iPad,” but for some schools, their priority is going to be “the child relying on access to the food being delivered by their homeschool liaison teacher that week. We have to be very careful that deploying these tools doesn’t alienate the needs of those children further.”
One of the things she has been struck by is how the arts, culture and music have been key parts of the home-learning environment, and she hopes the experience will consolidate their position in the curriculum. For parents, she says, “it’s a really challenging time. Teaching is complex for us, and we’re trained to do it.” Parents should focus on routine, not productivity, she says.
“We’ve had no map over the last couple of weeks. We’ve all been free travellers. And it’s amazing what we’ve managed to do. Afterwards, we are going to do a lot of soul searching as educators and parents. But we also need to talk to students, from the junior infant child up to the student who has to continue working on the thesis remotely, about what worked for them. We need to be led by their experience of this.”