Fionnuala Sweeney: The new normal
There will be multiple layers of learnings from the impact of coronavirus; this is my first.
Mandy Walsh vists her her Mother Anne Walsh at her home in Summerhill,Co Meath on Mother’s day. Photo: Tom Honan for The Irish Times.
Towards the end of January, I visited a dentist in Dublin where we discussed a new flu spreading across China. I mentioned I would be travelling to Thailand the next day; the dentist kindly thrust some facemasks into my hand. I packed them in my hand luggage, grateful and not sure I’d need them.
My work travel took me outside the Thai capital during which time China’s number of infected people spiked. Many Chinese had come to Thailand for Lunar New Year and three days after my arrival in the country, I returned to an utterly changed Bangkok; every single person was wearing a face mask. People on the streets, staff working behind hotel reception desks on which were displayed numerous hand sanitizers. I reached inside my travel bag for the face masks given to me half a world away only a few days earlier.
On my return to England, where I am based, I decided to self-isolate; a decision that might have seemed self-indulgent at a time when there was no hint of the virus on those shores. I had kept an eye on the Thai media and read that a taxi driver had become infected; I had taken several cabs during my time in Bangkok. I recalled a masked hotel receptionist coughing and spluttering so much into his hand as he processed my check-in that I had taken back my credit card holding an antiseptic wipe. While lying low in Oxford, I decide to keep a record of when I leave the house to briefly forage for food. I stay well.
The virus marches its way across the globe. Once it arrived in Britain, I wondered whether I should again self- isolate, so rampant had been its path across southeast Asia. During a pre-arranged appointment with my doctor, I’m told the high temperature I had experienced earlier in the week and which had since lowered, was most definitely not COVID-19. Yet later that day, Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds another news conference with a marked change in tone, advising anyone with a temperature to self-isolate for seven days. And all the time, the country is slowly and organically grinding to a halt. I wonder how long for.
On my phone, I watched the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, speak live about the Emergency. An uncomfortable feeling of being separate, removed, begins to gnaw at me and immediately after, I video call my elderly parents in Dublin to say hello. It was more than to say hello; it was to feel connection and to reinforce in my mind’s eye a pleasant and familiar family scene. Mum and dad are in good spirits, and in phrases telling of their generation, remark that the Taoiseach “looked well” and was a “good speaker”; their current collective state of mind breezily unaware of the seriousness of the situation.
Advised that my colleagues and I can work from home for the foreseeable future, I consider bringing forward a flight booking to Dublin. “Be with friends and family,” I am urged. I call a Dublin hotel, not wishing to stay with my parents in case I risk contracting the virus during travel. The hotel says it’s closing for two weeks. A few hours later, the British government brings in sweeping powers which includes provision for the closure of airports. Again, I ignore this uncomfortable feeling around separation, the unknown void between me and my loved ones. I leave the booking as it is; let fate decide. On either side of the Irish Sea, there are no easy answers that don’t involve risk.
And then my flight is cancelled and suddenly leaving it to fate is no longer possible. An urgent need to be in place, my place, now and at once, to blunt the unknown, stirs me into action and fortunately, within hours, onto a plane. A deserted Heathrow and electronic notification boards flashing a red sea of cancelled flights gives way to relief as the plane speedily taxis to an unusually empty runway and takes off.
Separation in times of global crisis runs against our human instincts. This gnawing discomfort which I had been trying to ignore has a name; displacement. I was born and raised in Belfast, reached maturity in Dublin before working in London and the US. I’ve lived around red buses and post boxes more than green ones, I live and move comfortably between both except now, in a time of global crisis. How much our society has taken mobility for granted will be tested by the relatively minor discomforts of self-isolation and social distancing. These measures pale against the backdrop of our harrowing emigrant history of displacement or our more modern affliction of displacement through homelessness. Yet, that’s what I recognise, a sense of displacement. There will be multiple layers of learnings from the impact of coronavirus; this is my first.
The almost empty plane lands in Dublin. Meeting us, officials hand out health guidance advising us to self-isolate. I still cannot see my family. Yet I am lucky, privileged. I am on home soil; there is proximity.
Formerly an anchor with CNN International, Fionnuala Sweeney is an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health. She is currently Communications Director at the Atlantic Institute with the Rhodes Trust at the University of Oxford.