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Jennifer O’Connell: The end of the emergency has not lived up to the hype

If the Covid emergency really is over, why does it feel like such an anti-climax?

The end of the emergency has not really lived up to the hype, has it? If it was a Netflix series, it would get two stars, torn apart for its leaden pace, haphazard mess of a plot and grotesque budget. "Should have ended after the first season," critics would grumble, "the second, third and fourth were a disaster."

“Two years of your life you’re never getting back – and then the end just sort of petered out.”

If the emergency really is over, as Taoiseach Micheál Martin declared last week, why does it feel like such an anti-climax? Partly, it is about expectations. The hopes for how this would play out now look to have fallen on the wildly excessive side of grossly over-optimistic. Cast your mind back to the days of Lockdown 1.0, when we believed that we just needed to hang on until scientists developed a vaccine, and then we would promptly go back to normal. Not just normal; a far superior version of it.

One of the most significant things to happen is the one thing that always happens, no matter what else is going on: the rich got richer

The remote working revolution would, we predicted, solve our work-life balance issues and free up the glass boxes and obsolete car parks in cities, which would then be repurposed for worthier ends, such as housing or creative spaces for artists or organic food markets. The so-called great pause – which more closely resembled a core meltdown – was going to solve the rent crisis, allow us to reimagine public spaces, overhaul the education system, combat climate change, clear out the bureaucracy in the health system and pay everyone a living wage.

Two years in, the pause is over. And what are we left with at the end of this prolonged period of national suffering, in which loved ones died and people lost their livelihoods and freedom, and children missed out on months of education? A few extra tables outside restaurants, more cycle paths, masks littering the streets and a horrifying announcement from Tánaiste Leo Varadkar that we can now go back to shaking hands. We're left with 60,000 Leaving Cert students who missed months of school, and are now expected to just pretend it never happened. And despite the high hopes for the extra creative time on our hands, all it really got us was a golden age of sourdough starters and non-fungible tokens, an artform that is all about some venal, capitalist concept of ownership and nothing about the artistic process.

One of the most significant things to happen is the one thing that always happens, no matter what else is going on: the rich got richer. Billionaires had "a terrific pandemic", said Oxfam Ireland's Jim Clarken recently. The net worth of Ireland's nine billionaires shot up by 58 per cent to €49.7 billion. The savings that were swamping the bank accounts of some of the rest of us last year – making things such as kayaks and campervans seem like reasonable, if not essential, purchases – will soon be eaten up by the more prosaic business of just staying afloat. Consumer price inflation was up 5.5 per cent in December, the highest in 20 years.

If we're left feeling exhausted, it may be because the virus has blown apart the idea that the history of humanity is one of irreversible forward momentum

Things are not going back to exactly how they were, but it’s still a toss up whether they’ll return to a better or slightly worse version of the before times. The long thread of unspoken, unshared grief has yet to unspool. We are only beginning to recognise all the ways in which Covid made the vulnerable in our society more vulnerable. The Cork Sexual Violence Centre said recently that it fielded 1,000 fewer calls in 2020 – not because women didn’t need its services, but because they didn’t have a safe space to ask for help. The Ombudsman for Children warned last week that school closures left children more vulnerable to abuse. How we respond to these challenges is a measure of the kind of society we want to be.

To be fair, not all the promises we made ourselves were empty. We were right about remote working, which is here to stay in one form or another. The upsides of this have been discussed exhaustively – more flexibility and career advancement opportunities, a better work-life balance. (One of the less widely acknowledged downsides is the onslaught of remote working virtue signalling that has already started. Men can enjoy the kind of subtle, “Oh, you go OUT to work? So when do you see your kids?” judgments women have been putting up with for years.) But remote working will also deepen inequalities – between young employees and more established ones; those with caring responsibilities and those who can wow employers with their presenteeism; those who have the choice and those who do not.

If the end of the emergency has left us feeling exhausted and inexplicably dejected, it may be because the virus has blown apart the idea that the history of humanity is one of irreversible forward momentum. But listen, there are grounds for optimism too. We got through it. We have one of the highest vaccination rates anywhere in the world, which is a positive sign of a cohesive society and a place unlikely to succumb to extremist politics. Research by Prof Cathal O’Donoghue at NUI Galway showed a jump in public trust in government between 2019 and 2020, due to moves to protect incomes, renters and mortgage holders. These are not small gains, especially as we set about mopping up the damage of a pandemic that is not yet over.

A society with relatively high levels of cohesion and trust is in a better position to tackle the inequalities that deepened and the schisms that opened over the past two years. We may have missed – for now – the chance to transform empty car parks into organic markets or nightclubs, but we can still make this a fairer, more compassionate, safer society.