Kathy Sheridan: Now is the time for humility, not cynicism

Covid-19’s icy fingers are ripping the heart and hope out of ordinary people, but we need to find a unity of purpose

Things we miss: the virtue of doubt. Common sense. Good faith.

Patience. Recognising the limits of our knowledge. Boring, informed people who say things like, on the one hand and on the other. People who listen and assess.

What we have: “The government should have . . .”, “Why didn’t they . . ?”

Hospital Report

“So I can see my mother in the supermarket but I can’t visit her in her garden?” “So they’re closing pubs but not the airports?” “Answers on a postcard.” “Only in Ireland . . .”

It’s about five minutes since Tony Holohan and his deputies were national treasures. Now to judge from public commentary, they are merely a small unrepresentative group of doctors who are only part of the response and don’t get the big picture.

This pandemic has hurled us all into a landscape of radical uncertainty and fragility

This much at least has been evident in recent days. The patience, good faith and common sense required of citizens to scrutinise or await more detailed information or examine apparent anomalies in the context of the big picture have all been upended. Leaders and followers across the sectors have a case to answer for the incessant leaks, the constant sniffing for loopholes, the elbowing by vested interests, the public tone, the slick twist of certitude, contempt and cynicism fashioned into a “why didn’t they...?” post on social media. And crucially, for the vanishingly few substantial contributions and absence of solutions.

The central question is this: do we try to suppress the virus or let it roar? Is Ireland an outlier? In France, 20 million people are living under a 9pm-6am curfew with fines of between €135 and €1,500.

Curfews and bans

Slovenia has followed suit. In Belgium, residents are under curfew from midnight to 5am, alcohol sales are forbidden after 8pm and restaurants are closed for a month. In Germany, a Berlin court has thrown out a challenge by pub owners against an 11pm curfew. In Catalonia, bars and restaurants are closed for several weeks. Sweden is reviewing its Covid-19 restrictions; the anticipated occurrence of Covid-19 antibodies in 40 per cent of Stockholm county residents by late May turned out to be 6 per cent.

If ever there was a time for decent human beings to skip the performative politicking, certitude and cynicism, it is now.

A young service worker who says she gets constant invitations to “house parties” – mainly from “college kids who have nowhere else to go” – would be entitled to have a rant about the new restrictions. She won’t because her large family shares the care of her terminally ill grandfather. Today at 22, she and several family members will be out of a job again, for the second time this year. Her solution? Close the off-licences or put heavy limits on their sales and opening hours.

Like it or not, she’s looking for answers.

Over the weekend, her employer was pleading for information, tortured by the speculation, scoops and leaks, glued to the radio for updates, head melted by the incessant carping of experts and pundits. Meanwhile Fine Gael’s health spokesman tweeted that people arriving into Ireland are receiving confusing and contradictory Covid-19 health advice on restricted movements. “This needs to be rectified immediately,” said Colm Burke TD, who possibly hasn’t noticed that his party is in government and his leader happens to be the Tánaiste and a major Covid influencer.

What happens now if people sense that their limited freedom is being further restricted by maskless ignoramuses with Trumpian belief systems?

Out in the world, the dismay at this ceaseless, shouty Babel of voices, political leaks, agenda manipulation and all shades of one-upmanship, is palpable. This pandemic has hurled us all into a landscape of radical uncertainty and fragility. While Covid-19’s icy fingers are ripping the heart and hope out of ordinary people, the sense of calm and reassurance vital to resilience and unity of purpose is missing.

Distressed and furious

Anger is coming to the fore. A man whose multigenerational business has folded is distressed and furious, furious that the latest lockdown might have been prevented if masks had been made mandatory at all times, if alcohol sales had been banned (there it is again), house parties ended and every airport arrival tested and quarantined.

Altercations in shops and service stations are commonplace, typically where an individual with no mask and oblivious to the two-metre markings stands breathing down a customer’s neck. Back in March we had the sun, the novelty and the audacity of hope. What happens now if people sense that their limited freedom is being further restricted by maskless ignoramuses with Trumpian belief systems?

The old qualities of common sense, good faith, patience and the humility to know our limitations would be useful now. The ability to recognise the people who are good for us, not to sugar coat the facts but to keep us afloat, to remind us that the past few months were not entirely wasted. The ability to recognise that we are better equipped to handle this wave, that we have a greater understanding of it, that we have testing capacity now, that we have a way to control the numbers.

But we need to perceive strength, belief and truth in our leadership.

Addresses to the nation are fine but they won’t cut it any more. We need to see that our efforts mean something.