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Kathy Sheridan: We are about to find out a lot about ourselves

Reaction to coronavirus has become virtual laboratory for national self-scrutiny or lack of it

Shelves empty of toilet rolls in The Merrion Centre, Dublin. Photograph: Dave Meehan

The daily online spectacle of ordinary folk yelling directions at epidemiologists and specialists is one of the great distractions of the new world order. Some are congratulating each other for effecting the ban on the St Patrick’s Day parade and indeed it’s likely that public opinion did play a role. It would be surprising and a little alarming though if the experts were monitoring social media rather than the rapidly evolving science and unfolding Italian catastrophe.

So is this what we are going to be? How will we as a society handle what is coming?

At the weekend, a Dublin taxi driver spotted a group of lost-looking Italians visitors. He pulled over, rolled the window down just a few, cautious millimetres and gave directions to their Airbnb. He was honest about it later. He was never going to pick them up because, well, they were Italian.

Around the same time, a Dublin restaurateur tweeted (pre-ban) that he would be closing on St Patrick’s Day for the health of the staff. “There is a band from Italy due to play in the parade and f**k it, it’s not worth it,” he explained, adding that staff would be fully paid. Followers praised him for his “true moral leadership” and for being “very wise”.


Well, what would you do?

These few days have become a virtual laboratory for national self-scrutiny or the lack of it. Last week, people demanding full transparency from the authorities scoffed at the notion that areas associated with the virus might be stigmatised. There was nothing to be frightened of; why not come forward, sure those people have done nothing wrong after all. Yet all weekend, there was sustained negative commentary about visiting groups suspected to be Italian.

People have the right and the duty to be wary for themselves and everyone else but they can’t have it both ways. Those visitors were judged and found to be Italian. Who is next?

Now that Italy has locked itself down in desperate measures last seen in wartime, we have moved on.

People who choose a playful elbow bump instead of a handshake should know that such exchanges are now ruled out because they put you within one metre of the other person. The World Health Organization’s director general just puts his hand on his heart, which is always nice.

Such detail may not have reached some sectors. At an Irish motorway service station, a man in his late 60s emerges from the toilet behind a group of youngish males and watches as three pairs of unwashed hands grip door handles, examine fruit, squeeze bread, press their dirty fingers on the counter and into the card machine and count out coins and notes for the counter assistant. Nothing new there, we know. But the 60-something man’s face reddens and contorts to the point where I ask if he is feeling ill. He wants a law against it; all of it. “They don’t give a crap. it must be public endangerment or something to do with that.” A fellow customer in the queue overhears and tells him soothingly not to mind “that bunch of lying w**kers up there” (that’s Leinster House).

If that customer was using social media that day, he would have been gratified no doubt to see a self-described “EU law academic” accuse Simon Harris and Leo Varadkar of “continuing to put commercial interests ahead of public health”.

Common cause

Constructive criticism is always necessary but if ever there was a time to lay down the cudgels of political partisanship, abuse and cynicism, it is now. Without common cause and some minimal effort to appreciate the burden of those confronted with once-in-a-lifetime decisions on our behalf, how are we to negotiate the challenges ahead?

In the mother of all learning curves, people are quietly agitating over decisions which may have life-changing ramifications for themselves and others

How do we cope with the country to the east of us, where Boris Johnson publicly muses over a theory “that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow coronavirus to move through the population without really taking as many draconian measures?” Or the country to the west of us, where thanks to the leader of the free world, many conservative Americans believe that Covid-19 is a Democratic hoax designed to steal the presidency from Donald Trump.

Back here, we are getting an early glimpse of dilemmas that hang entirely on personal choice. Stockpiling for a few weeks is entirely rational. And it’s entirely possible that the woman with 12 family-sized spaghetti packs in the trolley needs them all but perhaps some conscientious supermarket will issue picture guidelines on what constitutes two weeks of groceries for the average family of four.

In the mother of all learning curves, people are quietly agitating over decisions which may have life-changing ramifications for themselves and others. Would you visit adult offspring in London now? Go to a gig? Take a crowded commuter train?

Small businesses such as independent coffee shops, restaurants and book shops will fade away unless we make a conscious effort to support them. Musicians who already make a precarious living will give up.

How do see ourselves when stripped of the grand self-image of the céad míle fáilte, the hearty handshake, the general pride in always being the ones acting the mick?

Are we as brave, big-hearted and generous as we think we are?

We’re about to find out.