Only the poets will be able to make any sense of this

We will need more than a vaccine and a rebooted economy to heal us

TS Eliot wrote most of The Waste Land in 1918 when recovering from the Spanish flu. It’s a poem about a world turned upside down – by war and a pandemic. Photograph: Myron Davis/Time Life Pictures/Getty

TS Eliot wrote most of The Waste Land in 1918 when recovering from the Spanish flu. It’s a poem about a world turned upside down – by war and a pandemic. Photograph: Myron Davis/Time Life Pictures/Getty

 

“April is the cruellest month,” TS Eliot wrote in The Waste Land. But we are flattening the curve. Everyone knows what that means. A few months ago – that would have meant nothing. We speak a different language now: “social distancing”, “cocooning”, “the R0 value”, “the new normal”, “Covid-19”. Our voices sound different. You can hear the tension – even through masks, in laughs.

Samuel Beckett once wrote “Words are the clothes thoughts wear”. Our thoughts, like our world, have been turned upside down.

Wuhan had never been on my radar screen. When I first heard about the cluster of deaths on Sky News at the end of last year, I didn’t pay much attention.

The Waste Land was published in 1922. It’s the first great modernist poem. Eliot wrote most of it in 1918, when recovering from the Spanish flu. It’s a poem about a world turned upside down – by war and a pandemic.

Wuhan had never been on my radar screen. When I first heard about the cluster of deaths on Sky News at the end of last year, I didn’t pay much attention. It was like when I heard about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 2008. These were barely ripples on my shore; they would never be tsunamis.

In early February I was at a family party. By March I could hardly remember what being at a party was like. Overnight, we had a new social contract. We drew 2m exclusion zones around ourselves. Now we turn our backs towards people who pass us on supermarket aisles. We open doors with our elbows. We point at joggers to get into the bike lane. When we can’t find a tissue, we cough into our sleeves.

We appreciate the people we undervalued before. We give a thumbs-up to articulated lorry drivers and marvel at how they reverse into supermarket courtyards. We thank the shelf-stackers and the check-out staff.

When we get home, we wash the shopping. We leave groceries on the doorsteps of our parents’ houses. Then we press the bell and rub the bell with a disinfectant wipe – just in case. Through rolled-down car windows, we ask our parents how they are.

In January Brexit was all the rage. Then Covid-19 came and Brexit went out the window. When they said the virus looked different down green and orange microscopes, suddenly a hard border seemed like a good idea – if you lived down south.

In January, plastic was bad news. It was destroying the oceans. A month later, we couldn’t get enough of it – for gloves, gowns, visors, helmets.

We worry we’ll catch the virus. We worry we’ll pass it on. We worry we might even die. Up to this, we only thought of death when we signed our wills. But we can picture what death is like now. We listen to the television and radio. We read the newspapers. We hear Tony Holohan reading out the numbers every day.

We know the stories: I’m in ICU. I’m going on a ventilator. The doctors and nurses look like astronauts. I hope I don’t infect them. I hope they don’t run out of PPE. They have families and grandparents like me. I’ve just said “hello” to my wife and daughter and grandson on an iPad. Maybe the “hello” was a “goodbye”. If I don’t make it – there’ll be no wake, no church, no hotel afterwards. Not even a month’s mind. Please don’t let me die.

There are lots of stories: I’m trying to work from home – but the kids are driving me mad. I’ve lost my job. I’ve closed up shop and let everyone go. I’m self-isolating in a family hub, in direct provision, in a prison cell.

I’m doing the Leaving. My internet connection is “mingen”. I’ll never get my first choice on the CAO. I’m in a nursing home. My best friend here is dead. I’m waiting for my swab result. My family wave at me through the window.

Andrea Bocelli and Gloria Gaynor lift our spirits too. Bob Dylan shelters me from the storm. We search Seamus Heaney’s Collected Poems for comfort.

We wear the green jersey. We thank our lucky stars for our politicians, the Department of Health, the HSE and the National Public Health Emergency Team – our media. We pity the Americans and the British for having Trump and Johnson on top of Covid-19. We think the European Union’s apology to Italy came too late.

Where’s God? – some of us want to know. Maybe he “caught the last train for the coast” like in the song. The pope offers general absolution for our sins. Mary McAleese prays for us. Give me the prayers any day.

Humour on WhatsApp keeps us sane. We laugh Beckett’s irreverent “laugh of laughs – at that which is unhappy”: Corona Rhapsody by Queen lookalikes, old excerpts from Yes Minister. Zoom connects us to work, to each other. We do quizzes and sing karaoke. We see each other at funny angles. We dream of Croker and the Aviva.

Nature makes us smile. Daffodils never looked so yellow. When I look up at the night sky, I hear Joni Mitchell singing “We are stardust”. Andrea Bocelli and Gloria Gaynor lift our spirits too. Bob Dylan shelters me from the storm. We search Seamus Heaney’s Collected Poems for comfort.

The hunt for the vaccine is on. We are planning to re-open the country.

Joan Didion famously wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”. In time, we will need poets and writers of the imagination to look through the looking glass – and tell us the stories of this strange, upside-down world. We will need more than a vaccine and a rebooted economy to heal us.

Professor Chris Fitzpatrick is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist in the Coombe Hospital

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