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The five lies we told ourselves about coronavirus

Jennifer O’Connell: Why we are losing faith in Project Flatten the Curve

Six months into this crisis, we’re no longer talking about the better world waiting on the other side. The goalposts for our exit plan have shifted from six months, to a year or more, to the length of a piece of string. In fact, nobody is using the words “exit plan” anymore.

We’re slamming into the second wave, and this time around, no one is bulk-buying flour. Neighbours have stopped dropping cheery notes into one another’s letterboxes, and instead are suspiciously counting the cars parked in their driveways. We’ve replaced the aching nostalgia of Normal People with Netflix’s Selling Sunset, a mercenary anachronism of a show, whose only moral message is that if you try to pass your moissanite engagement ring off as a diamond, you’ll get caught.

The brief period of solidarity within government has been replaced with chaotic communications and one-upmanship. Amongst even the most optimistic of us, there’s an acknowledgement that our much-anticipated magic bullet – a vaccine – may not be a magic bullet after all.

Five great lies

Reading back over some of what was written in the early days of the crisis is like stumbling on your teenage diaries: that same sense of touching naivete and missed opportunities. Here are the five great lies we told ourselves about Covid-19.


Lie number one: It gives us a chance to push reset
With the urgency of the everyday vanquished, we expected to be left with a clearer view of what really mattered. Superfluous wants would give way to basic needs. Work would be redesigned to suit our lives. The neoliberal model would be exposed as an engine of unrestrained greed. The climate could begin its recovery.

What has actually happened is that, while a paler, less-interesting life has resumed for most of us, the super-rich have gone on getting super-richer. Jeff Bezos became the first person to accumulate $200bn, adding another $70bn during the pandemic. Elon Musk said the coronavirus "panic" was "dumb" in March – not so dumb though that he didn't manage to triple his wealth. Meanwhile, most of the rest of us are not commuting to work anymore. But that's about it.

Lie number two: We're all in it together.
The OECD estimates that the world economy will shrink by 4.5 per cent this year. Here, household wealth fell by €11bn during the lockdown, while unemployment soared from less than 5 per cent to 22.5 per cent in June. Even with the wage-subsidy scheme, half of small firms spent more than they took in during lockdown. Some sectors – IT multinationals – are largely untouched; others – such as retail, hospitality, the arts – are on their knees. We were never all in it together.

Lie number three: The coronavirus doesn't discriminate.
This virus is every bit as discriminating as all the other great killers with a lifestyle component. Four things put you at particular risk: older age; underlying health conditions; living in a deprived area; being an essential worker. Those most at risk, the ESRI says, are drivers, care workers, security guards, agricultural or factory workers, cleaners. The area of intersection in the Venn diagram between people working in those jobs and those with a health condition is substantial: one in three people working in a housekeeping-type role has a chronic illness.

It's enough to make you long for the touching, doomed solidarity of March

Lie number four: 2021 will be a better year.
Brace yourself: it won't be much different to 2020. Even if a vaccine is fast-tracked, it may not be widely available for years. And we don't know how effective it will be. Either way, the next great divide in society will be over who gets it first.

Lie number five: It will bring out the best in us.
This isn't an absolute lie. It has brought out the best in some of us – the healthcare workers who strip off in the hall before they say hello to their families. The teachers who strap on their masks every morning and try to make the school day normal. The essential workers in less glamorous, lower-paid jobs who are the most at risk, and still went to work every day during lockdown.

But it hasn’t brought out the best in everyone. In any other global disaster, those who are insulated from its worst effects recognise their moral duty to help those most at risk. These days, we’re as likely to stigmatise as we are to help. Seventy per cent of us believe someone who contracts Covid-19 has been careless or reckless, reports the ESRI.

We no longer believe

Six months on, we're disillusioned, confused, tetchy. This poses a very real problem for Government. Just as they most need us to hold firm, we're losing faith in Project Flatten the Curve. There are lots of reasons for this – one of them is that we no longer believe in the promise of a better world waiting on the other side. It's like we're living in post-revolutionary times without the revolution. And so we want examples made of recidivists – from the partying teenagers of Killarney or Skerries, to Phil Hogan and his golfing buddies. There is no tolerance for those who are not rigidly on message – such as 70-year-old Dr Martin Feeley, who resigned his HSE post this week after expressing views about herd immunity; or Jennifer Zamparelli, who planned to host a silly, tone-deaf "open discussion" on mask-wearing on her radio show.

It’s enough to make you long for the touching, doomed solidarity of March. Still, it’s not too late. As we smash into the second wave, there’s a sense that everything is out of control. But we can control our response to it. We can choose to resist the blame game. We can look for that sense of solidarity again. And when it all gets too much, there’s always the venal, delicious escapism of Selling Sunset.