20 March 2020 No Comments by The Northern Standard

“…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, or his team of speech-writers and communications advisors, surely had the famous opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as a touchstone when framing the landmark address the country’s leader delivered to the nation on the evening of St Patrick’s Day in relation to the Covid- 19 public health emergency.

There was more than an echo of Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” meditation on the tumultuous atmosphere reigning in European society at the time of the French Revolution in the Taoiseach’s appeal: “In years to come…let them say of us…when things were at their worst…we were at our best.” Europe is again going through tumultuous times as the epicentre of the coronavirus spread, and as countries follow each other into lockdown and borders close with the hollow clang of the stable door after the horse has bolted, there is much of instruction to ponder in both the Victorian novelist’s capturing of a continent in seething turmoil and the contemporary statesman’s appeal to people’s innate altruism, decency and compassion.

We are undoubtedly at a transformative juncture in the history of our modern globalised society, balanced precariously between the winter of despair that the current pandemic seems to threaten, and the spring of hope which our response to it can bring about. Mr Varadkar’s address caught the mood of the current moment quite well.

An Irish public braced for an announcement of escalation into effective lockdown of the restrictions and control measures already put in place by the Government heard instead a measured assessment of where we are and where we soon will be, one that paved the way for, rather than immediately handed down the decrees for, the enforced societal hibernation which prevailing medical wisdom has identified as the most effective means of curbing the rampage of the virus and ensuring that its manifestation is kept within the capacity of our health services to manage.

It was a calculated, invitational address, tailored to encouraging the innate instincts in our people to do the right thing and be part of the solution to the current situation rather than part of the problem. It will surely be remembered as a seminal moment in Mr Varadkar’s political career, but whether the speech goes down in history as galvanising or vainglorious will only be determined by how effectively our current caretaker Government or the one that succeeds it manages to execute the difficult task of coronavirus containment while ensuring the public buys in to the communal sacrifices and curbing of the innate human instinct to congregate together and interact that this daunting undertaking will entail.

No one who listened to the Taoiseach’s address and who has been observing the trend of the virus spread in other countries could cavil with his assessment that the period we are currently in is merely the calm before the storm. The virus is going to infect many people in our circulation area, and inevitably there will be fatalities. People we know well will acquire it and have to undergo self-isolation or hospital treatment. There will be further restrictions in how we live our lives over the coming months, perhaps for the greater part of this year.

We will all have to learn how to deal with keeping a distance from those we love and want to be near to and hold, and how to occupy and distract ourselves in the absence of so many opportunities for recreation and relaxation. While the protection of our physical health is paramount at this time, the protection of our mental health is of comparable importance. An unfortunate consequence of the measures so far deemed the best to manage the proliferation of the virus is that they present great challenges to maintaining a positive mood and sustaining strong mental wellbeing.

Those prone to anxiety, stress and depression need to take particular care of themselves at this time, but everyone will find their resources of positivity tested in the months ahead. With so many other avenues for thought and discussion closed off, it is very easy to fall prey to total immersion in the ocean of unremitting media coverage of this topic – for newspapers and the broadcast media it is becoming literally the only show in town as other sources of news and commentary are shut down by its impact.

While the Taoiseach was generous to acknowledge the important role of journalists and the media in the dissemination of up-to-date and accurate information at this time, he also imparted the equally salutary advice to people to limit their media coronavirus exposure, and refrain entirely from trawling unauthoritative sources for knowledge and direction.

Governments can introduce all manner of severe measures to cope with medical emergencies of this scale. What will determine how successfully the coronavirus is dealt with is the public’s engagement with those measures. Rather than saying that this is a situation of such magnitude and ubiquitous reach that there is nothing any of us can do as individuals to meaningfully affect it, we need to recognise that we each have a very onerous responsibility to ensure that this virus and its effects are contained.

This responsibility is grounded in the observance of the medical advice with regard to handwashing, social distancing and how we respond to suspected symptoms but it extends far beyond heeding the health experts’ advice. How we conduct ourselves in the months ahead will have an equally lasting and defining effect on future society as the virus itself.

We need to maintain our composure, our sense of perspective, our compassion for the vulnerable and our sense of optimism and positivity. We need to look out for each other, take care of each other and, despite the severe restraints on contact and interaction, keep talking to and listening to each other. Pandemics have been around as long as civilisation, but civilisation has endured even the most malign of them not so much by medical intervention or the kindness of nature as by two old-fashioned remedies for all of mankind’s ills – love and compassion.

This country, in common with the other nations of the world, have bitter waters to navigate in the months ahead before we reach the sweet tides that will wash the coronavirus away. Let us all ensure by our behaviour and our attitudes that when this happens we will be in a new spring of hope and the winter of despair is left well behind us, and that we do not look back on how we conducted ourselves in the dark days with shame and regret, but rather with pride and honour.

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