“All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.”
So wrote WB Yeats, in ‘Easter 1916’, and as we approach Easter 2020, there is only one thing of which we can be certain. When we gather in the aftermath, when this pandemic eventually spits us out, it is we who will be changed utterly. Our lives as we knew them will never be the same, and it will fundamentally change how we see the world.
Already, we are speaking a new language. Self-isolation. Social distancing. Asymptomatic. Epidemiology. Community spread. In days, hours, we are fluent.
The speed at which our normal is changing is dizzying. Already, it feels almost alien to want to go out for a meal or visit a friend. Many of us have turned to Netflix for entertainment, yet chatting to friends on WhatsApp, it’s disconcerting to see how quickly we have all been conditioned; even in a movie, a large group in a small space now feels wrong, like someone lighting a cigarette in a pub.
This is, of course, a good thing in the current situation. Because it is now undeniable that to spend time in the company of others outside immediate family is a dangerous thing to do. A handshake or a hug could change the course of a life or ten. And soon, those who breach those boundaries will be ostracised, as fear sets in. Fear is no bad thing; it tames the recklessness that will put people’s lives at risk; shame is no bad thing either if it means stopping dangerous behaviour.
Humans are strange, unfathomable creatures. At times of great hardship, we are simultaneously capable of displaying both incredible kindness and the most outrageous self-centredness. We think nothing of clearing the shelves of the most precious supplies to protect ourselves first and foremost, yet if people in need came looking, would probably donate them back as quickly.
We send thoughts and prayers to our heroes fighting the spread on the frontline, yet we think nothing of heading out for a few pints or spreading germs at a house party. Cognitive dissonance or denial? Perhaps it’s easier to bluff and pretend things are okay and dismiss the concerns of others, than confront them and with that, our own vulnerability. And in the face of the complete unknown, perhaps the act of stockpiling the toilet roll was the only thing left within our control, so we did it, in a vain effort to take back some power.
Social media has been a challenging place to be. Never has there been so much information, so many opinions, so much alarm. In the comments sections, if you’re foolish enough to read them, there is trolling and vitriol and conflict and opinions so outrageously ill-informed they would make you scream.
Commitment to community
And yet, amidst the fake WhatsApp news, the sniping, the judgment, and the anger and the tetchiness, our decency and commitment to community have emerged as strong as ever, even online. A nationwide volunteer database has been set up, to match those in isolation with those who can deliver essentials. Fundraisers have been set up to ensure frontline workers get nutritious food delivered to them in hospitals. Teachers have put together resources packs for parents faced with home-schooling. Freelancers, faced with worrying futures have offered to assist charities for free while they are out of work. Charities whose annual flag days have been decimated have been elevated by people eager to compensate. Cognisant that isolation can be challenging to mental health, creative social interactions are emerging. Musicians are live-streaming concerts from their living rooms. Comedian Alison Spittle now throws a nightly ‘co-video party’ where people simultaneously watch a film on Netflix and join a raucous and hilarious conversation, a welcome distraction and light relief. There is real goodness on show.
Very quickly, new ways of teaching and new ways of learning are emerging; which will likely change the way in which we go about our school and work in the years ahead once this is over. How quickly many of us were able to start adapting to remote work; companies like my own, for which it had never been a priority are now using technology in a different way, creating new efficiencies, and learning new things. It opens up possibilities to us and creates opportunities we may otherwise have missed.
For all its faults, Ireland has proven itself many times to be a fundamentally kind country, placing community and connection and our moral obligations to each other at the heart of how we live. Even the fears that consume people are not self-serving; more people are afraid of spreading this virus than catching it themselves.
‘This should humble us’
COVID-19 is a leveller. It is oblivious to race, gender, sexuality, nationality; it places no store in religion or class, and already it has served as a reminder that wealth and power are no match for nature. We may accumulate wealth and power, equip ourselves with material goods and technology, and yet now, we are reminded that we cannot dictate our destiny in the face of a pandemic. It is at times like this that the weaknesses of capitalism and neoliberalism are glaringly exposed; it is the vulnerable who suffer first, the less well-off and less insulated who take the hit before anyone else. But even the property magnate or the stockbroker or the bank manager is not immune, in matters of health or of wealth.
Amidst our fears, this should humble us; it should remind us that a more equal distribution of wealth will mean less catastrophic outcomes. It should ground us in what is important. For many, the coming weeks will offer an unprecedented opportunity to spend time in the company of immediate family, and therein lies a chance to make some memories. For those us experiencing unexpected downtime, it offers the chance for self-reflection and recalibration, a realisation that in the grand scheme of things, we humans are only small fry. This terrible beauty offers us a chance of emerging from this crisis as a chastened and wiser people.