The author of our new ‘Changing Ireland Community Diary’ will remain nameless for now to allow them to write more freely. The aim is to give an insight into one person’s community in these extraordinary times. Like hundreds of thousands of people, they volunteer with a number of local community groups. 

Day 19th 31st March 

I’ve been reflecting on escapism and my own experiences of travelling. Now that the only travelling I am doing these days is walking within a 2 km radius, it is nice to remember a time when I was living and working in Vietnam and what life for me was like that time. One of the things that struck me about the people there was their resilience and their ability to innovate and overcome challenges by digging deep, finding new ways to earn money, finding new ways to survive. When I read how well the country is dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, I wasn’t surprised. In a recent Financial Times article, it describes how the government there took radical early measures for its 96 million population. You can read the article here.

It got me thinking about the children and young people that I used to work with who were all part of an art and music project I managed 10 years ago. When I spoke to my Vietnamese friend who lives in France recently she was giving me updates on how some of these young people are now. Many have their own children and all of them run their own businesses – it made me feel so delighted to hear how well they’re doing although I am sure they still all have big challenges to overcome. Saigon is a huge city and has become very westernised in recent years – making it more and more difficult for smaller businesses to flourish. But I do have faith that these young people have strong mindsets, good value systems and are savvy enough to get by. More power to them.

 

Day 18th 30th March 

There was only one thing on my mind over this weekend and that was that I had run out of chocolate. This is not the time to deprive myself of this and I wasn’t going to! It was time to order our weekly shopping and because last time, they forgot my last order. I was not going to let this happen again and so in my desperate plea asking them not to omit this essential from my shopping list, I could not have been clearer (see below: note how I urgently used capital letters for the word please and I highlight in bold the word any). Desperate times call for desperate measures!

3 x lindt bars chocolate – sea salt, orange, hazelnut (near health food shelves)
PLEASE substitute for any 3 bars of choc similar size
Once again our local community efforts are playing a blinder. Our shopping was delivered (with my chocolate) and we were also treated to homemade soup and cake by the local restaurant. Aren’t we the lucky ones!

Day 16th – 17th 28th & 29th March 

There are many surreal elements to this life in quarantine but none more so than walking through my home town on a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon and not a person or a car around. The streets were empty bar one or two people in the distance and the odd car passing by slowly. We are now in lockdown, although the government doesn’t want to label it that, this is the reality of life now. Since yesterday, they have also taken extreme measures for people over 70 who now are not allowed to leave their homes – a very difficult thing for older people to digest. Understandably so. When we step out of our new “normal” and start to read about what is happening in Spain, Italy and now New York city it really makes me feel very lucky to live where I live. There are open spaces galore, beaches, fields and lovely remote back roads to walk on and where you would rarely meet another soul. It is a privilege to have these at our doorsteps.

The government response to this crisis has been swift, empathic and serious – no chances are taken, no measures too far as they are doing their utmost to protect us, the citizens of this country. The leadership has been impressive and steady and our own president Michael D. Higgins shared his poem ‘Take Care’. When I see Boris Johnson and Donald Trump and the lack of real compassion, leadership or strategy to deal with this crisis, it makes me feel proud to be Irish knowing that our politicians in the face of adversity are doing everything in their power to help.

“Take Care”

In the journey to the light,
the dark moments
should not threaten.
Belief
requires
that you hold steady.
Bend, if you will,
with the wind.
The tree is your teacher,
roots at once
more firm
from experience
in the soil
made fragile.

Your gentle dew will come
and a stirring
of power
to go on
towards the space
of sharing.

In the misery of the I,
in rage,
it is easy to cry out
against all others
but to weaken
is to die
in the misery of knowing
the journey abandoned
towards the sharing
of all human hope
and cries
is the loss
of all we know
of the divine
reclaimed
for our shared
humanity.
Hold firm.
Take care.
Come home
together.

Day 15 27th March

At the end of this week, gratitude is a word I keep thinking about and how much it holds weight at this time. At 8 pm, my parents and I stood outside on a chilly Spring night under the watchful sliver of the new moon and we applauded. We were the only ones on the road doing it but it felt so important to honour our frontline medical workers during this crisis. It felt right.

As news floods in day after day we cannot but be aware of the situation we are in. But for frontline staff who are working under unimaginable challenging circumstances, we need to send gratitude their way. But the government also has its part to play to support them in all aspects of what lies ahead.

I wanted to end this week’s diary entry with humour, which is the one thing that keeps me going on these times. The comedy trio Foil, Arms and Hog have a hilarious video reflecting this era we are in. See the video here. Stay safe!

 

Days 13 – 14 March 25th-26th 

I have to go into the town today to pick up my prescription. Normally, I would be looking forward to the walk there but on these days venturing away from the confines of my home feels daunting. I no longer do my shopping and instead, a neighbour picks it up and drops it to our house – she gets out of the car and I take the shopping out from her back seat. She walks a few paces away – a safe distance watching me and we’re chatting away, trying to make normal a very unreal and surreal encounter.

The sunny days are alleviating the strain of what people are going through around the country. More and more are heeding the guidelines and when out on walks, I notice that the volume of traffic has reduced significantly. This makes for a lovely calm, peaceful walk in nature and the bird song seems so vibrant on these days. There is such hope in this.

Speaking of Hope – I have started to read a book by Ruairi McKiernan called Hitching for Hope. This is an account of his time hitching around Ireland in a quest to find solace in a very tumultuous time in the country in the middle of a brutal recession with harsh austerity measures. There is much similarity to what we are now experiencing at this moment and reading his words bring much comfort and a sense of solidarity as we all get through things as best we can. Collectively, we are reaching out and supporting those who most need it and Ruairi’s words soothe immensely. Highly recommend.

 

Days 11 – 12 March 24th

Time seems to be in a perpetual state of vagueness and much harder to grasp as it would be in normal life and there is a feeling of being hyper-aware of the time passing by us through this surreal life we are in. Now that self-isolation is very real and not so much a concept, I have been taking steps to mind my self-care throughout this. First things first – keep calm. Time on my own can amplify things and feel very overwhelming – time to focus on my breath on these wobbly times.

I ordered seeds to plant and even though I am not a gardener, I want to learn and no better time than this. Keeping active and having a routine seem to be the two things that are getting me through things. Reading, listening to music and trying to avoid social media when things feel overwhelming all help immensely.

Meditation is something that can really ground me too, even just taking a quiet moment to focus on my breath for a couple of minutes. All help.

“We are all in this together” is the phrase the government is using a lot at the moment. Are we really though? Not a day goes by when I don’t think of my asylum seeker friends who are living in cramped conditions with no chance to self-isolate. My community work with them has been the biggest source of joy and fulfilment in recent times and I am missing seeing them on a regular basis.

Despite the dreadfully stressful situation they are in, their resilience in the face of all this is truly inspirational. They send us videos on our WhatsApp group of how they are getting through things and many play music, some even freestyling about life during a pandemic – music really does heal, of that, I am in no doubt.

 

Day 10 March 23rd

Recently, I have been reflecting on my own health. I am a healthy woman in my mid 40’s, I keep active, eat well and I don’t drink or smoke. I am, however, asthmatic. I take two inhalers to manage this and I haven’t had an asthma attack in well over 5 years. So it is in under control. I went through a really bad period of severe asthma attacks when I returned home to Ireland after living in SE Asia. This required me to be put on nebulizers to open up my airways as I battled to breathe on my own. It is an extremely distressing experience not being able to breathe. You go into survival mode as each breath is tight, laboured and gasping to get out. Gradually as the nebulizer takes effect, airways open again and the tightening loosens and breathing returns again. It is a euphoric feeling to be able to breathe again and the relief is untold.

So, why tell this story? Because COVID-19, when severe can overwhelm our respiratory function and this account, might help someone to make more informed decisions when it comes to social distancing. We are all in this together and we can as a community reach out to one another and do the right thing – stay at home.

 

Days 7-9 March 21-22nd

This is not a time to be complacent. With the arrival of the Spring weather and while we are being encouraged to go outdoors, some people are using this as a time to picnic, to be out and about in droves. Beaches are thronged. Public national parks are being closed due to the volume of day-trippers. I think we have a “sure, it’ll be grand. We’re outside” mentality and there is an absence then of carrying through on social distancing because the virus is not airborne.

Gardening at home is the next best option for going out there for walks. Getting hands stuck into soil, hearing the birds chatter away and getting back in touch with nature is the best therapeutic approach to what is happening. We are social animals and so wanting to be outside among people is totally a natural need but we have to contradict this need now more than ever.

Life online is buzzing with many zoom calls to family and friends. Whatsapp messages are flying in and I definitely feel connected to people in this context. I am pretty much alone these days apart from fleetingly seeing my parents who are 71 and 80. My mother still makes me dinner sometimes and we share short chats on the patio or in their kitchen. But I don’t stay long. I sometimes feel a burden of responsibility not to be around them much and it’s hard. I made a card for my mother today on mothers day and it was the closest thing in replacement of a hug. When all this is over, we will be hugging our loved ones tighter than usual, this I am sure of.

Days 6-8  March 18-20th

The sense of time during the coronavirus pandemic is a curious thing. The days are blurring one day into the other and there is an overall sense now that people,  although anxious,  are starting to get to grips with this new world order. Relationship dynamics are adjusting, albeit slowly and self-care routines are paramount. Online counselling sessions, zoom calls with spiritual healers, mediation online, yoga – it’s all happening through a screen. Social interaction is down to the bare minimum and we are all taking guidelines seriously.

Then we look right and we look left at the UK and the US and the level of complacency is utterly staggering. What is coming down the tracks doesn’t bear thinking about when you consider the ramifications of not acting fast enough and how Italy is now counting the toll.

It’s a fitting week to feel proud to be Irish. Our government are really taking strong leadership on this and we are now doing our civic duty to protect our loved ones. When I phoned my local supermarket yesterday to give them my shopping list so I could then avoid going inside, the help support and calm customer service were absolutely incredible. No questions asked, no problem. When this is all over we all need to do everything we can to acknowledge retail workers, health care workers and anyone who cannot avoid social contact because of this. We owe a lot to them.

 

Day 5 March 17th 

It is hard to ignore the fact that on this day normally we are outside celebrating St Patrick’s Day on the streets the length and breadth of Ireland. Yet, this has not stopped Irish people from getting creative and posting their parade ideas online. From families with their dogs parading around their kitchens to streets coming alive with Irish ballads (all within recommended social distance) – RTE’s virtual parade was an incredible heartwarming effort to bring people together. Some of the more poignant posts also showed grandparents and grandchildren. One photo showed two grandparents inside and their grandchildren on the outside, smiling, arms outstretched to try to replicate an actual hug. We as a nation are coming together as one and we can only hope that this is what will get us through these times.

As Leo Varadker addressed the nation, it was a truly significant moment in all our lives. He was calm yet stoic as he outlined “the calm before the storm -before the surge” – while also emphasising that we can flatten the curve, we can as a nation do this. His speech was really empathetic and measured and I think it’s clear this government are doing all the right things to get this right.

But here’s the thing. There is an outpouring of people wanting to offer real and practical solutions to this and there has to be solace in that. We are seeing in this locality especially, the true meaning of community spirit. Whatsapp groups are a lifeline for so many. We are checking in with asylum seekers living in Direct Provision locally. We want them to know that even though we can’t see them, we have not abandoned them. We are sending them information with HSE guidelines, that everyone by now is adhering to.  Some of the messages are so heartwarming and full of empathy, that it would really give you faith in humanity. One woman this morning asked them to be kind to each other, be empathetic. I really believe that empathy and a deeper understanding of people’s struggles will be what will get us through this.

Self-isolation can also be a reflective time. A time to take stock on life and getting back in touch with our creative sides or going out into nature.  There is a lot to be said for the birds too. Their bird song has been an immense source of comfort in recent days.

Days 3-4 March 15th & 16th 

The local supermarket is normally a standard experience, you go in buy your food – talk to the locals and go about your business. On Saturday, upon entering the car park, it now has huge signs on the way in – “keep 1.5 meters apart from other people”. There is a sanitizing station at the entrance where people hand sanitize and wipe their trolley handles with. Surreal times but there is also an overriding feeling of solidarity, of community and a sense of us all being in this together. There is comfort in that, at least. Also, the widely reported social media instances of panic buying and fights over toilet rolls were nowhere to be seen. So all in all – shopping in the west in the middle of a global pandemic was an altogether civilized and dignified experience!

After all the storms, the weather is finally clearing up making way for fresh sunny Spring days along the windswept Atlantic coast. People are being encouraged to get outside and break the monotony of self-isolation. A good idea in theory but what this brings is akin to what you would normally expect on a summer’s day. Throngs of people out, loads of traffic  – it’s almost like people are just throwing caution to the wind – literally. What would normally be a day when you might encounter four people at the most – today, it was hard to keep that recommended social distance. Even pausing for a few minutes until the people walking ahead were a safe distance away. However, outdoors seems to be a safe bet and people were really making the most of it.

What is clear as we all try to grapple with this is that there are huge levels of empathy and compassion flooding through an anxious time. Nobody can underestimate the potential of this virus and so there is a real sense that we all have our part to play, collectively and individually.

Day 2 Friday the 13th of March.

Interaction with people is now reduced to online apps, messenger and texting. It is safe to assume that self-isolation measures locally are now well underway and online life will become a lifeline for many of us.

People are only heading out as necessary to the supermarket for food essentials and coming straight back again. Making the most of the dry weather, a few people are out with their children who are now off school. It is clear they are making concerted efforts to keep their distance as they greet neighbours. Traffic is busy with people presumably not really knowing what to do with their time now that we are in lockdown – apart, that is, from delivery drivers who are very much working business as usual.

Not everyone can work from home and those at the front line of care work, health care and elderly care cannot be praised enough. Home help carers of one local vulnerable man are carrying out their duties amidst a very precarious time and their duty of care towards their client is a true measure of their commitment and dedication to their work. Local communities need to value their efforts more – without them, our disabled, vulnerable and elderly people would not be able to cope, particularly now.

Online life presents so many layers of anxiety-inducing challenges. Everyone has an opinion and everyone wants to be heard. So much information to process and not all are helpful or indeed accurate. People are scared but then the outpouring of goodwill, kindness and generosity is really something to behold. Local shops and businesses are offering delivery services, support and help to those in need. There is a sense that even in this unchartered territory that community will come out the real winners in all this. We don’t know what lies ahead, how long this will last but one thing is certain that people who show humanity, kindness and real solidarity will be the ones to get us all through this. One day at a time.

Day 1 March 11th

The atmosphere in the small rural town in the West of Ireland close to the recent outbreak of COVID-19 has shifted. At the local supermarket, people are cautiously doing their shopping at a quieter yet steadier pace – people are not so eager to stand around and chat. It’s more about getting in, get what you need and leave again. 

Everyone is talking about the unknown nature of this virus, how soon will we need to self-isolate, how soon will schools close, how soon will this all be over. The concern is primarily on older family members or family who have serious underlying conditions who are most vulnerable. Information is trickling down to us but at a snail’s pace. 

For example, what additional measures, if any, would a man with latter stages MS who is requiring 24/7 care at his home require to help protect him from contracting this virus? No specific information is at hand yet. 

So, it’s business as usual with frequent hand washing, careful sneezing and keeping distance where possible. A lot of this is down to hoping for the best outcome for us all.

The town itself is quieter too. Events, classes and workshops are getting cancelled daily. Fewer people are on the street and on a recent visit to the local doctor not long after the news broke that the virus was now a short distance from us in the local area – it was eerily quiet. 

What is evident though is despite all these challenges and just the strangeness of it all, is that people are looking out for each other. Stories are emerging of cancer patients being driven to appointments by neighbours or having their shopping dropped to them – true to what community spirit is during turbulent times. 

There are 35 asylum seeker men living in emergency Direct Provision in the town who, due to the lack of self-isolation options for them, are in an even more vulnerable situation. Most share a room with up to three other men in small dorm accommodation. 

While there is little that can be done about these circumstances, the local community welcome group offer them support and friendship as they – like everyone else – are trying to grapple with the situation as best they can.