What is normal? Clare Champion Article – Dr. Sue O’Brien

Once again the government and NPHET have to tell us that Covid has sprung another googly – the virus has mutated again and things are not looking as rosy as we might like.  Ireland has an excellent take up of the vaccine, and the HSE today said that we are on track to have half the entire population fully vaccinated by the end of the first weekend in July.  The numbers have so far stayed low, and the numbers in hospital are quite stable and quite low.  But NPHET’s models tell us that this will change and if we look across the Irish Sea we can see the high rates of transmissibility in the UK and we know that this could happen here.  So the government again are re-calculating how far, and how soon to ease restrictions.  A devastating blow for our hospitality industry – and the individuals who fear for the loss of everything for which they have worked so hard behind that bland phrase.  A terrible loss for our artists and our artistes – actors, musicians, performers and artists.  When on earth will we get back to normal?


Normal is when we can sing again, go to the pub, have a drink with friends without counting how many people are there.  Normal is hugging, shouting, being close to other people without feeling nervous, laughing and visiting each other.  Normal is all the family occasions which matter – baptisms and first communions, Christmas and New Year, and sadly too funerals, when we take comfort from the people who come to support us in our grief.


Some people have suffered terribly during the pandemic – loss made all the more painful by the proscription of visiting, of being with loved ones when they are ill, or dying.  Loss which is not marked by the show of support that is done so well in this country at funerals.  Some have seen their livelihoods wrecked, their relationships destroyed, their health terribly affected by long Covid.  The pandemic has been very cruel to very many people.


But for those who have not suffered these grievous losses the pandemic has given an opportunity to take stock.  Connecting with people via Zoom, learning new ways to work without commuting to the office, finding new opportunities to connect with nature, working out new ways of living and working and thinking of new ways to carry out those things we want to do, and those things we have to do.  And when we ‘get back to normal’ some of those things will stay.


But taking stock should not just be centred on ourselves – taking stock is something we should be able to do whilst we think of others.  I looked up a few figures before writing this article.


Did you know that there were more than 8,000 homeless people in Ireland in April 2021, and this figure includes adults and children.  That is a terrible figure – especially when you consider the awful human cost of homelessness:  the concomitant mental health issues, the violence suffered by homeless people, the severely shortened life expectancy (in the UK the average length of time someone survives on the streets is around two years before they die).


There are 637,000 people living in poverty, of whom 193,600 are children.  Poverty is pernicious – like a dangerous virus.  It affects every aspect of a person’s life, their physical health, mental health and the life they will lead in the future.


We live in a world which has made enormous progress in so many ways, and there is such a lot that we can be proud of when we look at humanity and how many positive steps it has taken.  We can look at any historical site (perhaps when we are allowed to) and see that our ancestors sanctioned punishments more brutal than anything that might be considered acceptable today.  We can look at generous acts like the work of scientists working day and night to find a new vaccine for a new virus.  The gift of the internet from a man who didn’t wish to make money from it.  Look at any newspaper and you will see, alongside the bad stories of war, crime and violence, good acts of generosity and kindness both big and small.


But we have a long way to go.  The 421 people who ended their own lives in 2019 show us that in a beautiful country, full of kind and generous people, with an economy which – at least before the pandemic – was booming, life can be so painful for some people that they just want no more of it.


When we do at last get ‘back to normal’ can we take a look at those parts of others lives which we might be able to improve?   We can try to make ‘normal’ better – for everyone.


Dr. Susan O’Brien lives at the Rectory, Binden St., Ennis. She is the Ecumenism officer for the Diocese of Killaloe.


Clare Champion Article Friday, 9th of July, 2021