Sick of self-isolation? Kicking off in quarantine? Curfew causing you personal crisis? Here’s a new mantra to practice every time this crazy coronavirus messes up your plan: “It’s not all about me. It’s not all about me.”
Eighteen days ago, I flitted off to Belfast to check in on my parents and family. A well-timed Virgin Seat Sale meant I could afford it, while my freelance status and the wonderful world of technology lets me be a digital nomad and work from anywhere.
Coronavirus was in the news, of course, and I’d spent four weeks keeping an eye on progress, watching the WHO briefings to get the real story instead of the fairytale of foolishness unfolding on most US media channels. After three years of science denial from the Pumpkin President and his administration, I just had a feeling the situation up there might become messy .
Boy, I hate it when I’m right…
I arrived on Saturday, March 7 to sort-of-normality at Gatwick, took the train to Brighton to visit my brother and we went to the pub to meet old friends. The talk was not about coronavirus, at least not on an alarmist level. Some folks were staying home but generally it was business as usual – for a freezing winter day.
By Sunday morning, 16 million Italians had been isolated in Lombardy. I had a serious sinking feeling as I headed back to an emptier-than-usual Gatwick to fly to Belfast on a packed Easyjet flight. There were a few masks around, but nothing out of the ordinary, and I hugged the bones of my 82 year old dad and 25 year old daughter at the luggage carousel.
(Later on, I wondered about the 18 people that surrounded me on the flight, perhaps travelling home from an Italian or Spanish holiday. That’s the moment my perception moved to that of a possible carrier and it was stone cold terrifying.)
By Monday, March 8, Italy was shut down and the number of deaths spiked the next day, starting a dread trajectory that continues to ascend as I type. I started to think that watching every pandemic movie available on YouTube in February was turning out to be educational rather than an indication of my sick sense of irony.
A week later and my family GP’s office was off limits to Dad and everyone else, my niece’s school had shut down without notice, St. Patrick’s Day was cancelled and Belfast pubs were starting to close their doors voluntarily. I know that’s hard to believe, but in the Republic, my friend Leo had already shut them down because of dunderheaded behaviour at Temple Bar the previous weekend.
It was happening so fast. Relentless and inevitable were the words that came to mind. Given my research of Hollywood’s similar scenarii [plural noun. Italian etymology], I noticed a few fatal flaws in the plot as it was unfolding across the globe.
1: The cool, gorgeous ‘Lyndsay Wagner as doctor/scientist’ character was nowhere to be seen, despite the number of cruise ships being struck down with Covid-19 [Voyage of Terror, TV movie, 1997] and the obvious spread of the virus via air travel [Contagious, TV movie, 1998]
2: The ‘Leader of the Free World’ character was definitely not the one to watch in terms of pulling the planet together to defeat the threat. In fact, the Pumpkin Prez was giving a stellar performance the role of ‘ cynical right wing capitalist White House staffer with his head up his arse’, as played by Martin Sheen in ‘Voyage’.
Meaning that 3: There was no sign of a ‘President Morgan Freeman’ character in this version of ‘Pandemic – The Reality Show’. We’d probably need to cast Jacinda Ardern if we wanted a ballsy hero that everyone could get behind.
The mind is weird though.
Despite glaring and growing evidence on every conceivable media channel, and the ubiquitous use of sci-fi-esque terms like “infection rates” and “self-isolation”, every day of that first week felt more and more like being an extra in a badly-conceived, straight-to-video B movie.
Walking around deserted Belfast city centre was a surreal blend of empty department stores and almost empty coffee shops. Meeting Yana for lunch on March 16 at a still-open pub was just a week ago now and feels like another decade, but we were holding on to normality as long as possible.
Getting my superhero dad to stay in his section was a bigger challenge, but he was banned from his beloved Minister of the Eucharist duties at the local church early on, and gradually gave into the constant nagging of three daughters and a grand-daughter. Mum kept forgetting the details but is always happy to stay home so there was no argument there, praise Jah.
Worrying about work and income came next: My own, my kidults’ and my tiny island home in that order. Clearly it was becoming a case of “que sera sera” or go insane with the uncertainty of it all. I earn a living writing about one of the most beautiful – and tiny – corners of the globe, so extrapolating my thoughts on the tourism impact became an anxiety trigger to be avoided by compartmentalising.
Then came crunch time, or as The Clash would put it: “Should I stay or should I go now?”
I decided it was time to get home. That’s when it really got weird.
More to come…