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The chill of the unknown

We must come to terms with living in a new uncertain world

It was a beautiful spring morning. Bright, crisp sunshine dissolved the last vestiges of frost on the grass. Slievenamon lay dome-shaped and familiar in the distance, its edges blurred by a soft rising mist. The sound of birds chattering and chirruping filled the garden, seeping in through the gaps in the windows and doors. I used to think that birds sang for pleasure. I did not know that birdsong was one way in which they defended their territory. As I watched them dart about and fluff their feathers, I felt an affinity with them. I had come to know what it was like to feel threatened, and to have to defend my territory, as the whole country retreated to their homes and sacrificed their personal freedom for the sake of humanity.  

Until recently, I never thought that I would experience a global disaster. I don’t know why I felt invincible. It may be because I have always lived in a place that has been safe from war, hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis. In October 2010, I visited my sister in Damascus.  We visited the souks inside the old walled city, bargained for pearls and embroidered damask linen, and drank specialist teas in the outdoor cafes.  We had no idea that within six months many of the places that we had visited would be bombed, the people we had met killed or forced to flee.  

I am sure that those people had felt invincible before the war and whenever I thought of them, I wondered how they coped with such sudden and severe disruption in their lives. But I did not ponder that for long. There were more important things to think about: Family; work; and the million little things that make up everyday life. 

The new coronavirus has caused global destabilisation. When the first stories flooded in from China, we listened and watched with interest and compassion.  When the crisis extended to Italy and Spain, we became more acutely aware that not one of us is immune. Every cough, raised temperature, and muscle ache was Covid-19 until proven otherwise. Doctors and nurses worried that they had been in contact with the virus and remained vigilant for symptoms, while also staying at work. Households with children returning from college practised self-isolation as best they could while wanting nothing more than to share an embrace. We worried about our elderly parents at home or in nursing homes and tried to accept that we could not comfort or reassure them, no matter how much we wanted to.

As a doctor on immunosuppressants, I closed my door to patients and became a telephone and video doctor only, relying on the others to do the necessary examinations. 

As the weeks have gone by, some of the old familiar feelings of invincibility are returning. As of today, Ireland has not experienced a surge in cases, like the UK, US, Italy and Spain. Admissions to intensive care units have stabilised, and some of the people who required ventilation have recovered and are now at home.  

But it will be a long time before we return to the carefree pre-Covid days. As Yeats said of a foregone era: “All’s changed. Changed utterly.”

We may never shake hands in the same way again or visit our local supermarket without wearing a mask.   

It is too early to look for lessons learned, but already I feel a greater appreciation for what I once had.  Ease of travel, a gathering of all the family generations, a dinner with friends, my monthly book club. And alongside that, there is gratitude for the more efficient work practices that have emerged and the recently-weeded flower beds that will bring joy throughout the summer.   

 My son looked wistfully out the window and wished out loud for a glimpse into the future. “Just a peep,” he said. “I would just like to know how things will be a year from now.” A newly-minted PhD who only a few weeks ago experienced the world as a cornucopia of possibilities, having to live a restricted life is a temporary but extremely inconvenient blip. He still believes he is invincible.    

I do not tell him that I am happy not to know. Having experienced a lot more springtimes than he has, I will take this one just as it is. Who knows what the world will be like this time next year? Certainty is a cloak we look to put on when we feel the chill of the unknown. But it is an emperor’s cloak. We make plans and imagine that we are in control, but we are not. 

For now, the sun rises, leaves have appeared on the trees, flowers are blooming, and birds are doing their thing. These are the only certainties, but for now this is enough.

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