Another baleful milestone in the history of Northern Ireland has been passed today as the number of Covid-19 related deaths exceeds 1,000 for the first time.
It’s been a few decades since we’ve had a fatality countdown of such an epic scale.
But unlike the collective gut-clenching dread that accompanied the lead up to, say, the 3,500th Troubles victim or the 100th sectarian killing in any one year, this tragic tally — 15 deaths in the past 24-hours, meaning now 1,011 of our people have died from Covid-19 — is passing with much less attention and all-round angst.
During the conflict, the vast majority of people from all backgrounds shared a sense of shame, as if the mark of Cain was upon us all. We desperately tried to keep the terror away from our families.
We wanted the deaths to stop. We felt stalked by fear. If your loved one wasn’t at risk of being specifically targeted, they could still stroll into a shop or pub and become — to use the killers’ crude parlance — collateral damage.
Now, it’s our response that is conflicted. For every one terrified of Covid-19 and frantic about keeping a relative safe, another openly scoffs about it and brazenly shows off their mask-free chops.
The 1,011 deaths milestone is the official figure of course — the tally recognised by the Department of Health and which they have been totting up over the last two months in particular with increasing ferocity and with equally alarming disparity in performance with the other jurisdiction on the island.
The all-island headlines showed 11 deaths in total on Monday, for example, with 596 new cases. But the astonishing reality is that Northern Ireland accounted for 10 of those deaths, bringing our then total to 996, with 290 new cases of infection, in a population of 1.8m.
The Republic, however, yesterday recorded only one death from the virus and 306 new cases — in a population of just under five million.
Something has gone dreadfully wrong in Northern Ireland. In addition to the grim stats above, there are a staggering 139 care homes fighting their own outbreaks of the disease, a number which has been in three figures daily for at least a month, while the numbers here on ventilators — the most at risk cases — has kept steady at around 40, only in recent days appearing to come slowly down.
The eccentricity of the registration system for these deaths is notable only in that the official milestone we have now passed was, according to NISRA — the official Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency — actually surpassed some time ago. Its tally of Covid-19 related casualties here stands at more than 1,300 dead.
Most of us can recall the heart-breaking interviews with relatives of the first Covid-19 victims back in March and the stark horror of those lonely funerals with a handful of mourners. But the uncomfortable truth is — increasingly the stories of death and debility wreaked on families across Northern Ireland does not appear to be the narrative Government here wanted to have told.
Insofar as any strategy could be clearly picked out of the mess of contradictory guidance from politicians and, it must be admitted also at times from health professionals, at different stages in the pandemic, the one clear message was an urgency to get “back to work”, to “save the economy”; a policy by and large of “open up and shut up”.
If the words “furlough”, “aerosol” and “pandemic” have entered everyday UK usage in 2020, as recorded by the dictionary compilers, we in Northern Ireland can add our own — “wet bar” being prime among them. In a country stereotyped for its alcohol consumption, even this phrase managed to turn just about everyone off the idea of a drink.
Not quite everyone, though; and the plight of the hospitality trade came to be offset against the steady procession of coffins making their way daily out of hospitals and care homes.
That was an unfortunate situation. It’s the economy of the madhouse where jobs are set up against public health; where the choice to be made was between driving people into town centres with incentives to socialise and spend and the silent hidden tragedies being enacted up those leafy driveways on the outskirts of towns and villages across the country.
It’s no “choice” at all, in fact; and presenting it as one only betrays a fairly desperate lack of leadership and imagination. One will always choose to protect the lives of the most vulnerable in any society. Choosing anything else is barbaric.
Yet, when the Republic stepped up its restrictions to Level Five, the highest possible; and while nations in Europe began to impose even more stringent rules of association, Northern Ireland dithered, bickered, dodged, delayed, even as its rates of infection were among the highest on the whole continent and still are a disgrace, making this small territory the Typhoid Mary of the British Isles.
As we ran the gamut from the Storey funeral to Sammy’s mask, unsurprisingly Covid-19 conspiracy theory claims flourished. What a shock, though, to find moon-howlers among our own politicians.
Across Europe, public events were limited to a few masked necessary individuals as the restrictions tightened and infections rose. In Belfast, uniquely in the Western hemisphere, football fans trooped along into the stadiums to watch matches, being sprayed head-to-toe at the gates like a throwback to foot-and-mouth disease. The embarrassing, eccentric, stupid bravado of the Ulster rogue male, risking himself and his vulnerable loved ones for the sake of being the big man on a night out.
Where a miracle spray was most needed, of course, was Stormont; but, sadly, there is protection against that condition.
There will be no list of the thousand dead read out on the steps of Parliament Buildings or City Hall. Now, there are notably less interviews with the bereaved or those whose lives have been altered by Covid-19 in more enduring ways — the casualties we were told would not exist, since the virus only harmed the very elderly.
Not so, it turns out. The Prime Minister found himself at age 55 literally at death’s door thanks to a virus which we were assured had little chance of harming anyone other than the octogenarians.
That they had lived enough already, was an unspoken thought. Moreover, we learned today from Oxford that persistent lung damage has been found in Covid-19 patients three months after infection.
You’d like to think that someday there will be a reckoning for the failures of this administration. Other jurisdictions can vote out failed leaders. For us, that’s a luxury we don’t have and will probably never have.
You can chalk that fact up as yet another legacy of our sectarianism and its rotten politics.