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Malachi O'Doherty

Why stockpiling loo roll makes a lot more sense than standing in the pub laughing off coronavirus

Malachi O'Doherty

The normal thing to do when facing disaster is to hold those you love close to you, writes Malachi O'Doherty


One thing you can at least say in favour of those who are stockpiling toilet paper - they have copped on that a crisis has arrived

One thing you can at least say in favour of those who are stockpiling toilet paper - they have copped on that a crisis has arrived

One thing you can at least say in favour of those who are stockpiling toilet paper - they have copped on that a crisis has arrived

The world as we know it is shutting down. People are a bit giddy because it hasn't fully sunk in with them how serious this is. You can't even go to Mass now. I suppose the bishops are thinking of days past, when gathering people into churches to pray for God's mercy only hastened the spread of contagion.

I am in a lucky group in that I mostly work from home anyway. I have cleared my mortgage, and though I don't have much of a pension, I'm going to have a lot less to spend it on.

I won't be going to restaurants and theatres and bars. I'll be staying at home. Not self-isolating, but social distancing.

Already we have a vocabulary for an experience we did not anticipate even last Christmas. Yet now that we are in a pandemic, we are hearing reminders in the media and the book supplements of how intrinsic a part of human experience this has always been.

When I first travelled to India I was vaccinated against smallpox and cholera. I met people who had had smallpox and survived it, their faces covered with little scars uniformly spread around.

They reminded me of a technique we learned in metalwork class whose name I have forgotten, tapping over a surface with a small hammer to produce an effect like - well, like the face of someone who has had smallpox. I have seen pewter mugs with it.

I had malaria in the summer of 1978 and practically everyone around me had it too, some seriously. One friend of mine sweated shivering under woollen blankets when the temperature outside was touching 40 celsius.

The treatment I took for that, chloroquine, made me smell like a freshly mopped toilet floor.

I simply don't know how careful to be. Like most people I am making my decisions about how to care for myself now with little reference to what governments say. Act normal until you get symptoms? What about symptoms like anxiety and dread?

Many arts and sporting events have been cancelled, even though they could have gone ahead under government guidelines, but the organisers know few would have turned up.

Tomorrow there was to be an inaugural lecture at Queen's by Frank Ormsby, the Ireland Professor of Poetry.

Now, Frank is a witty raconteur, but he was hardly likely to be pulling them in by the thousand.

For many of us this doesn't yet feel like a crisis. Countries are closing their borders and companies are sending people home.

The news programmes are talking about little else and yet you can walk around the city and see people in the pubs and the traffic flowing, perhaps a little lighter.

Just occasionally the reminder flashes into your head that people are dying and more will die and the numbers that died this week will be higher than last week and will go on getting higher still.

You see that on Twitter feeds where many people are relaxed about things and occasionally a message flares up full of rage and fear.

We are teetering between panic and glib disregard.

It was like this at the start of wars. The declaration is made and then nothing happens for months. And you get a kind of social giddiness as people pull together.

We saw that in the early days of the Troubles when the drinking clubs were opened by paramilitary groups and people drank and sang. And if that was a bomb you just heard, what the hell. People would even cheer. Life was a cabaret.

And there are people determined to enjoy themselves and shrug off the horror of what is upon us. Not so easy this time.

In the past week on RTE several presenters have hissed their contempt for the people who went off to Cheltenham while the schools were closing and sporting and arts events were being cancelled.

Micheal Martin tweeted his annoyance with those who went out to the pub on Saturday night. For some of them, this will have been the perfectly normal thing to do on a weekend, a habit hard to break. Others are determined to see this as a fuss over nothing.

I suggest that they take the number of cases in Ireland last week - 40 - and compare it to the number this week. Then, take the ratio and apply it to next week and the week after and see how long it takes to reach a nice round number like, for example, a million. And then two million.

The normal thing to do when faced with catastrophe like this is to huddle close to those you love and fear to lose, to draw frightened children closer, to let them rest their wee heads on grandma's lap.

Appalled, worried and wondering what the point to life is when the whole foundation can shift like this people look for spiritual answers, but even the churches must close.

How do you keep your spirits up through this when you must keep a social distance, even isolate yourself? We are the first generation to face a plague with an answer to that. We have social media.

We have too long concentrated on the dangers of the internet, but it will be the saving of us now.

Ironically, the people most needing to isolate are the old and these are the least likely to use the internet and the ones who already suffer most from loneliness.

Boris is apparently planning to send out Deliveroo bikes to their homes to leave carryouts on their doorsteps. But how long will they put up with it?

Will my mother-in-law be getting curries and pizzas? Will she be able to place an order? Will the Government largesse stretch to wine? And what if you want to go out for a walk?

If it wasn't so serious you'd laugh. It's hardly surprising some laugh anyway.

But what of those who simply don't have the space to separate themselves? Or the mental reserves to cope with solitude tempered by anxiety. Do any of us have enough of that when there is more comfort in denial?

One thing you can at least say in favour of those who are stockpiling toilet paper - they have copped on that a crisis has arrived.

Their response is a lot more sane than that of the crowds that cram the pubs and laugh the whole thing off.

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