Ireland’s Covid Strategy: Taking Care of Each Other

Exulansis n. The tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it — whether through envy or pity or simple foreignness — which allows it to drift away from the rest of your life story, until the memory itself feels out of place, almost mythical, wandering restlessly in the fog, no longer even looking for a place to land. (Dictionary of obscure sorrows)

March 19, 2001
My wife and I were photographers when we met in the U.W. Oshkosh Advance Titan newspaper darkroom. We have family and friends in Southeastern Wisconsin and the Fox Valley but in 2001 we decided to try something different. We moved to a village on the Irish Sea just north of Dublin, Ireland.

March 19, 2020: Exactly 19 years later our daughter made her first solo flight back from her experience as a high school student in Appleton Wisconsin. The pandemic cut her time there short and kept her granddad, aunt and cousin from accompanying her on the flight back to Ireland. President Trump’s travel bans forced us to change her flight several times, the cancellation vouchers finally came a few days ago. A few days earlier O’Hare was packed with panicked travelers trying to stay ahead of the bans but on the day she flew the world’s busiest airport was nearly empty. Less than 30 people were on the Airbus 330. She was somewhere over the Atlantic when the U.S. State Department posted a Level 4 Do Not Travel Warning.

On this day, Ireland confirmed 191 new Covid-19 cases and confirmed its 3rd death. Wisconsin reported 49 new Covid-19 cases and 2 deaths. It looked like Wisconsin was safer but Ireland (Population 5 million) was performing more Covid-19 tests than the entire United States (Population 330 million.)

March 20, 2020: When I picked our daughter up at the airport, HSE (health) employees were handing quarantine notices to everyone coming off the plane. She had a mask provided by the airline, another she had worn as Meatloaf in her Irish school’s production of the musical We Will Rock You. I watched some people greet by miming the French cheek kiss thing from a distance.

For two weeks our family of four socially distanced from each other and from everyone else. I was the only one to go out for groceries. Most other shops were closed and the streets were empty. The airport and highway are less than five miles away but our skies were unmarred by contrails and at night we only heard the sound of tides rushing between the Irish sea and our estuary. My son woke up one day complaining about how loud the birds are. Ireland didn’t have a run on toilet paper but flour was impossible to find. Many people baked at home to avoid trips to the store for bread.

Ireland took the lockdown very seriously without need for heavy-handed law enforcement. In Ireland, enforcement by grannies and other neighbors watching from their front windows can be more effective than the Garda Síochána (Guardians of the Peace.) One gardi told me his trick for breaking up a bar fight was to shout, “I’m gonna tell your ma!”

A typical day of Covid-19 lockdown in Ireland, Spring of 2020

I can’t say for sure when I first saw people wearing masks in Ireland. I take Dublin’s DART light rail to work every day and masks, hijabs, niqabs, scarves and other coverings are not unusual. But when I was in Dublin for a Covid-19 themed Science Hack Day on March 8th, some Italian students visiting for a (cancelled) soccer match were wearing stylish black snoods. I started to notice red-haired freckled ethnic Irish people wearing masks. The train was becoming less crowded and coughs made all of us uneasy. We were in touch with a former exchange student from Italy who was already under a strict lockdown. Ireland also has close connections with the U.K. where it was business as usual for pubs, football matches and even Stereophonic rock concerts. This only changed after Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson was hospitalized for Covid-19.

A work colleague was quarantined because his son had been at a ski resort in the Italian Alps where the virus was already spreading. My manager gave us the option to telecommute which actually made it easier to have meetings with colleagues in Australia, India and the U.S. In fact since my wife’s daycare had been forced to close and our daughter was already settled in an Appleton school, I had considered working remotely from Wisconsin. But as soon as our travel insurance ran out we would face the same healthcare nightmare as many Americans. Our daughter’s visit to a Fox Valley quick-care clinic cost more than $300. It would cost $0 to $80 in Ireland. Despite all of the scaremongering about public healthcare, I don’t see many huge differences except that during a pandemic no one in Ireland worried if they could afford a Covid-19 test or that they would be labeled uninsurable with Covid-19 as a pre-existing condition. When our daughter was a baby sick with a fever, a Nigerian-Irish doctor made a house call in the middle of the night. One of my best friends to lost their Wisconsin home to medical bankruptcy despite her working as a nurse and her husband as an EMT. No, until we have a permanent solution, Ireland is the best place for us to shelter-in-place during this pandemic.

Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar was a trained doctor who took the pandemic very seriously. A good leader can lead his country through this disaster without creating panic. A good leader might say something like this:

“Some people watching will have seen their jobs lost… businesses closed… or their working hours reduced. More will be worried that this might happen to them too… especially as we do not know when the Emergency will end. I know this is causing huge stress to you and your families… on top of fear of the virus.

While we do not have all the answers now… we are doing and will do all we can to help you through the time ahead.

You will receive income support as quickly and efficiently as possible… and when we are through the worst… we will work as hard as possible to get people back to work and get business open again.

Everyone in our society must show solidarity in this time of national sacrifice. For those who have lost their jobs and had their incomes reduced temporarily… there must be help and understanding from those who can give it… particularly the banks… government bodies and utilities.

We went into this crisis with a strong economy and the public finances in good order. We have the capacity and credit rating to borrow billions if we need to.”

— Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Taoiseach

Dublin’s Saint Patrick’s day parade was cancelled for the first time since the

Hoof and Mouth outbreak the year we arrived. The lockdown began with restrictions on sporting events, churches, pubs and nonessential businesses before St. Patrick’s day. Additional restrictions were brought in. We were to limit non-essential travel to 2 kilometers. They weren’t all voluntary but enforcement was sensible, reasonable and people worked together to make it work. We stayed well within the 2 kilometer limit, and checked on neighbors. Our children’s school changed to 100% homework. Our son learned to bake flatbread. Our daughter practiced singing and piano.

May 15, 2020: It’s understandable that many are still in denial. This came so fast that very few of us are able to understand what is happening. Our little neighborhood had its second funeral in a month, only five were allowed to attend the church service so the neighbors went out and stood apart to honor them. Some walked behind the hearse as it passed slowly through the neighborhood. We owe these people and their families the honor of acknowledging their lives and loss.

We immigrants and expats are naturally self-isolating. We don’t have extended family or childhood friends nearby.

Many immigrants are in the thick of it, working jobs that no one would envy. As Ireland’s daily case count began to fall, I watched it rise in my home state of Wisconsin. A man I once voted for forced friends and family to choose between their democratic right to vote and risking the lives of themselves and their family. I saw misinformation shared on social media, politicians and popular U.S. TV personalities. I listened to Wisconsin’s radio stations tell their audience what it wanted to hear, that this was a “Chinese Virus”, a problem for other people in other parts of the world and that people in Wisconsin shouldn’t worry about it. Radio stations have become podcasts with no room for doctors or families of victims to call in and call out these lies. This virus doesn’t care about ethnicity, race, national borders. It quickly moves through humanities six degrees of separation and the only way that we can beat it is share ideas and encouragement more quickly across these six degrees.

Ireland’s public radio and TV RTE worked to unite us and keep us home. They played classic sports matches and great movies. We watched Casablanca and I learned that only 3 of its actors were American-born, Bogart, Sam and the Bulgarian refugee. On Dublin’s Newstalk 106, Ciara Kelly shared her experience as a medical professional and Covid-19 survivor. She took calls from children of Ireland asking how they’re coping. In Wisconsin it was the opposite, people were told to be angry and hate others according to their political party, economic status, race and religion.

Covid-19 misinformation from U.S. political campaigns and other destructive forces have found their way into Irish social and traditional media. There was an anti-mask protest in Dublin last week. The Asian-Irish and Italians led the way in mask-wearing but some have experienced intensified racism. A customer refused to let our daughter’s friend serve them in a restaurant because he was Chinese, a gang pushed an Irish-Chinese woman into a canal and another Asian teen was brutally attacked.

My 12-year-old suggested we go to the local Chinese takeaway because he thought others would be afraid. Now we make it a weekly treat. I like the way our community comes together here and how they try to rely on voluntary compliance and enforcement by grannies and mammys instead of heavy-handed police that other countries must rely on. It’s unfortunate that an immigrant was the first arrested for violating social distance orders. We try to comply twice as closely than the long-settled Irish. I’m hopeful that it will pay off in the long run. For the first time in history the world has a common enemy to unite against. Some good news may come out of this. People are learning that work from home and telemedicine can be valuable tools. We’re also learning the value of what we lost. I know this has been much harder for some. After getting its daily case rate to below 10 (less than 1/100th Wisconsin’s current level), Ireland has been trying to figure out which aspects of daily life can come back to some level of normal. We prioritized schools over pubs so now many pubs are open with restrictions or closed. Masks are required in shops and public transport. The main street in our village was pedestrianized, but many local businesses and elderly don’t like the change.

It’s so quiet and the air is so clear but we all look forward to the day when we can hug and dance and sing together in church. We send prayers and encouragement and thanks to those who work so hard and don’t give up hope. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s impossible to get through this difficult time.