Spiritan Features

Fragile, Resilient, Interdependent.
Liam Lally

Fragility and resilience are, by definition, opposites - and may appear to be incompatible bedfellows. But maybe not?

The emergence of the deadly COVID-19 virus in China late last year, and the possibility of it spreading throughout the world in a matter of months, did not bother us as we celebrated Christmas and rang in 2020. And yet, by St Patrick’s Day, Ireland was convulsed by what was happening in China and Italy and in anticipation of what might happen here.

What have we learned thus far – acknowledging that there is still a lot unknown – regarding the medical aspects of this virus and more generally, its impact on world economies?

Global Interdependence

If anyone still believed that any one country could manage its affairs  independently of other countries on the other side of the globe, such a notion has been smashed by the invasion of this invisible enemy as it leapt with alarming speed from China to the ends of the earth. And yet, despite an awareness of our dependence on the accurate sharing by countries first affected by it of information regarding the nature and extent of this virus, there has been a worrying rise in national self-interest. The tussle to get the EU’s wealthier countries to agree a comprehensive package of measures to meet current medical needs, and short-term economic recovery requirements, augur poorly for European solidarity.

Personal Interdependence

We have very quickly learned, if we did not already know, that we cannot live totally independent lives. We depend on our neighbours and friends to act responsibly to slow down the spread of this virus. Furthermore, we depend on front-line workers, family, friends and neighbours to come to our aid if/when the virus attacks us. And we in Ireland have risen remarkably well to this challenge. It is often said that the Irish do death well – friends and neighbours surround the bereaved with soothing words and hugs, as well as practical efforts like milking the cows and providing an endless supply of sandwiches. The threat of this virus has evoked similar levels of care for the stricken, often with much generosity from unexpected quarters. Urban neighbours, previously on nodding terms only, offered shopping and friendship to the local ‘cocooned’ elderly. Professionals, often chided for their interest in monetary reward, have gone beyond their normal reach to offer their services for the public good.

Global Fragility

People who seemed to know about these things, were confidently predicting that the financial/economic indicators for 2020 were on a steady upward trajectory. It is ironic that a contributor to an Irish language programme described COVID-19 as coming aniar aduaidh orainn, literally coming upon us from the north-west i.e. coming unexpectedly. Of course, the virus came to us from the east and has sent the markets spiralling downwards. The financial cost of the virus, currently incalculable, will undoubtedly be a burden on every country and every person for years to come. The global financial situation seems only slightly less fragile than Humpty Dumpty! Economies can never be pandemic-proofed, nor can they escape unexpected catastrophes. Economists and political leaders would do well to acknowledge this fact when making predictions and promises.

Personal Fragility

While the strongest amongst us knows that we are mortal beings with a finite lifespan, we normally pay little attention to the precarious nature of our existence. We live as if invincible. The sight of a cavalcade of Italian army trucks ferrying coffins to distant crematoria provided a stark reminder to all of us, strong and weak, that we have a tenuous grip on life itself. It is true that those worst affected by the virus are the elderly and those already ill, but even the young and fit have not escaped. A professional boxer described his battle with this virus as like being ‘in the ring’ for twelve rounds!

And yet …

Global Resilience

At this point in the struggle to contain, if not overcome, this virus, there is emerging a level of co-operation and a sharing of valuable experience and resources that is commendable. When countries, large and small, realise that they are under attack from a common enemy there often emerges an increased awareness that there is strength in unity – Ní neart go cur le chéile. Irish scientists are currently working with their peers in other countries to develop an antidote for the corona virus.

While academics forge ahead with their research, many pharma/biotech companies are in competition with each other to get a reliable antibody to market, knowing that whoever wins that race will be richly rewarded. A combination of co-operation and competition can, in some situations, be healthy.

The global recession of ten years ago was on its way to being worked through when the outbreak of COVID-19 occurred. While Humpty Dumpty may not be put together again, a new economic system, more suitable to the needs of the 21st century may need to be constructed that takes into account the basic needs of all people, nationally and globally.

Personal Resilience

Before the advent of this virus, and the attendant restrictions on work, leisure and movement, most people would have been horrified at the thought of such limitations being imposed on them. And yet, and yet, we adapt, and though frustrated at times, we manage to live in a new – and simpler – way.

The closure of most commercial businesses resulting in the immediate unemployment of thousands of people, and the fear that some of those enterprises may never re-open, is a major cause of concern for those employees and their employers. The resilience that was shown in the aftermath of the 2008 recession will be called upon again in the months, if not years, ahead. People who have escaped the worst effects of this medical and economic crisis will, one hopes, not be found wanting when it comes to helping those most negatively impacted.

The Future

Up to a short time ago, media contributors typically had very definite, irrefutable answers to major, complicated questions. Recently, it has been heartening to hear medical experts from across the world, including our own leading specialists, with great humility and honesty, say ‘I don’t know’. Commentators, informed or otherwise, will no doubt, continue to offer their opinions. Audiences need to be more critical and better informed in order to subject media output to a more forensic analysis.

During this crisis we have had to re-evaluate our priorities. We have come to realise that many of the things that crowded – and clouded – our lives were superfluous. We can live happily without many of the things that last year were ‘essential.’  COVID-19 has facilitated a forced ‘spring cleaning’ of our lives, making us select for keeping what is of real value, jettisoning some dross, and incorporating some new aspects that were hitherto deemed improbable.

Until a few weeks ago our roads were clogged each morning as workers, like lemmings, set off to spend their days in pigeon-hole workspaces. A lot of that work is now done from home and is likely to continue to be done from home, or from local hubs, to some significant degree post-COVID-19.

Social distancing, painful but necessary, has brought into focus our need for close human interaction. The absence of a child’s cuddle, the hugs and kisses of loved ones and the banter with friends have impoverished our lives and we await their return with delightful expectancy. 

And perhaps most significantly of all, the proximity of illness and death in our communities may increase our realisation of the need to nurture our transcendent selves.