0937, January 2, 2021.
A nothing Saturday, if ever there was one.
I’m writing on a bench in Stephen’s Green. If I didn’t have a macbook on my lap, I’d probably pass for homeless, freezing my pants off in an empty, city-centre park. I’ve nowhere else to go because the cafes are closed and the country has shut down. Yet again. For the third time. I’m wearing about ten layers and I’ve a spare t-shirt wrapped around my neck as a scarf, because my actual scarf is wrapped around my legs like an aul wan’s blanket; and underneath that is a hand towel which I brought to dry the bench and keep my arse dry, because I’m in Dublin and, while it isn’t always raining, as some people claim, it is very often wet underfoot, because it has been raining, and evaporation is not a speedy phenomenon in our damp winter.
Meanwhile, the most of the Irish nation is at home, locked up, because we took the heart-filled, brainless decision to open up for Christmas, after a hard-won battle against the second wave of Covid in October-November. That’s the first peak on the graph above. The goal was to get the numbers low enough that we could open up the shops and restaurants for a couple of December weeks, smugly surfing the wave of infection, in the hope that everyone could show up for Christmas dinner with their family, armed with presents for the kids and a few pairs of socks for their uncle. If we could get the numbers down to 100 cases per day, an ‘optimistic’ target said NPHET, in their letter to the government on November 26, then we might sneak through December with just 400 cases per day, and we’d basically burn that bridge in January, satisfied that we had all had a merry Christmas, seen our loved ones, and supported our businesses.
Keeping numbers down to 400 by December 31 was based on a model that mirrored our late summer behaviour, when the people of this island took the enforced opportunity to sample its esternal splendour, eating picnics on the sometimes-dry, fluffy grass, or even indulging in the odd restaurant meal with loved ones. During the glorious months of July and August, and even through a foreboding September, the R number was estimated as being between 1.2 and 1.6. Nphet’s imagined figure of 400 cases in January is based on R being between 1.4 and 1.6, or ‘what might be expected under Level 3 restrictions with hospitality closed and limited visits between households’ (same letter, p7).
Now, for the uninitiated, what ‘might be expected’ in Ireland in December is not like anything that happens anywhere in any other month, unless you include jamborees like the Edinburgh festival in August. December in Ireland is a three-week festival of drinking, where people make the overlapping transition from partying with their work colleagues to partying with their emigrant friends who have returned from sunny climes for their annual dose of Irish warmth. An afternoon of Christmas shopping melts into a calm evening of unplanned pints. Meanwhile, gangs of bejumpered youths rove from pub to pub, downing a pre-planned twelve pints of beer. And once the pinting is over, the nation returns home to their families, often to other parts of the country, bringing all of accumulated good will, presents, and germs with them.
Of course, December 2020 was a lot more restrained than usual, but it’s all relative and the bar was rather high to begin with, so the spread of the virus must have been fierce. The situation may be complicated by the fact that there is a new strain of the virus in circulation with, rumour has it, an R number of 4 (as opposed to like 2.5 for the old virus, before our behaviour was checked last March). It’s clear that this new strain is having a major effect.
The numbers are still rising and our country fcUKed up so badly that we have maxed out our testing capacity, so we can no longer track the spread. The virus is roving ‘in the community’ as they say, and close contacts are being advised not to go for testing, but rather to stall the ball at home for fourteen days, bored off their rockers. There are reports of 4000 more unconfirmed positives which haven’t been verified yet. And, as I watch the 6pm news, they are saying there may be up to 6000 cases per day soon, while NPHET are blaming people’s behaviour.
What the flock did anyone expect?