Published in MarketWatch on March 30, 2020

‘As a society, we are social distancing, but strangely we are also more connected, and it’s all because of this harrowing public-health crisis’

The physical restrictions of living in a lockdown in the age of coronavirus have reminded me of my time spent living in Angola in the late 1990s when we had to watch where we drove (and walked) to avoid land mines and needed to permission to travel to rebel-held areas under very strict rules.   

The only way in and out of Chicuma, a remote part of the province of Benguela where I spent six months living in a tent, was through World Food Program flights. The pilots, too, had to use all of their skills in landing to avoid those land mines. 

My former aid-worker career in disaster zones has prepared me well for situations of challenge and uncertainty and, of late, limitations. 

This is what I learned during my time as an aid worker: When you see the worst in life, you often see the very best in people.

During my time as an aid worker, I responded to both man-made and natural catastrophes. I once visited a hospital with no water, so I am familiar with the skills required to survive and be resourceful in challenging situations. This is what I learned during my time as an aid worker: When you see the worst in life, you often see the very best in people. I saw that then, and I see it now.

Working in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) in 2008, where life expectancy had been reduced by nearly two decades to 44 years of age because of HIV and AIDS, I witnessed the incredible work of the education commission and how it strived to motivate school children to study in what seemed like a hopeless situation as many of their parents and others in their communities fell ill with HIV. I visited one homestead where an 80-year-old woman looked after two of her great-grandchildren. All of the other members of their family were sick or dead. The indomitable spirits of these people will stay with me forever. 

It’s also worth remembering that AIDS had an almost 100% fatality rate, while the fatality rate for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has been estimated at anywhere between 1% and 3.4% throughout the course of this pandemic, depending on the source. 

There are things to be grateful for during this pandemic, and, for me at least, that is one of them. 

With people in their prime most affected by the HIV pandemic, others stepped in to sustain lives and livelihoods and care for the vulnerable in very difficult circumstances. Similarly, we are now seeing new heroes like health-care and supermarket workers, and truck drivers, come to light.

I live in Ireland, where the government last week introduced a nationwide lockdown, forbidding people from going outdoors unless it was for food, health reasons or to exercise. Social distancing seems like the one reliable method of trying to “flatten the curve” as the number of case rises, in the hope of stopping the disease in its tracks.

‘People have slowed down — and woken up’

As in U.S. cities and parts of Europe, most businesses and stores in Ireland are now closed. But these workers are willing to put themselves on the front lines in an effort to help the sick and make sure everyone has enough food. 

Many people grappling with social distancing, relatives who may be sick from COVID-19 or fearful about this global public health crisis now appear to be intently focused on what is truly important. A friend who usually works 14-hour days told me she is enjoying quality family time with her husband and two small children.   

As a society, we are social distancing, but strangely we are also more connected, and it’s all because of this harrowing crisis. Over the weekend, a neighbor talked excitedly about feeding the birds in his garden, and I chatted with his youngest son. This would never have happened on a previously “normal” working day. I care for my 80-year-old mother, and she is loving having me at home more. 

People have slowed down and woken up. John Casey, a friend who works in the construction industry in our hometown of Wexford in the southeast of Ireland, told me: “It is making people sit up and pay attention that this world we live in is so fragile. It is getting people that usually have their heads stuck in phones to realize the reality around them is not a cybergame.” 

Another friend, Joanna Valea, who works as a care giver, told me that she, too, has found that social distancing has brought her closer to friends who live far away. “I have lived in five countries and seven cities, so I have friends all over Europe. Before we kept in touch with a text or an emoji, a ‘Happy Birthday’ wish, maybe,” she said. 

“These terrible days made me realize the importance of actually talking to someone, hearing their voices rather than just skimming through some texts,” Joanna added. “It’s like we have renewed the vows of our friendship. I love it.” 

‘These terrible days made me realize the importance of actually talking to someone, hearing their voices rather than just skimming through some texts. It’s like we have renewed the vows of our friendship. I love it.’

People are even finding new ways to celebrate life events. The friends of a 12-year-old girl in Sligo, in the west of Ireland, where my mum is from, held surprise ‘drive-by’ party to celebrate her birthday. Friends and neighbors passed by her house in a line of cars, honking their horns, to wish her a happy birthday, as she stood in her driveway, radiating with delight

As of Monday, there were 2,910 confirmed cases of the virus in the Republic of Ireland, an increase of 215 cases on the day before, and 54 people had died from the disease, an increase of 8 deaths, while just five have thus far recovered. The virus is so far mainly affecting people in the capital city, Dublin, which has more than 50% of positive cases. Worldwide, as of Monday evening in the U.S, there were 800,049 confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide, with 38,714 deaths.

Ireland is now in full lockdown, with nonessential trips banned. There are police checkpoints on the roads to ensure people stick to these rules. While there were many stories of people flouting the distancing rules in the last week while visiting scenic spots, this weekend people were adhering to the latest guidance.  

This is the Irish way. Initially, we are skeptical and even prone to ignoring authority, a habit that is perhaps inherited from previous generations and a time when Irish people were mostly tenants living under the cudgel of our British landlords. Ireland has been a free state since 1922, and, as the Easter Rising of 1916 showed, we will unite if the survival of our country is at stake. 

Gatherings of more than one person in public places are now prohibited — apart from people in the same household. Only close family members of people who die from coronavirus can attend their funerals under strictly controlled conditions. 

We are now in the calm before the surge. We know it will come, as has happened elsewhere. Testing capacity is being ramped up and temporary mortuaries set up. It feels surreal, like we are sitting in a waiting room, but waiting for what, we don’t really know. COVID-19 has so far been a bit like a game of snakes and ladders. Every day has brought new challenges, learnings and joy. I had my first online meditation class last week.

Professionally, I have had to reinvent myself. As a life coach, I feel lucky there is much I can do online. Not everyone is so fortunate. While many people feel their world is getting smaller, mine is getting bigger. I am learning new skills as I work with Zoom and use social media more frequently. 

I found new clients from India, the U.S., England, Turkey and Ireland over the last 10 days. I even managed to get my washing machine repaired by an online repairman who guided me through the process. I have enjoyed richer and deeper conversations with almost everyone I have interacted with. A chance encounter at the ATM with a man who works at a local business led to a 15-minute conversation. 

When people are not caught up in the hustle and bustle, they can see and hear each other. It seems like the virus has pushed us all to look at things differently and change how we communicate. It has jolted us out of autopilot and away from our jaded conversational pleasantries and has shown us what matters most.  

As my friend Shashi Dubey told me on Sunday morning: “This is the story of man and nature. In this age of technology, we were moving so fast that we forgot our role and now need to rethink how we operate. We are the horse, but Mother Nature holds the reins.”