I’m writing this week’s column on a train as I set out from Dublin for Cork. In a not-very-climate-friendly confession, it strikes me I could fly to Lisbon quicker but Newstalk Breakfast has yet come up with a valid reason that would convince our bosses of the need to broadcast from Portugal, so Cork it is.
As I sit here watching fields and kitchen extensions hurtle past (I love looking into the backs of houses — the bit of your home the world doesn’t normally see!) I realise no one is wearing a mask on this half-full train and I’m actually glad.
Yes, I know that the pandemic isn’t fully over, although I’d argue that Covid-19 is fairly close to endemic at this stage. I know there are sub-strains of Omicron floating around that could possibly lead to another surge as they’re highly transmissible and immunity from vaccines and infection wanes so quickly. But they are not any more severe than Omicron, so even though we may well all get the virus again, the likelihood of people getting seriously ill remains very low.
I’m glad today because, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was much talk of things that would be permanently changed by its arrival. Things that we would ‘never do again’. People said we would never again go into a crowded pub or nightclub. Cinemas would become a thing of the past. We’d stop using public transport and we would become, like Asia, a place where mask-wearing was just a normal part of life. In effect, it was suggested that we’d stop congregating much at all, and that any time we were forced to operate in groups, we’d be wary and germ-phobic. You might think that I, as a doctor, would think that was a good thing. I don’t.
I’m glad to see us back doing those things because stopping our natural social interactions would not be a win for mankind. Human connection is part of what makes life worth living and choosing to eschew that and instead live in fear — avoiding each other; covering our faces, our main means of expressing ourselves and interacting — would fundamentally change our society, and not for the better. Disconnection and loneliness are terrible things.
Making fear of dying the focus of living is a waste of your life. That we’re all going to die, some of us sooner than others, is an unavoidable certainty. So if death is a given and only the hour is in question, then how we live is surely the important thing.
I was always willing to do whatever was necessary to protect myself and others at the height of the pandemic, but I was never keen on doing the unnecessary. Not because of some innate selfishness, but because I strongly believe that living in fear and embracing anxiety is futile and soul-destroying. It sucks all the joy from life when we trade what’s important — making our short lives rich and full — for what’s not: marking time, avoiding risk and, indeed, each other.
I’m not at all anti-mask — in fact, I was pro-mask before Nphet — but I’m happy to see we haven’t held on to them (apart from in limited, reasonable settings) as some kind of fear-filled, pandemic hangover.
Communing in a crowd, in a bar or at a concert is a joyous thing. Random hugs, shaking hands, a whisper in your ear, an unexpected kiss… These things have a genuine value that isn’t small or irrelevant. Masks were a necessary evil. I’m glad their time has passed.
It looks as though calories on menus is dead in the water. It was to be brought in as part of the Government’s strategy to combat obesity — probably a bigger threat to our collective health than the pandemic, in that it causes both cancer and heart disease.
But in the face of resistance from parts of the restaurant industry, the anti-’Nanny State’ gang and from those who think every mention of weight management is fat-shaming, kill-joying or eating-disorder-inducing, it seems to have died as an idea.
It’s a shame. Information is neither good nor bad, it’s merely a tool. I’ve always liked coffee shops, like Insomnia or Starbucks, where you can see the calories of what you’re eating. It informs my decision making.
It doesn’t stop me from having a double-chocolate muffin when I feel like it, but it does make me go, “Wow, I thought that toasted fruit loaf with jam and butter was a small mid-morning snack, but actually it has more calories than last night’s dinner”.
I still happily eat calorie-dense food, but I prefer not to do so by stealth. I’d rather know what I’m eating and then decide for myself one way or the other.