Sunday, May 31, 2020

Workers wearing face masks as they unload fish from a truck at a shop at the Wuhan Baishazhou Market in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province in April. Picture: Hector Retamel/AFP via Getty Images

By Conor McGuire

I’m wondering what constitutes lockdown fatigue and can it be diagnosed, treated, or even medicated out of existence?
There are telltale signs that we are collectively slipping in our observance of enforced social consciousness by seeking society. We are social animals (I won’t describe us as a herd because that’s got a bad name lately), but we do crave company, the buzz of crowds and idle chatter. We love news from the horse’s mouth, not at the distance afforded by social media and messaging. We want face-to-face interaction, the possibility of casual encounters, and the unexpected greeting.
So much is lost in isolation. The nuance of facial and body expression that fleshes out the spoken word. The frenetic energy of a packed bar, the unpredictable dynamics of an evening spent with friends.
And for the young, there is the essential exploration of romance and courtship, flirting and ‘spotting’ and the inevitable encounter. I would hope not to be too puerile in my thinking, but maybe I’m just stating the obvious. On the one hand, due to the extended lockdown, we may have the “Christmas” effect, where maternity wards will be doubly busy with new arrivals next winter. Couples will couple when left in protracted proximity without distraction. We can expect a baby boom, life-renewing itself amidst sickness and uncertainty.
Then there is the opposite effect, the estrangement of the young and sexually curious. If our maternity wards can expect a bumper season, the STD clinics will be able to temporarily close their doors. It would be an interesting study to propose alongside the effectiveness of the Covid-19 shutdown. Will we see a decrease in attendance to sexual health clinics nationwide post the social restrictions? It seems too rare an opportunity to glean some interesting, if not useful, data on the subject. I feel sure some researchers are already busy correlating graphs and figures as I write.
There is also an extraordinary coincidence of words at present. While we endure the ‘new normal’ and its constrictions, we are collectively devouring the old as depicted in the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. The graphic portrayal of the previous normal: streets crowded, school halls teaming with life, cafes open when social distancing was an unthought-of horror fill us with unexpected nostalgia.
The depiction of the trials of Leaving Cert married to the emotional minefield of adolescence makes for compelling viewing. I won’t mention the bedroom antics, except to say that my generation were a great deal more innocent. The clash of two normals married to a literally captive audience has proved a perfect storm of publicity, launching the series and the book to unheard of exposure.
Other areas spark my curiosity too. I know our Gardaí are busy enforcing the lockdown and its rigid 5km boundary, with some restraint and good humour, I might add. But how has our reduced mobility affected crime statistics, particularly gang activity and the sales of drugs? Whatever means of distribution employed by the purveyors of contraband must have collapsed, and they will doubtless invent ingenious ways of redistribution. The statistics on crime from Ireland for the year 2020 will provide fascinating insight and reading as our black economy is decimated in parallel to regular business and trade.
So many of our collective habits need re-examination, and the present crisis has shone an unexpected light on our species excesses. When the crisis first broke, there was the inevitable rush to stock up on food and necessities. We feared want and hunger, the idea of dwindling supplies haunting our dreams. Yet the opposite is exact. We have food to excess, not domestically but in terms of mass production. We are suddenly more aware of the tremendous and unacknowledged machinery of agriculture and its bewildering sophistication.
These great farms of fruit, milk, meat, and poultry operate on a staggering scale, churning out perishable fresh produce that requires immediate consumption. But the restaurants are closed, and vast swaths of agricultural workers are confined home or sick.
The result is an unfolding obscenity of food dumping on an unprecedented scale. Milk is flushed down drains by the gallons. Whole factories of pigs and poultry are slaughtered, and the carcasses burned. Fruits are dying on the branch as seasonal pickers are absent, while the beef market is on the verge of collapse. There is a temporary glut of usually expensive foods, prices dropping while producers are threatened with bankruptcy.
Initially, retailers had to deal with some panic buying, but more significant problems loom on the horizon. Ironically, the present excess could lead to shortages in the coming months as producers decrease output due to the collapse in prices and purchasing.
At the height of the pandemic, during mid-April, one-third of the world’s population was in lockdown, many dependent on State subsidies and handouts. Politically and economically, the situation is unsustainable, and a recipe for chaos. While our food shelves are still full, without a return to full production, there could be shortages in less developed countries shortly.
And that same process of mass production, while satisfying our dietary needs, is also increasingly perceived as suspect. The news that the Wuhan meat markets in China are to close and the sale of wild animals outlawed is welcome. But the previous strains of coronavirus originated from intensive farming, most notably swine and bird flu, where overcrowding of animals married to extended human exposure fostered cross-species contamination. The danger of a more lethal and contagious virus emerging under these conditions is genuine and terrifying.
We have to change our habits or reap the bitter harvest of environmental catastrophe, depleted resources, and frequent pandemics. Mass production is terrible for the environment, and global food waste amounts to 1.3 billion tonnes per year.
Our global population is ever-increasing, estimated to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. Our modern lifestyle is unsustainable and our habits need to change. We have embraced urbanisation, global travel, and intensive exploitation of our natural resources without regard to the needs of future generations. But without change, we can only expect more of the same, living in fear of the next wave of disease and the attendant social disruption.
We can start at home, growing our own vegetables or sourcing locally where possible. We need to embrace the idea of lab-grown meat and protein alternatives. The production of cheap meat and poultry on an industrial scale needs a radical rethink. I love my steak or chicken fillet, but if I am offered a nutritious alternative at the expense of taste and variety, I would willingly make the change.
Our government has discovered that the population is willing and compliant when asked to make sacrifices for the greater good. Nothing will change unless new industries and production methods are incentivised with financial rewards and supported by progressive legislation.
We can endure lockdown and social isolation if we know the goal is socially and morally justified.
We can do the same with our dietary habits.
It just requires inspired leadership.

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