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Letter from... Belfast

18 May 2020

By Austyn Close, Senior Executive

Coronavirus is still very much front and centre of the public’s consciousness here in Northern Ireland. While restrictions are easing as of today, people in Belfast view this change with scepticism. 

The signs of this are evident from both within homes and on the roads. The pleading cry of doctors and nurses on the Belfast Trust’s TV advert has abandoned our screens and people were eager to empty their heaps of rubbish at recycling centres early this morning. Life in lockdown is easing but normality hasn’t returned.

Our news is dominated by the statistics and figures from the mainland. The rippling effect of what these say to a small population on the fringes of the United Kingdom is profound and yet perplexing. Despite the death toll of over 600 people here on our soil (a minor figure in comparison to that of England), images and news from the mainland has characterised a worried, more cautious mindset in people here.

In contrast, it seems that in rural communities there’s a mindset that would have you believe the virus can’t travel 15-minutes down the road from a major town that has a reported coronavirus case. There is a distinct separation between ‘us and them’ (city folk and ‘culchies’). “Why would coronavirus be in my village? It has no reason to be there,” a co-worker of my mum once said. As if the virus makes a rational choice as to where it spreads. 

My father works for the Northern Ireland Civil Service and his phased return to work has already kickstarted. He is now expected to work three days a week in his office as opposed to two days last week and one day the week before that. Phasing is very much a strategy underpinning businesses’ approach to kickstarting the local economy again and to support the NI Executive’s Five-Stage Plan published last week.

It was just last week when I offered to help my grandmother with her gardening (at a safe distance, of course) that an eerie ice cream van’s shrill tune rang throughout the neighbourhood. Who was it hoping to attract in the midst of a global pandemic? Or was it a desperate cry for a return to better days once again?