Updated: May 1
Niamh is a massage therapist from Newbridge, county Kildare. A very bright, lively woman, she is nonetheless very concerned by everything she has observed and experienced in the country over the last year. She begins by telling me a little about how she got into the world of massage therapy
“So I've been working in the industry for about 7 years now, and I started just because my youngest had started school and I thought, 'Right, what am I going to do?'. I'm not the kind of person to sit home and do nothing.
“I went back to school and learned anatomy and physiology and did holistic massage and then sports massage and reflexology. I actually opened up my studio even before I graduated, and I loved massage... I loved the different techniques, I loved how old the practice was.
“I think there's something very powerful in touch, where people can feel in a safe environment, they can feel connected. I believe there's a lot of very disconnected people out there, whether they're disconnected from their job or their family or their their own psyche.”
She reflects on the beginning of the Covid crisis and the lockdown in Ireland, and how she feels things may have been different with the benefit of hindsight.
“When the lockdown happened nobody knew, this is the horrible, really insidious thing about it. Nobody knew and even now nobody knows the end of it. I think maybe we never would have agreed to a level 5 lockdown twelve months ago if we had known it was going to be for such a long time with only a slight reprieve in the middle, especially in county Kildare where we've been on the naughty step almost the whole time except for July and August.
“Initially I think everybody was doing it for the right reasons, people were very motivated. Okay, we said, we're we're protecting the vulnerable, the people with underlying conditions, the sick.
“But what I noticed eventually was that the preparation for the Coronavirus pandemic didn't start when news of it broke. I'm convinced in my heart and soul that this virus was in the country long before Christmas 2019. There were clients I spoke to who were very sick, having first, second, third sets of antibiotics, and they still ended up with viral pneumonia. I was just thinking this is not right. These were 30 to 40 year old people. So I know in my heart and soul that this was in the country long it was said to be.”
She goes on to tell me how she began to see more serious signs of something being very wrong.
“The first time I knew that it was a serious virus was when clients were telling me that they were emptying out the hospitals, and this would have been January and February of 2020. They were going around telling people 'Look, I know you're not well, you do need hospitalization but you're better off at home taking your chances than being in here where you'll definitely die'. I think that was the first tragedy of the Coronavirus as it was back then.”
I ask her if she thought the lockdown was justified initially and whether or not that has changed.
“I'm a very instinctual person. My first instinct was, what is so different about this virus from any other? My medical knowledge would be first year nursing, anatomy and physiology. I have no depth of knowledge in virology or immunology so I wouldn't have a very educated basis but might my initial instinct was basically that. We were all watching the Diamond Princess, there were people coming off, everybody was getting the virus, getting quarantined, they weren't allowed disembark.
“Then I started watching the Worldometer figures. The virus spread then to all over the world basically, very quickly, and then the deaths and the death tolls started. I questioned it all in my own head. It all seemed very orchestrated, that was my instinct in the beginning. The same politicians in 10 different countries had the same rhetoric, they had the same words, the same verbiage. the same slogans.
“There was confusion as well. The confusion about masks: they were useful, they weren't useful. Washing your hands was enough, social distancing was enough, then it wasn't. I think the World Health Organization probably do drills like this all the time, where they're prepared for a pandemic and they just fill in the colouring book basically. They were just waiting for one to come along, and I don't have a problem with that, I think it's part of responsible government to have plans in place. I don't have a problem with plans being in place if a killer virus comes along. But I didn't think this was it, it felt very much like a dress rehearsal.”
So, I ask, how should things be done differently at this stage one year into the pandemic, knowing what we know now?
“Number one,” she tells me, “A little bit of hope, a little bit of good news insofar as how many people have recovered. At this stage they really need to start giving people a little bit of good news, tell people who had underlying conditions and who hadn't. The people who died with Covid and not from Covid, and the people who are recovering.
“The reaction was very much almost like the HIV virus reaction in the 80s when people wouldn't swim in the same swimming pool as somebody with HIV. They know now a lot more than they did this time last year. It's not a killer virus where if you get it you will die. Why does the media have to be so fear-based at this stage? Enough is enough, that's my slogan.”
I enquire how the lockdown has affected her business and her thoughts on the effects on Irish businesses in general.
“My model has changed altogether where before I would have had 45 minute treatments every hour on the hour. Now it's completely the opposite, I'm trying to spread out people more. I try and cater to people who are nervous, try and offer them an appointment say when nobody has been in the room for three days. I change my linen every treatment, I have a lot more disinfectant around, but it's very low-key. I don't like people coming in here feeling like they're walking into a hospital.
“I think people have been home an awful lot, so their disposable income I think is generally quite high. There's a certain section people who haven't been impacted at all. Then there's others like people in hospitality who have been decimated. In general I think it's been a chance for people to get out painting the fences, walk the dog, read books.
“The local enterprise office here in Kildare has been a very proactive, I think it's been very very good, just being ready and on hand for when things open up, but nobody knows when that's going to be. One of the big questions is rent, and how do you pay rent, how do you not pay rent, how do you come to an agreement. For example in the Whitewater, which is German owned building, they're continuing to ask every business for rent even during lockdown and that becomes a very tricky overhead to deal with for any business because they can't be expected to pay rent on the premises that they're not able to run a business from.
“I moved location because the hairdresser is closed so I couldn't put their business at risk, so I moved to my own location I am now and I started up again on January 1 in the middle of everything, from fresh. The LEO was very good, very supportive, very available.”
“The hospitality industry is going to be decimated. Definitely there'll be closures: bars,
restaurants, hotels, BnBs. I think that's completely going to be a new landscape for people, but then in that there's opportunity, so for anybody who wants to get out, who wants to diversify, it's a good chance to take stock.
“But what we need to do is we need to open now, and enough is enough, we need a date.”
What has been her observation of the effects on mental health?
“From observing my clients and just in general there's definitely a social anxiety in society now that was never there before.” she says. “Somebody steps too close to you and you step back, people go to hug you and you step away. It's not normal, we're social creatures and we need each other, we need contact, we need connection. It's been very hard on families trying to mind kids at home, trying to work from home. There's a lot of cracks appearing and strains on relationships and there's an awful lot of depression and suicide but nobody's talking about it, so mental health is suffering hugely.
“There's this isolation that everybody's been through, especially for the 70+ plus generation who still watch the 9:00 news and don't have access to any other alternative media sources. I think that this category is very vulnerable, it's going to be very difficult trying to coax them back to regular life, whether it's to mass or to bingo, or bridge, or even going for walks. There are people who literally have not stepped foot outside their door in 12 months and that's tragic. I think for society we really need to consider these people and how to encourage them back into healthy habits right now.
“Maybe because of mask mandates people have lost confidence in their voice. If I had investors behind me I'd open something like a chain of singing therapy centres across the country! People are going to need to find their voice again. Our mental health at the end of the day is so important. What do you do to the most hardened criminal when you want to punish him? You put him in solitary confinement. It's a horrendous punishment for any human being.”
Finally, where does she see it all going in the future, and what is her message for people going into the next few months?
“I think the mental health and social effects of Covid and lockdowns are going to be something we're still talking about in 5 years' time. I'd ask people to talk to their politicians now, get on your email and don't leave it to anybody else, because if they don't receive some kind of a pushback how long is it going to go on for? It really has to happen soon in order to start the economy back up again, start people moving. It's the springtime, flu season is over, people are getting vaccinated. There's hope in the air. I think people will bounce back very quickly, especially people with children will be able to adapt. But the elderly we've got to watch out for. We watched out for them during Covid but we have to watch out for them in a very different way after Covid.”