IN his inaugural speech as Lord Mayor of Cork City in 1920, the famous Terence MacSwiney declared: “It is not those who can inflict most, but those who can suffer most, that shall prevail.”
Over the past four months, the people of Cork have endured the daily fear of living with a pandemic on their doorstep.
Many have lost loved ones and have been forced to endure lockdown measures that meant family and friends could not be together, grieve together, or provide support together.
Grandparents could not hold their grandchildren, people working on the frontline were forced to isolate from family as the county and country went into lockdown.
More than 25,000 people in Ireland were infected with Covid-19, including 1,500 Corkonians. Across the country, more than 1,700 have died. Nursing homes were hit particularly hard, with more than 900 elderly residents dying due to the virus — more than half the total Covid-19 death toll.
Globally, there have been more than 9 million cases, and more than 400,000 people have lost their lives.
The virus has changed the way we work, the way we shop, the way we travel — it has altered the very fabric of our daily lives.
Now, as Ireland is presented with a roadmap to exit the Covid-19 crisis, that famous MacSwiney quote, 100 years on, seems to emphasise the need for continued support and solidarity from the people of Cork, both to each other and those outside the county, as everyone seeks to rebuild and regroup.
The level of community spirit here in Cork was personified by those on the frontline in hospitals, care settings, and essential services across the county, all of whom have been praised in recent weeks and months.
Professor John Browne, director of the National Health Services Research Institute in Ireland and University College Cork public health expert, praised both the public and professional response to Covid-19 here in Cork.
“From my perspective, the amount of flexibility has been amazing across all professions and management,” he said.
“A lot of medical consultations are now being done online — that would never have been considered previously.
“The layout of the hospitals has changed rapidly and that has meant people working round the clock.
“The paramedics have been fantastic as well, going above and beyond what is expected of them.
“From the public side, I have been really impressed with retail outlets.
“The speed with which places like Dunnes supermarkets put in place the queuing systems, plastic shields, dedicated times for older people etc, was incredible.”
The speed at which the virus spread across the globe and made its way to Ireland was incredible too.
In January, The Echo reported that doctors in Cork had been briefed on a deadly virus that had killed 18 people in China, amid fears it could spread on a global scale.
Five months later, the coronavirus has impacted nearly every country in the world.
After tearing through a number of countries early this year and leaving thousands dead in its wake, the virus finally made its devastating entrance to Ireland on the final day of February, when authorities confirmed the first case of the virus on this island.
On March 5, seven new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Ireland, including the first known case of community transmission in the country. Until then, the virus had just been found in those who had arrived in Ireland after travelling from infected areas of the world.
This first case of community transmission, identified in a male patient in Cork University Hospital, meant the virus was spreading among people who had not been to these infected areas — a frightening prospect.
Speaking from Washington on March 12, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called for all schools, colleges, and childcare facilities in Ireland to close.
At the time, shops, restaurants, and other businesses were permitted to remain open, but that advice quickly changed as the pandemic began to take hold in Ireland, and only essential services were allowed to operate in the weeks and months that followed.
Two days after the Taoiseach’s speech, the number of Covid-19 cases in Ireland had surpassed 100.
By the end of March, there were almost 2,500 reported cases in Ireland and the health sector was scrambling to secure personal protective equipment (PPE), extra bed capacity, and more staff.
The people of Ireland were told to only leave their homes if absolutely necessary. Social distancing measures were introduced and the elderly were advised to ‘cocoon’ at home.
As Covid-19 gripped the country and the number of cases in Cork rose, there was concern that the Rebel County could find itself at the centre of the outbreak in Ireland.
Lombardy in Italy, the epicentre of the outbreak there, recorded more than 90,000 cases of the virus and 16,575 deaths — almost half of Italy’s devastating death toll.
The province of Hubei in China, home to Wuhan where the outbreak stemmed from, witnessed 68,000 cases and almost 5,000 deaths.
Just across the Irish Sea, our neighbours in London recorded more than 27,000 cases and surpassed the 6,000-death mark in recent days.
However, even as Cork saw its number of cases surpass the 1,500 mark in recent days, the devastation and horror experienced by the likes of Lombardy, London, and Wuhan did not unfold here in the south-west of Ireland.
A breakdown from the Department of Health revealed that, of Cork’s 1,500 Covid-19 cases, almost 200 were reported in Fermoy since the beginning of the outbreak, along with around 120 across other parts of North Cork.
Some 126 cases were reported from suburbs around the county, while the city recorded almost 100 cases.
Meanwhile, around 80 cases were reported in West Cork, along with 61 in the east.
By mid-April, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) reported that the growth rate of the pandemic had been driven down — the curve had flattened.
Our coronavirus toll never reached the devastation that was inflicted upon some countries and regions, but it could have been better.
Namibia in Africa recorded 72 cases of Covid-19 and no deaths so far.
In Australia, there have been just over 100 deaths recorded as a result of Covid-19 and fewer than 7,500 total cases.
In New Zealand, a country that has been held aloft as an example of good lockdown practice, just 22 people have died and 1,516 cases have been recorded.
Back in Ireland, while more than 1,700 have died and thousands have contracted the virus, the response from healthcare staff and the general public appears to have kept an even worse scenario at bay.
Speaking to The Echo, Dr Conor Deasy, emergency department (ED) clinical lead at Cork University Hospital, said: “We’re extremely grateful that the horror inflicted on our neighbours in London and Italy has not been inflicted on Cork — this is thanks to the public and their commitment to reducing the devastation caused by this virus through staying at home and keeping socially distanced.
“It is not easy, but we will get through this together.”
Dr Deasy explained that CUH was forced to change the way it operated as a hospital.
“The team at Cork University Hospital has been united in our preparation to fight this Covid-19 pandemic with our patients,” he said.
“We’ve had to completely change how we work, and develop new knowledge and skills to cope with this new virus. Some staff have been redeployed to new roles and have risen to their new challenges with great spirit.
“Everyone’s role is vital — from the cleaning staff ensuring staff and patients do not contract the virus in the hospital, to the nurses who spend the most time with the patients providing care, and the doctors who carefully plan care for patients based on the best available evidence, which is increasing at an incredible rate.
“There are many others working at the hospital who the general public may not immediately think of.
“The microbiologists and lab staff who test and report hundreds of swabs per day; the engineers who ensure we have the oxygen supplies, the physical space and the equipment to do our job; all the allied health professionals, like radiographers, physiotherapists, dietitians, speech and language therapists — each of whose jobs have become more complex as they ensure they perform their tasks without contracting Covid themselves or spreading it to someone else through their careful use of personal protective equipment.
“Administrative and management staff have worked around the clock to maintain services and support patients and staff. It is a real privilege to serve our people at this time with the team at CUH.”
In Cork, life as we know it has changed over the past few months.
Pubs and restaurants have closed, festivals and events were cancelled, and outings with friends have been sacrificed.
Some businesses will never reopen, leaving Cork and its people a little poorer for it, and many of those that do reopen will need support to get back on their feet.
The past four or five months have not been easy for the people of Cork and further afield but they have been particularly hard for those who have lost loved ones to this cruel virus.
“I would like to acknowledge and express our sincere condolences to the family members and friends of the patients who have tragically lost their lives as a result of Covid-19,” said Gerard O’Callaghan, CEO of Cork University Hospital.
“The current period has not been an easy one for anybody, but we believe that we are making significant progress as a country in our efforts to flatten the curve when it comes to the spread of the coronavirus.
“On behalf of Cork University Hospital management, I’d like to thank all staff members for their excellent work and extraordinary dedication during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The lockdown period was first implemented in order to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Since then, we have been proud to witness the level of care and hard work on display by staff members at CUH as they continue in their vital work to protect the health of the Irish public,” he added.
Mr O’Callaghan also praised the Cork public’s response to Covid-19, but
issued words of warning about the weeks and months ahead.
“The progress we have made is a direct result of the efforts made by all members of society, but particularly the work of our healthcare professionals,” he said. “We know that this crisis is far from over, and the coming weeks and months will bring with them further challenges, but we are confident in the ability of all of us to meet them head-on.”
Ireland’s roadmap to exit the lockdown measures has been set out before us.
Today marks the start of phase three and allows the reopening of hairdressers, all remaining retail outlets, and businesses such as chiropractors and massage therapists.
Stark warnings about a possible second wave have come and, with many other countries being forced to reintroduce lockdown measures due to exactly that, it is clear that Ireland is far from out of the woods just yet.
The coming weeks and months will be remembered in Irish history as a time where we either overcame this virus, or allowed it to take hold once more.
Dr Chris Luke, emergency medicine consultant and a lecturer at UCC, said Ireland is well prepared to face a second wave.
“I certainly think there will be a second wave because of the nature of the virus and the striking parallel it has with the 1918 flu pandemic.
“The greatest damage was done by the second and third wave of the Spanish flu which happened months or even a year after the first.
“We’re already seeing fresh outbreaks in places like Germany, South Korea and Singapore where we thought they had a good grip of the virus.
“So I do think there will be a second wave, although I think we have learned so much from the first wave, that we will be able to calibrate and target our response better in future.
“We should be better, if necessary, at locking down villages, towns, businesses or hospitals, allowing us to have a more targeted lockdown, with better test, track, and trace methods, better testing facilities, and antibody testing.”
He added that hygienic measures brought in to combat Covid-19 may have had a positive effect in terms of preventing the spread of other common illnesses, such as cold and flu.
As a result, Ireland may avoid being forced to combat a full-on winter flu season along with a second wave of Covid-19 at the same time.
However, Dr Luke added that only time will tell and that with some way to go before a vaccine is introduced, Ireland has not yet overcome Covid-19 by any means.
“It’s now a waiting game,” he warned.