In the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, Belarus took the brunt of the fall-out and many hospitals, schools and remote villages needed supplies.
They wanted clean food, clothes and medical supplies and, as usual, the people of Ireland answered the call and gathered aid in huge quantities. It went on for years and the aid was delivered by volunteers in trucks, vans and ambulances in large convoys.
Most of the villages we visited were poor and in remote areas. Emptying those trucks by hand was hard work and it was all done manually because there were no fork-lift trucks.
At the end of each day, we were ready for the bed, even if it was only a cramped space in the back of an ambulance. On a good day we might get to sleep on the floor of a day care centre.
Our grub was basic and cooked on gas rings wherever we pulled in for the night — usually a secluded part of a village or a bit of wasteland in the middle of nowhere.
We ate lots of tinned food and when we got fed up of that, we ate more of it. It was tough going but good fun and rewarding too.
The convoys varied in size and we could have anything from 60 to 100 people on a trip. It was a logistical challenge getting sizeable convoys from one side of Europe to the other, but it was also a challenge dealing with the various personalities.
This was especially true when the pressure came on, which it invariably did.
After a week of broken sleep, hard work, eating from tins, and washing with baby wipes, it was understandable that there would be some grumbling as nerves began to fray.
It was like the Coronavirus. We knew it was coming but we couldn’t stop it.
We always tried to prepare volunteers for what lay ahead. We did our best to gear them up for the conditions they would experience along the way and the delays they would face at borders and customs within Belarus.
That was always a big issue for new volunteers, because they couldn’t understand why they were being held up by the very people they were trying to help. It was frustrating for everyone, but it was a communist regime and we had to work with it.
Getting annoyed with officialdom would only make life even more difficult so biting the tongue was important.
It affected the mood of volunteers though.
Starting out on day one, everyone was full of the joys of Spring, anxious about what lay ahead, but excited at the same time and ready for the road.
The first week was spent making slow progress across Europe until we reached the Poland/Belarus border and the beginning of the real delays.
By then, we would have had a week of rough sleeping and early starts and, for some, driving on the right-hand side of the road was a new experience that they found stressful.
It was noticeable that the mood of some of the volunteers deteriorated as the conditions did.
As hunger, fatigue and stress took hold, we were regularly challenged by those who insisted they could do better. It was par for the course and we were used to it, but it was sometimes difficult to take.
We were giving up our free time too, and it wasn’t just two weeks for us. We spent most of the year preparing for these trips.
I’m reminded of those days now as we go through this Coronavirus nightmare.
Stress causes people to behave differently. I’ve seen it before.
During my time in An Garda Siochana, I saw sane, sensible people crumble after a minor traffic accident. I once had a priest screaming obscenities at me because he was caught in traffic and needed to get to a funeral.
We need to manage the current stress and keep things in perspective. This current crisis will pass and when it’s over we will have time to reflect on how we behaved and how our actions affected others.
We saw in the initial stages of the pandemic how panic buying became an issue.
Toilet roll was clearing out of supermarkets faster than they could stock the shelves and face masks sold out. Hand sanitisers were going fast too, even though soap was just as good. Food was being stockpiled despite being told there would be no shortage.
The advice from the experts was to practice social distancing and keep the hands washed, but many didn’t listen.
What really surprised me, though, was the response to Leo Varadkar’s address to the nation. He spoke to us as the leader of our country and got lambasted for it. It was hailed as a political gimmick.
I’m not a member of any political party and I’m not a big fan of the current Taoiseach but I was impressed with his speech. It was an important message aimed at allaying fear and reassuring the nation.
That speech wasn’t about the presenter but the content. It was important for everyone, especially the older, more vulnerable members of the community, to hear that message. They were frightened and needed a calm voice. Leo gave it.
Following the broadcast, he was accused of trying to take political advantage out of a disaster. But I think those people kind of lost the point. It was about trying to restore some calm in a bad situation and trying to get those who were losing their heads to pull themselves together.
I sympathised with him. It’s difficult to manage people when they’re stressed, and I know that from experience.