Opinion: 'Why aren't we taking face masks seriously in Ireland?'

Following a trip to the capital last week, this IMAGE writer was left wondering why we aren't taking face masks seriously in Ireland


Last Friday I made my first trip outside of the kingdom of Kerry in months.

I had to travel by train to Dublin for a medical appointment and so came to the station like a woman going to war. My bag was filled with face masks, bottles of hand sanitizers, wipes, and anything else that would protect me from the ravages of coronavirus. Such was mine and my family's paranoia about my trip to the big city, the idea of me self-isolating when I arrived home was genuinely considered.

Travelling by train didn't make me nervous. Iaranród Éireann has quite comprehensive social distancing measures in place,   and very few are making unnecessary journeys.

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My worries were solely kept for the land beyond Heuston station.

Days before my trip, Leo Varadker and Simon Harris had conducted interviews outside Dublin Bus urging passengers to wear masks on all forms of public transport. When I stepped through the doors of the Luas, I realised the message had got lost in the post.

Handful

A small handful wore masks on the initial trip towards Abbey Street. I walked around the city, visited shops, and took the Dart to my appointment. Masks were few and far between at every touchpoint.

Most worrying was my final trip back to Heuston. It was nearing 6 o'clock. In pre-coronavirus Dublin, this is peak rush hour and the Luas is the transport equivalent of a tin of sardines. Post-coronavirus, the Luas was slightly quieter but still busy with shoppers and those returning home from work.

From where I was standing, I could count on one hand the number of people wearing masks. For the first time that day, I felt uncomfortable. My mind raced with invisible germs. We were breathing on top of one another and the hidden hypochondriac in me popped out to say hello.

Mixed messaging

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In terms of population, Dublin wins by a landslide. Yet walking around, I couldn't help but think of how I had seen more masks on a trip to the local Supervalu in Listowel than I did strolling down Grafton Street.

Although, I was not surprised.

How could I be?

I arrived home and thought it strange that individuals freely journeyed on public transport sans masks, but then I thought about the conversations we have had on a national level. Yesterday Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan said the public "needs to do a lot better" when it comes to wearing masks.

Yes, I agree that collectively we can, but the public will only respond to guidelines when they are clear and concise. The success of our coronavirus battle was due in part to the coherent advice we had received. Masks, on the other hand, were considered in a cacophony of differing opinions.

In the beginning, it was believed there was no scientific evidence to back up the wearing of masks. There were worries about provisions depleting for essential workers. Then somewhere in the middle, it was believed that there could be some evidence in wearing masks and slowing infection.

And then suddenly, masks were 'it' and campaigns urging the public to wear them made the news. Now both the government and health service are confused, but for this to work protocols should have been introduced weeks ago. Had it been encouraged when we were in the grip of worry, the numbers might be different. A recent survey showed 41% were wearing face masks – this number is hard to believe.

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Just walk around any street or shop in Ireland.

Judgment

Up until last week, Kerry had survived 28 days without a new case of the virus. Like in football, our confidence grew and our humility waned. We shouted for the county boundaries to close and for the county to reopen so as to become an independent entity. This notion of being in the clear also helped to create a new phenomenon that I call 'mask judgment'. I have noticed a high number wearing face coverings in the county, but those who do are ridiculed.

This is true because I have heard the words "what are they wearing one for" expressed from a myriad of mouths. It seems you are damned whether you do or you don't.

Nevertheless, the government can't be blamed for everything. Common sense must also prevail and the onus is on the people to follow through. It seems our ministers feared the decision to make masks compulsory like France and Spain. The government has left it in the hands of the people, but they too must realise that mixed messaging is never met with a clear end.

Everything from the Luas to the mask judgment is a direct reflection of what we have been told for weeks – the 'what' in this scenario is very unclear. Herein lies the issue, and if Tony and co no longer wish to be disappointed, advice that is distinct and explicit should be produced.

Maybe then, my next trip outside of the county bounds will look a lot different.

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