Jun 9, 2020

The Forgotten Coronavirus Frontline

Outside the hospitals, essential workers from a range of professions are making sure Ireland remains on track.

Rhys Ó Seireadáin Contributing Writer

In the hearts and minds of many people, there is a strong sense of respect for those who dedicate themselves to frontline efforts during national crises. In the recent decades of relative peace between western countries, generations have lived their lives in the absence of any major existential threat.

But through those decades countless events have compelled citizens to rise to the occasion in the face of a collective struggle, defending themselves and their communities against the threat of their time. Another such hurdle confronts the human race now in the form of a public health catastrophe, and we are asked yet again how we will choose to fight.

Indeed, there are comparisons to be made between our current circumstances and the war-torn Europe of the first half of the 20th century: in particular, economic decimation and seemingly endangered democracies. However, there are obvious and important differences between then and now: the frontline of our crisis isn’t lined by soldiers, but rather the essential worker, and the arena of our war is the socially distanced supermarket, not the battlefield.


As we come together while staying apart to protect people who are most “at risk”, public actions such as claps are merely noise for countless overlooked essential workers on less obvious fronts of this crisis.

According to an official publication released by the government, over 70 occupational areas are listed as “essential service providers”, and are therefore allowed to keep working. Among the images of persevering healthcare professionals in chaotic clinical environments, many occupations have been hidden in the background, left out of the pandemic’s mainstream narrative.

In this article five people from diverse backgrounds and occupations share their stories with The University Times as essential workers on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis. Some accept themselves as heroes of their communities, many see themselves as hostages of circumstance, but all acknowledge that their duties are indispensable.

Margo Noonan – Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner

From Malin Head to Mizen Head, every essential worker has been affected by the new normal. This is especially true for Margo Noonan – mother of two adolescents, partner to a fellow essential worker, postgraduate student and one of the few full-time sexual assault forensic examiners in the state.

Due to the sensitive nature of her occupation, she and her colleagues across the country developed and implemented contingency measures to guarantee the continuity of this important service for victims of sexual violence.

As she describes some of the introduced measures, it is clear that critical decisions had to be made – such as deciding against the potentially traumatic practice of victim self-swabbing, which is currently being implemented in the United States – and service users had to be consulted, which includes contacting every outpatient, providing the necessary information and emergency supports.

“We’re very much a hidden service”, she says. “People don’t recognise us or hear about us until they actually need us. While society at large may not recognise it, the individuals that we meet do, and we know the difference we make in their lives.”

Noonan speaks with a sense of calm, but she remains cautious, anticipating worst-case scenarios arising from the pandemic and preparing accordingly: “The difficulty has been around formulating what we’re going to do if we have someone who is coronavirus positive and how we would take care of them from a forensic and medical point of view. There’s been a lot of work gone into that.”

Margo Noonan – a sexual assault forensic examiner – says that while for many people hers is a “hidden service”, those she deals with know the difference they make.

Noonan’s occupation and experience of the coronavirus crisis is undoubtedly unique, but her experience as a mother and a partner to another essential worker is shared by many. When asked about her views on social support provided by the state, she suggests “a bit of creative thinking”.

“Nursing is a predominantly female profession and I know a lot of single moms out there who are struggling with childcare – for them it’s been a nightmare.”

Although Noonan says she doesn’t feel forgotten in terms of the work that she does, she feels that some people tend to overlook the personal demands placed on essential workers. She uses a daily email sent out by her children’s teachers describing the lockdown lifestyles of some students and their families as an example.

“It’s all about how mum and dad were playing board games, having picnics in the garden, watching family movies and all the rest. It’s lovely, but I emailed him and said it’s very unfair. My children are listening to this and they’re feeling left out because me and my partner are out on the frontline so we can’t always do those things.”

Much like the increased risk of contracting coronavirus itself, those on the frontline are disproportionately affected by the negative social effects of this pandemic. Noonan’s story – and that of countless other essential workers – is one of occupational heroism, but also circumstantial hostage. In the aftermath of this crisis, one can only speculate whether society and government might repay its socio-economic debt with cash rather than claps.

Conan Brennan – Off-Licence Worker

Conan Brennan works full-time in the off-licence premises of a supermarket chain. For him, the main challenge has not been a lack of business during quarantine but rather the opposite, coupled with the loss of staff members who cannot work the frontlines.

“It’s roughly twice as busy – kind of like, out of the blue, we’re in Christmas mode. It’s very much comparable to how business would be in late December”, Brennan says.

The issue of supply and demand, both in terms of products and workers, has proved stressful during the recent surge in business.

From the outset, the off-licence mandated that employees wear Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), and installed social distancing guidelines for customers in efforts to reduce the risk of community transmission. Despite these measures, Brennan admits that he felt apprehensive at first about the whole situation: “I’m in the middle of it all so I’m doing everything that I can.”

It’s roughly twice as busy – kind of like, out of the blue, we’re in Christmas mode

Brennan also lives with his parents – a source of concern for him.

“They’re staying at home most of the time”, he says, “so I’m aware that I’m going to be the one who brings it into the house if that does happen”.

As an essential worker for a small retail business in rural Ireland, Brennan feels conflicted about the way in which his work is viewed and valued during these times. In late March, the government introduced an emergency social welfare payment in order to financially support those who have been left without work as a result of the ongoing crisis. Many essential workers including Brennan earn a similar wagevor less than those in receipt of this payment.

“I accept that measures have to be put into place and of course, I’ve gotten over it now”, he says, “but at the beginning, I had lost the motivation to work”.

Although he felt forgotten at first by the state, Brennan said he has felt a great appreciation from the general public. There is a wonderful sense of politeness and gratitude from customers to him and his colleagues.

Essential workers in the retail sector – especially those in rural towns and villages, such as Brennan – provide an invaluable service to their communities. Although he now considers himself to be far from the national epicentres of the coronavirus, the socio-economic effects of the crisis are certainly close-to-home.

John Toye – Cattle Farmer

While all economic sectors are affected by the coronavirus crisis, some consider its impact most pronounced in rural communities across the country. In the geographically and politically isolated county of Donegal, this certainly seems to be the case.

John Toye has been a cattle farmer for many years and often finds himself on the frontline of agricultural disease outbreaks. But when asked whether he would consider himself as part of the frontline effort of the coronavirus outbreak, his response is a resounding “no”.

However, he understands that his occupation is essential to survive the new normal, noting the important role of farmers in protecting rural economies: “As one local retailer told me, the farmers are saving the day once again for his business.”

Some social distancing measures have required the agricultural industry to adapt and innovate, Toye says, and the sudden necessity for change has presented some challenges.

As one local retailer told me, the farmers are saving the day once again for his business

“Going to the cattle mart or the co-operative, you now have to explain to them what you want”, he says. “You don’t always know the right name or terms for things but you would know it when you see it. Now, you have to stand in a queue for half an hour and, at this time of year, time is scarce and it costs a lot.”

As both a farmer and a father, Toye notes new challenges that affect his whole family: “It seems to be very cramped in the house, not allowed to get out and go to social events or anything like we used to before.”

“The break of routine has massively affected us all, especially my wife who is now occupied with the children most of the time.”

Thomas Gethings – Postman

As someone who lives alone and recently self-isolated as a precautionary measure, Gethings – a rural postman in Naas for more than four decades – realises the value of his occupation for elderly members of the community who are forced to cocoon at home. He may be their only contact with the outside world. He believes that looking out for the vulnerable should be a requisite duty of the rural postman, and that it always has been that way.

Community is central to his work – and his rationalisation for working in such hazardous times.

“I am servicing [my community] now as I always did – they’re my extended family”, he says.

For Thomas Gethings, continuing his work as a postman during the pandemic is all about servicing the community – his “extended family”.

But due to the public nature of his occupation, Gethings is vulnerable to contracting coronavirus. “Social distancing was an issue at first, having to tell people to stay back. But people learn fast”, he says. Since the earliest reported cases of coronavirus in the state, however, all those working in the postal service are supplied with personal protection equipment such as rigour gloves, industrial surface wipes and face masks as well as “expected and required protocols” in efforts to reduce the risk of contracting or transmitting coronavirus.

On the topic of self-isolation and older people, Gethings says: “There’s a stronger sense of interdependence in rural communities than there might be in urban areas. That being said, the effects of self-isolation for cocooners are much stronger here than anywhere else.”

Gethings now delivers daily newspapers to some cocooners, who would have gone to their local shops every day to do so previously. He provides them with socially distanced companionship and connection in these surreal times.

Declan Shaughnessy – Prison Officer

For the past 15 years, Declan Shaughnessy has worked in one of the most dangerous workplaces as a prison officer in one of the country’s biggest prisons. But he admits that nothing could have prepared him and his colleagues for the crisis they are currently facing. At the time of writing, there are no reported cases of coronavirus in the prison system following an intensive campaign of preventive measures and protocols.

Shaughnessy has mixed views about being considered part of the frontline effort during the pandemic: “The general public don’t see us as a frontline service, but then again, they don’t see what we’re doing to keep the virus outside the prison.”

A prison is an atypical – and sometimes hazardous – workplace environment. Implementing preventative measures was therefore at time challenges, despite being ultimately successful.

“Trying to get it through [prisoners’] heads about social distancing is the most difficult thing”, he says. “As well as that, they’ve become frustrated due to the fact that they’re locked up more than they would usually be.”

Broadcasting popular Netflix series, for example, has been well-received by the inmate population

The fact that – since visits have stopped – prison officers are the only people likely to bring in the virus undoubtedly does not help the frustration.

In efforts to compensate for the loss of some amenities offered to prisoners, such as reduced hours for social activities and the closure of gym facilities, alternative arrangements have been put in place. Broadcasting popular Netflix series, for example, has been well-received by the inmate population.

“Out of sight, out of mind” – the phrase is mentioned throughout our interview and often used by Shaughnessy to describe the view of the general public on the prison system and its efforts to combat coronavirus.

With an honest tone and quiet humility, he explains: “We’re fighting our own little battle in there. Some people would say we are on the frontline and other people would say we aren’t, but like every other essential service out there, we just do the best that we can.”

The general public don’t see us as a frontline service, but then again, they don’t see what we’re doing to keep the virus outside the prison

After one of the calls I make for this interview finishes up, a distant sound drifted up towards my room. It was Victory in Europe Day, May 8th, commemorating the end of World War II. The voice of Vera Lynn from the radio serenades the masses, just as she did before and during the World War II: “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.”

Over 70 years later, those lyrics hold a different meaning for the socially distanced citizen than they once did for the sanguine soldier. Nevertheless, their sentiment remains unchanged.

However, whether or not the meaning of a frontline worker will intermingle with that of the brave soldier on the continent is yet to be seen. Now heroes to their community and hostages of their circumstances, they will have to wait to see if history writes them off as the “forgotten frontline”.

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