Life at the coalface during the Covid crisis

It’s Bank Holiday Monday, the 31st of October 2021, and I am on my early walk with our almost one year old Cavachon, Ollie. As we walk the canal, I see a few squirrels, a hedgehog, swans, ducks, leaves falling, in short, nature at it’s very best, and all noticed because Ollie gives chase to everything that moves, almost pulling his lead from my shoulder socket. We also meet our new pals, other dog owners that I have got friendly with in the past 10 months. Dave’s mummy, Jeannie’s Mummy, Wilson’s Daddy...there’s Tallyho with his Daddy. For those of you who know me, it is well known that I can never remember names, but I now seem to remember dogs’ names with no problem at all. I have joined a club that I never knew existed and cannot believe the utter joy that this little guy has brought to our family life. And all because of advice I received from a counsellor I started seeing last September, who said “Celine, you need to get a dog to help with your anxiety”.

Everyone is good at something and my one talent, if we can call it that, is I am really good in a crisis. I was ready for Covid-19, or so I thought. The Sunday before the schools closed, I shopped in Dunnes with a vengeance. Dettol, Milton, rice, pasta, tins of tomatoes, toilet rolls, flour, and all before anyone else realised they would be in short supply. I was watching Italy very closely and knew it was only a matter of time. A few days before the schools closed, I asked my two boys to clear their lockers. They told me I was being overdramatic!

Then it all happened in what feels like a flash. And while I am always ready for everything from a practical and pragmatic perspective, I was not ready emotionally for Covid. I really and truly believed someone we knew or someone who worked with us would die. Our group has had its fair share of crises in the past 50 years. But the pandemic as we know was different. This was about lives and livelihoods. 

Our role in HR was about helping people ‘feel’ safe coming to work in an industry that was deemed an essential service. A lot of what we did was about letting people feel supported and cared for, creating trust and confidence that we knew what we were doing. The fact was, like everyone else, we were learning about the severity of Covid as we were going along.

In the summer restrictions lifted.  We were starting to feel like we’d got this under control. It will all be OK. Our family headed to Kinsale. My home away from home where I always feel safe. Take the woman out of Cork and all that!

We were only there a few days, and the first call came through. One of my dearest friends in one of our companies ringing to say, “Celine, we have had two positive cases”. Then a few more, identified as close contacts and all asymptomatic, all tested positive. Then another and another. Then calls with public health. Then declared an outbreak site. The rush back to Naas. The decision to close the factory. Suddenly there were more factories in the area with outbreaks also, and it felt in many ways like everyone was blaming everyone else. Three counties were locked down.

On reflection, it was all a bit ridiculous, really. We didn’t invent COVID. But at the time it was truly awful. I felt responsible. I felt I had missed a trick. I used to wake during the night and pray for the morning until I could get the next lot of bad news. I had done well but needed to up my game, leave nothing on the pitch and do much better. 

So that’s what we did. The most amazing HR team propped me up and off we went, and my goodness did we deliver! We did so well, we even won an award with the CIPD, first-time entrants AND the food industry! That’s an amazing achievement from a great team!

Around that time a friend and colleague shared a quote with me that is now framed and sits on my desk. “Stop trying to calm the storm, calm yourself, the storm will pass”. It prompted a phone call that I never thought I would ever make. I rang ABATE who have been providing our Employment Assistance Programme for many years and I remember using the phrase “my head is melted”. And so, my counselling journey began, and every Tuesday for many weeks I had a call with a most wonderfully kind and generous lady.

She introduced me to mindfulness and gave me back the gift of sleep. Her other advice was to get out, walk and get a dog! Now there was an awful lot more advice than that, but they were the nuggets I remember. I am not doing her justice with those few words, and I will be forever grateful for her help. So, in January I started walking and Ollie came into our lives. To be honest, that first week I rang my counsellor and said, “This advice about getting a dog isn’t working”. My anxiety levels were through the roof as Ollie left presents everywhere for me. However, to be fair he got the hang of it all very quickly and is now my adored third child.

So, as we come to the end of 2021, the numbers are rising, and realistically we probably have another winter of this awful virus. We are not out of the woods yet, and we are still talking about Covid-19 every day. Dealing with Covid has become business as usual for my wonderful team. As I reflect on my journey, I am grateful for the amazing people who came into my life just at the times I needed them most. Perhaps it was fate, or God, or my Mum and Dad. But someone up there lent a hand when I needed it most. All I had to do, as Mum used to say, was lift my head, look around and ask.

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