A chronicle of my quarantine experience in Ireland
Atziri Elizabeth Ávila López is a woman human rights defender and journalist from Oaxaca, Mexico working with Observatorio Ciudadano Nacional del Feminicidio (OCNF) (The National Citizen’s Observatory on Femicide), a citizen’s network made up of 43 organisations. The work of OCNF is aimed at contributing to the guaranteed rights of women to a life free of violence. As well as her work with OCNF, Atziri is also a member of the Advisory Council of the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists in Mexico. In this role, Atziri works directly with HRDs and journalists at risk to develop and strengthen protection plans.
Atziri spent four months in Ireland from March to July 2020 as part of Front Line Defenders' Rest & Respite (R&R) program.
I travelled from Mexico City to Amsterdam on the KLM Royal Dutch 686 flight. Everything seemed normal. An hour later my flight left for Dublin, Ireland where I arrived on the afternoon of March 12.
I arrived without a hitch, however while in the air, on March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Coronavirus (Covid19) a global pandemic.
At Schiphol airport in Amsterdam I met a young Mexican woman who like me (without knowing what was coming) was travelling to Dublin. She had found a cheap flight and was coming for a fortnight. It was her first solo trip and her first time in Ireland, so I gave her some names of places that she shouldn't miss. She was nervous so I comforted her by saying that people in Ireland are very friendly and that if she ran into any difficulty, there would be someone to support her, as the Irish are known for their warmth and compassion.
As a good human rights defender and as a woman who began dealing with immigration agents and airports as a child, I waited for her to check that she had had no problems with her passport. When our suitcases arrived, I said goodbye.
I had to run because I did not want to keep my colleagues Meg and Nantke waiting. They are members of Front Line Defenders (FLD), the organization with whom I planned this trip and who gave me all the support to arrange my stay in Ireland.
Surprisingly Meg and Nantke were not in the arrivals hall. In Mexico I would not have worried, as being punctual is not something that characterizes us, but here it was a sign that something was wrong. I called Tara, one of the FLD coordinators to make sure that my colleagues were at the correct airport terminal, I sent photos of the exact place where I was and of the two suitcases that always accompany me on long trips.
Tara confirmed to me that indeed things were not quite right. Hours earlier, the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, had announced the first measures to combat coronavirus, causing many people to be alarmed and traffic in Dublin was out of the ordinary. Minutes later they arrived.
They both brought a bottle of water, Nantke an extra one for me. Although the joy of meeting was remarkable in our eyes, they both spread their arms almost a meter away. "Welcome Atziri, we cannot hug you but we are very happy that you are here," Meg told me.
Nantke stretched out her hands and said, "Here, we need to be well-hydrated and wash our hands constantly.”
Before making the trip, we talked about Coronavirus and we did not imagine how much it would increase. At the start, I thought it would only affect China or the small province of Hubei. It also crossed my mind that perhaps it was a political or an economic strategy. The experience of the “Chupacabras” or influenza in Mexico, made me doubt what was really happening. Once in Ireland I realized how wrong I was.
I arrived without a hitch, however while in the air, on March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Coronavirus (Covid19) a global pandemic.
In the car, they both explained to me what had happened a few hours earlier. The Irish government announced the closure of schools for two weeks, called for the reduction of all social interaction and the implementation of distance working, or working from home.
The traffic was moving and I was intrigued to see how peaceful and harmonious it was. In Mexico there is no lane discipline and you hear horns blaring all the time. On our way to the place where I would stay, Meg told me that we would soon be crossing the river Liffey, which runs through Dublin from west to east and divides the city north from south.
Gradually Georgian houses began to appear with brightly-painted doors. In less than an hour we arrived. There I would spend three months working more closely with Front Line Defenders, an organization that has worked to strengthen the protection of human rights defenders and journalists around the world since 2001. I would also take a few days off and take classes to strengthen my English. However Covid19 changed many of the plans, including where I would live.
After putting down my bags and getting some rest, Nantke and I decided to go and buy food. Working from home, with reduced social interaction, meant that we needed to buy reasonable quantity of food. Despite coming from a place between the mountains in Oaxaca where it is cold most of the year, I have never got used to the cold. If I had been alone, seeing only the darkness of the sky and a temperature of 9 degrees, I would have decided not to go out, but well, it is always good to have someone who encourages you to do so.
“The weather in Ireland is always like this, you can have all four seasons in one day. It may be sunny and suddenly it will rain, you learn to work with the weather”, said Nantke, a young colleague from Germany who had lived in Dublin for a year and a half. We grab our coats and head to the nearest supermarket. Most of the shelves were empty. The paper and cleaning products had practically disappeared. We were surprised but we bought what we needed.
We took our shopping home and then we headed to a Hindu restaurant where we had a welcome dinner. The first thing they gave us as a courtesy was a hot soup "that will save you from Coronavirus," the waiter said with a smile. The soup was delicious but nobody imagined what would happen next. The restaurant was closed due to the pandemic a few days later.
The next day we met to discuss the changes we would have to make to my three-month stay. I never actually imagined I would be at the Front Line Defenders office in Dublin. I have known their work for a decade and been so grateful for their support and solidarity when community defenders are attacked, imprisoned, disappeared or killed.
I remember in 2010, sitting at my desk in Tlapa, Guerrero at the Tlachinollan Mountain Human Rights Center, but in my mind I did not even locate them geographically. I imagined that Dublin was a cold city, somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, far away.
However, they are close, not far away at all. Their work has been a continuing warm and comforting supportive presence for the international community of human rights defenders. Despite any geographical distance we have always felt them very close.
As the language school I was going to attend closed the same day that my flight landed, we planned that the fortnight would be useful for me to do some sightseeing until the school re-opened. All I had done was an online test that confirmed my level as a B2. My classes would have to wait.
Two days later, with a colleague from Armenia, we took the bus that introduced us to the Celtic origins of this beautiful island. People from Japan, Canada, Russia and Spain also traveled with us. The news of Coronavirus came as a surprise to many in the middle of their travels. The impact of what was soon to come was totally unexpected.
On our way we saw all the shades of green that I could ever have imagined. In the midst of unforgettable landscapes in between the granite constructions, the largest cows I have ever seen, sheep that invite you to touch them, castles that transport you to unimaginable worlds.
Our first stop was Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, which among its beauty houses the museum dedicated to the Irish writer James Joyce acclaimed for his masterpieces, among them Ulysses. The museum is located in the old family house of his wife, Nora Barnacle.
It was Monday, the start of the week, but it really seemed like a holiday. We went into a pharmacy to buy antibacterial-gel but they warned us that it had already run out in the city and that people were making it at home.
As we went into the mountains, I saw the result of the almost daily rains that cover up every corner with green. Everything I saw confirmed Ireland as a country of legends. Fairies, gnomes, vikings, the Middle Ages, revolution, all connected with the enigmatic, magical beauty of the landscape.
We arrived at the Cliffs of Moher, the setting for movies like Harry Potter. They had just been closed. At that moment, it began to pour with rain so we settled for just appreciating what we could see from the inside of the bus, outside the gates; one more good excuse to return another day.
Returning to Dublin, we noticed that there were few people on the streets. Five months before, I visited this cosmopolitan city for the first time and there were lots of people were on the streets, everywhere. The pubs now seemed desolate. Before the pandemic, they were popular as meeting places all over Ireland and the United Kingdom, where people gathered after work to socialize perhaps to have a glass of the "Water of Life" (Uisce Béatha) or whiskey, a Guinness beer or a cup of tea, company, with Celtic music in the background.
Joy, music, literature, food and oral tradition are common in Ireland. Finding it different emphasised that people were abiding by the Government measures.
The four-day St. Patrick's Festival and the St. Patrick’s Day parade itself was cancelled. In fact, Front Line Defenders recommended these dates so that I could experience this national holiday that commemorates the death of Saint Patrick, the patron saint of the Republic of Ireland, whose arrival marked the start of Christianity. According to legend, Saint Patrick transmitted the meaning and presence of the Holy Trinity (father, son and holy spirit) through three-leaf clover called shamrock which explains the colourful green of the parade that takes place year after year. Yet another reason to return.
There was no good news because the monuments, museums and tourist sites that we planned to visit were also closed. One piece of positive news was when Meg called to suggest taking private classes with Venetia and Michael, teachers with 25 years of experience in teaching English, who usually receive students from different parts of the world at home, under the Homestay programme that places learners in a kind of language immersion in communicating, learning and living in English.
By this time the governments of the world were already closing the borders and Coronavirus infections were surprisingly still increasing. Travelling home in the middle of a global pandemic was even more dangerous than staying here. So a day later I started my classes.
Meg told me to meet her outside the FLD offices on March 18 at 8:25 AM as the train would leave the station at 8:37. The accuracy of the schedules once again impressed me. I was nervous about not being on time so I left 10 minutes early to avoid missing the train. At 9:00 in the morning, we rang the Dun Laoghaire doorbell. At that time I understood that each minute was perfectly calculated and that for the next few days I would have to leave for the train station at 8:25 AM sharp.
Opening the door, Venetia and Michael bowed their heads slightly, palms joined together in front of their chests, and said Namaste; reverence used in many cultures as a sign of greeting in the absence of a hug or a handshake. The reception was joined by Fay, daughter of my teacher, and Lorcan, her fiancé, originally from Louth, north of Dublin. Both had moved into the family home since the government announced the Covid measures. "Gua gua" was the welcome from Sibi, the beautiful labrador who has been with the family for 13 years.
Meg and I comply with the protocol of placing our coat in the place intended for it and then that we added hand washing. I remembered the campaigns that asked us to wash our hands before eating and after going to the bathroom, but now, washing our hands for at least 30 seconds, the use of masks and social distancing, seem to be the new norms for coexistence and survival.
Soon we started my class, B2 upper intermediate English, I did my first test, written exercises, conversations, vocabulary, listening exercises, reading, lots of reading. While my classes were running every day from 9 to 2 in the afternoon, the Coronavirus was exploding in Italy, Spain, France and England. Just nine days after my classes started, the Irish government announced the tightening of the sanitary measures to combat the pandemic in Ireland.
On March 24, the Irish Government unveiled new regulations to prevent evictions from residential and commercial properties where contracts are due to expire and have even expired.
On March 27, I returned from my class walking on the pier beside the sea. I observed how the signs are in both English and Irish, as an effort to preserve their language. I also saw how on the ground the authorities had drawn the exact distance of two meters with white paint, a sign of the distance that we would have to keep between each person. We dined and got ready for bed. I put on my pyjamas, called my sister Vania to find out how she was, and while I was talking and playing the dragon fire game with my nephew on WhatsApp, Nantke knocked on my door to say that she needed to talk to me, urgently.
Around 9:00 p.m. the Prime Minister of Ireland had announced a new package of protection measures for the population, which would take effect at 0:00 on March 28, that is, four hours later, so that if I wanted to continue with my English classes I had to move house that same night. My teachers were waiting to hear if they needed to collect me. They did.
I packed my things in half an hour. It helped being extremely orderly and knowing where everything was. "It is like a war zone," said Venetia, who lived in Belfast during the troubles.
Along the way, we discussed the recently adopted measures: only those who had a work activity related to essential health and social care services could travel to work. They were classified as “essential workers”. Otherwise, one person per family could buy food and other household goods; collect prepared food; attend medical appointments or pick up medications and other health-related products; for family reasons of an essential nature (care for children, the elderly or vulnerable people). We could do physical exercise activities briefly and individually, within a radius of 2 km from your home; agricultural activities, food production and animal care were also allowed.
All meetings of a public or private nature, of any number of people, who do not reside at the same address were prohibited. All non-essential stores were closed. All non-essential surgical operations were postponed, as well as all non-essential health services. Visits to hospitals, nursing homes, health centres and prisons were also cancelled, with certain exceptions for humanitarian reasons. Pharmacies may dispense medications even if the validity of the prescription has expired. Public and passenger transportation was limited to essential workers only, all private hospitals were requisitioned by the public system during this emergency.
Little by little, the testimonies of shocking cases that are repeated around the world arrived. On March 28, Michael Glynn, a popular Dublin taxi driver known as "Mick the Moan," died after Coronavirus. It shocked me that no one in his family could touch him to say goodbye. Only his immediate family was able to go to the funeral. Seeing his wife and sons standing so far away from him was devastating.
It was also reported the unemployment payment during the period of covid-19 would be €350 a week at least until June 8, that is to say €1,400.00. In the case of businesses that show that they have lost at least 25% of their business, they can claim as a subsidy 70% of their employees' net salary (up to a maximum of € 410 per employee, each week).
Once again I realized the enormous chasm between Ireland and Mexico. Although they are different countries, the context of a global pandemic is common to both and protective measures taken to look after citizens should be the same, especially for the economy and for the existence of thousands of non-formal workers who have no choice but to continue working.
On April 2, Queen Elizabeth II of England broadcast to the people of the United Kingdom from Windsor Castle and reinforced the call to stay home to fight the global pandemic. Four days later, on April 6, the British government reported that its Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had been transferred to intensive care with Covid 19.
St Patrick's Cathedral, impressively built by the English in Gothic style, is one of the churches that joined in replicating its mid-day campaigns in appreciation of health personnel, as well as other Presbyterian and Catholic churches, reflecting religious duality in Ireland. As in other countries, eight o'clock every evening is the signal to applaud and thank those who are dedicated to saving lives.
On April 8, the Irish authorities announced that the previously issued measures would remain unchanged until at least May 5, the date on which they would announce whether the measures would be relaxed or strengthened. The radius for exercise was increased from 2 to 5 kilometers from the house but now there would be a greater presence of the police in public spaces to disperse people.
Currently in Ireland 1,547 people have died from Coronavirus. The total number of confirmed cases is 24,200. The number of cases prevails and the measures also.
The first phase in the lifting of the measures taken against the Coronavirus began in Ireland from May 18 to June 5, but the changes are minimal: meetings with people who do not live in the same home are now allowed but they should not exceed groups of four people, respecting the physical distance. They will be able to open construction, gardening, optical stores, shops that repair bicycles, cell phones, among other stores, construction works are now allowed. On June 5, the following steps will be assessed, based on the evolution of the health crisis and the evaluation of the context.
Since March, Dún Laoghaire, the suburb by the Irish sea that divides this country from England has been my partner. Walking beside the sea is a balm for the spirit and a space for introspection. It has allowed me to see how vulnerable we can be as humanity, because despite being in different spaces and contexts, today we are practically the same fate. And as the writer Isabel Allende said recently, “as never before, this pandemic lets us know that we are global. A humanity on a planet ”.
My body is not getting used to the cold, but at least I already know the feeling and what it means to live daily between 9 and 12 degrees, when we are lucky maybe 18 and when not so lucky, between 2 and 4 degrees.
Irish breakfast, tea, listening to Michael and Venetia sing from the early hours, trying food from different countries, virtual encounters with family, friends and colleagues, documentaries, plays online, have been the daily routine. I have read three books in English and I’m already in the fourth, always with the kind company of my teachers. I went up 20 points in my second test. We have spent almost two months together and when the silence threatens to take over we began to laugh and talk to the "imaginary friends" that this pandemic has brought us.
Today on buses there are signs of where you can and cannot sit, the trains are almost empty. Birds with the most beautiful colours walk between my feet and sing to me. I have started walking ten thousand steps a day, not only to exercise but also to get to know this beautiful town even if it is closed. I see people from different backgrounds, Filipinos who represent a strong community and a working force here. The flowers, bushes, and leaves are indescribable, sometimes so perfumed and unfamiliar I want to touch, feel, eat them. Walking through the streets is a mixture of the present with the past.
At no more than the allowed radius I can get to the Martello tower where James Joyce wrote Ulysses. Recognizing the beauty of landscapes makes me imagine the inspiration that makes Ireland famous for having some of the best writers in the world, including four Nobel Prize winners for literature: Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925), Samuel Beckett (1969 ) and Seamus Heaney (1995). In addition to other writers such as Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker (author of the novel Dracula), Edna O’Brien, Sebastian Barry, Colm Toibin and Anne Enright. Local authors include Jennifer Johnson, Julie Parsons, Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes.
Today, globally, governments are trying to respond to a constantly-changing situation. The Coronavirus is currently present in 212 countries. When I am alone, I think about the economic challenges of the pandemic, about the lessons it will teach us. I think of the impact to more than 4 million people who have already been affected by the disease, almost the total population of Ireland, only a million more.
However, I also think about Ireland, in how this country managed to survive the famine of the 1845-1851 known as "the Irish famine" -or the great hunger- caused by successive hot summers and poorly-managed potato crops. Over a period of six years, it led to eviction, disease, starvation, and mass emigration. More than a million people died and 2.5 million more migrated from Ireland to other countries in Europe or the United States. From 8.2 million the population was reduced to 6.5 million. Today the population of Ireland, including Northern Ireland, is around 5 million inhabitants.
Ireland is a land of memory. A country with an ancient culture that saw its people die of famine and was considered one of the poorest and most underprivileged countries in Europe, yet today it is one of the most prosperous and stable economies. In the centre, of Dublin is Trinity College, established under charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592, is one of the most prestigious universities in Europe.
In October I was lucky enough to visit the Wicklow Mountains and the Giant's Causeway, a site listed as a World Heritage but in addition to its nature, the varied culture of art, language, music, theater and landscape make Unique Ireland.
The plans for this trip changed dramatically. Not only for me but for thousands of students who had paid full fees for language school and who did not have the necessary support. I think of the girl I met at the airport and I will never know how her adventure ended.
Everything changed for everyone. Instead of spending more time with my colleagues in the office (a central focus of my trip), we made telephone calls, sent emails, scheduled video chats, had walks along the pier beside the sea two meters away from each other, feeling the wind on our faces and in our hair, looking at each other, feeling physically distant talking about work, but also about our families, about day-to-day, life, paradoxically feeling closer.
I know that when I return to Mexico, this experience will have changed me. Ireland has shown me how resilient people can be. But I am also sure that nothing will ever be the same, the trips that I like so much and that have directed my career path may have to wait.
From Ireland, looking at the two-metre queues (even to buy ice-cream), the plastic screens that separate supermarket cashiers from their customers, the extra measures that each office will have to install before anyone returns to work, the potential danger of getting to work by public transport makes you think about the “new normal”.
At this moment in Ireland, companies and professionals are talking about the new ways to work. About how they are going back and even if they are going back or not. Now they know that if they find “safe” possibilities to do it, they will go back until august and maybe just half of the staff can be able to go to the office or have to rotate days to do it.
They talk about the new automatic doors so you can no touch anything; the plastic walls thay may separate your desk; no kitchen, gym or coffee machine will be able for anyone; employees will take turns to go to the bathroom; no elevators will be use; and others measures that make you reflect in the need of new ways to work. That will generate not only economic costs but also it will mark the beginning of a new era for jobs.That today has many people in uncertainty and anxiety, as the decrease in social interaction definitely reduces even our mood.
Above all, the prevalence of numbers and deaths from Coronavirus, tell me that it is too early even to think about getting back to “normal”. Maybe we won’t ever get back to “normal”; perhaps we will evolve a new “normal”. Perhaps gradually we will see how life returns to cities now deserted.
Do not to relax sanitary measures is my message - perhaps to people more than to governments - because the authorities will finally be guided by other parameters such as the economy, but as human rights defenders, life, health and safety are our priority. And as individuals, families and the communities, we also have the power to make the decisions that we consider necessary to save our lives.
Also as Isabel Allende said, citizens can push the authorities to take the Coronavirus as “an opportunity for evolution, to imagine and work for a better world, a world where compassion, equality, opportunity and inclusion prevail. A more balanced world. A world where we are not separated by class, gender, race, religion and everything that separates us now.”
Regardless of where we are, we do not know if we have or will have the virus, will we survive or die? Nobody knows. My scheduled return to Mexico is at the end of May. Maybe I have to wait a bit, I don't really know. Sometimes, I am a little worried about having to travel after what we have faced as humanity.
For now, I admire the courage we have assumed as a community. Once again I agree that the only permanent thing is change and that resilience makes us stronger but also more human. Today, I am also sure that everything here is so beautiful that going elsewhere would mean giving up beauty. For now I will continue to enjoy the air that is only breathed in Dublin, the beautiful blue of the sky and the sea, and as French President Charles de Gaulle expressed when he went into exile in Ireland “at this point in my life, I found here what I was looking for, Being in front of myself "-and despite the unexpected crisis of Covid 19-" Ireland allowed me to do it in the most delicate and friendly way ".