Irish in lockdown abroad: It's like a ghost town. Nobody is flouting the law here

With the north in quarantine after the dangers of expecting us to police ourselves became all too obvious, we asked Irish people living abroad about life under lockdown and how strictly social distancing is being observed elsewhere

Police stop vehicles in Italy, where all but essential travel has been outlawed during the crisis. Picture by Andrew Medichini/AP
Maureen Coleman

Chile – Brendan Morrison

THE announcement of a 90-day 'State of Catastrophe' in Chile last week took place against a backdrop of nationwide mass protests over societal inequality. Just 10 days before the coronavirus declaration by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, around one million women had taken to the streets, demanding equal rights.

But as cases of coronavirus continue to climb in Chile, protesters are coming in from the streets.

According to north Belfast man Brendan Morrison, who lives in Chile's capital, there is a palpable sense of relief that they are heeding the advice to stay at home. Brendan, a director with the company Fair Working Conditions (FWC), has lived in Santiago for 23 years and has five children, aged 17 to 27, who live there too. All are currently self-isolating though not displaying symptoms.

“The first case of coronavirus here in Chile was at my daughter Eimear's university in Talca, about a two-hours drive from here,” he says. “The university shut down straight away and the others followed suit. She's back home with me now.

“I've been told to work from home and my son Conall, who's a lawyer, is working in the next room. Where I live is on the main route into town and the traffic is usually crazy but last time I went out to drive, it was eerily quiet.

“We only had our first case of coronavirus a few weeks ago and I think the government acted fairly quickly, closing schools and universities and telling people to work from home.

“In recent months Chile has been hammered by trade wars, social protests and curfews – now this.”

Gerry Flynn and his wife Debbie

Spain – Gerry Flynn

In the south-eastern Spanish city of Murcia, which is currently on lockdown, Belfast businessman Gerry Flynn says residents are adhering strictly to government advice to stay indoors. On the local ex-pats' strip, every bar and restaurant has closed and the handful of walkers he spotted on the beach front where he lives with wife Debbie, have now disappeared.

“It's a ghost town now,” says Gerry, who owns a number of businesses including the pubs the Celt Irish Bar and The Shamrock Lounge.

“We're slightly different here to other tourist areas as it's more family orientated. People aren't flouting the law at all. I did see five people out playing golf but their photographs were quickly distributed and they haven't been back since.

“Certain people are allowed to travel for work but for the most part, we've been told to stay in the house. My business partner did go out to play a game of paddle tennis but the police soon appeared, put a tape up and sent him home.”

Supermarkets remain open, are well stocked up and staff and customers alike are listening to hygiene advise; wearing masks and keeping well apart. Back in their beach home, he and Debbie are making the most of their large garden and Gerry says he's finally getting round to doing odd jobs about the house.

“I'm going to spend this time planning for the future, albeit I don't know what that holds. For now, we're just focusing on staying healthy.”

Siobhan Stewart and her family

Ottawa – Siobhan Stewart

North Belfast mum of three Siobhan Stewart worked for several years as a support worker in a fertility clinic in the Canadian capital. As a former nurse, it was a job she enjoyed and found rewarding. But just a few weeks ago the clinic shut down for the foreseeable future following a directive from the Ottowa Medical Association that all non-essential health providers must close.

Siobhan, who lives in Ottawa with husband Richard and three children, remains optimistic that the clinic may rehire further down the line. Meanwhile, she's concentrating on looking out for her family and the wider community.

“A call went out on our Facebook community on St Patrick's Day, asking local children to get involved by painting shamrocks on the doors,” she says. “This week, we've been doing silly faces. It's all about community and kindness.

“I keep thinking of all the front-line workers, not just the health workers, but those people who work in supermarkets, on public transport, in delivery, how valuable they are.”

Siobhan says that the Canadian government has been making good decisions about the coronavirus outbreak and that its citizens are rule followers by nature who take their lead from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“When the prime minister's wife tested positive for coronavirus, it was a shock to all of us,” says Siobhan. “I think there was this feeling that if it could affect him and his wife, it could affect us all. They both went into self-isolation and he talked to the nation from his home.

“It seems to me that the people of Ottawa and Canada as a whole are paying heed. I guess time will tell.”

Frankie Maguire with her family

Italy – Frankie Maguire

In Italy, the worst-hit European country, Randalstown woman Frankie Maguire runs a holiday rental business with her Italian-born husband. The couple, who have lived in the Abruzzo region since 2005 and have a six-year-old daughter, work from home.

They only venture outside to visit the supermarket for essentials, complete with authorisation form and masks in case stopped by the military police.

Checks take place regularly around transportation hubs like bus and train stations and while most people are being mindful, Frankie says some are still using their shopping trip as a chance to socialise.

“Our local council is really good at keeping us updated via bulletins,” she says. “I love walking but now, even walking the dog on my own is not allowed. The maximum a dog can be outside is just long enough to do what it needs to do.

“Yet still, with the situation so grave here, I heard that 47,000 people were fined in one week for being out and about.”

In Bergamo, the worst affected Italian town, overwhelmed medics have run out of hospital beds and have reopened old military hospitals to cope with the daily surge in fatalities. Frankie has never known a nation to be so frightened.

“People are trying to pull together. The balcony singing is an example of that. I must admit, it does make me feel emotional and every time I get fed up with this confinement, I think about all those poor people who have died.”

West Belfast woman Mairead Campbell lives in the British capital 

London – Mairead Campbell

Working for BBC Radio One and Radio 1Xtra in London, in normal circumstances west Belfast woman Mairead Campbell enjoys a packed and varied social life. Her evenings are usually spent at music venues, theatres, restaurants and bars and are often tied in with her job.

But this last week or two, the furthest she has been is her local shop to buy some groceries. There were people milling about as usual. In some places, it seems the message of social distancing is still not getting through.

“I'm lucky in that I'm staff with the BBC and I can work from home,” she says. “But the thing with London is that it's such a vibrant, booming city. It's so creative too. A lot of people come here for the arts and are on zero hour contracts or self employed. They still have bills to pay.”

Mairead has barely been outside her door but has heard from others about once bustling areas like Oxford Circus being completely dead. She never imagined when she moved her that this city she loves would be so eerily silent in parts.

“This has made me realise how much weight and value I have in my work,” she says. “Not only is it important for my physical health, walking to and from the tube station, but I miss the routine too. I miss my workmates.

“All my friends are spread out all over London and we 're all connecting on the app Houseparty to maintain some sense of community. Whatever helps.”

Paddy Bradley lives in Fontainebleau, an hour south of Paris

France – Paddy Bradley

In Fontainebleau, a satellite town 40 miles south of Paris, there is a sense of calm as residents accept how their day-to-day living has changed. For 20 years Belfast man Paddy Bradley has lived in the town, famed for its scenic forest and the Chateau de Fontainebleau, with his wife and four children. Their eldest son James is currently working in London but their three other children are back in the family home for the duration of the pandemic.

Paddy, who works as an editor for Unesco in Paris, says people in the town are getting on with their lives as best they can under lockdown and that the community, for the most part, are respectful of the new regulations that have been set in place.

“Compared to what we've seen in the UK, there are much fewer people about,” Paddy says. “We've been told to stay indoors and that's what we're doing. If you want to go out for a baguette, you need to have a form and ID with you. If you don't and you're stopped by the police, you'll be fined.

“We have a nice forest around the town and if you want to head out for a walk, you can go 500 metres from your house but not beyond that. You certainly can't wander round aimlessly.

“Food shops and chemists remain open and only two people at a time can enter a shop. But the few times I have gone out, people seem to be calm and orderly and respecting what they've been told.”

Paddy says there have been reports of drones being used in the forest to ensure people stay away.

“There are particular spots in the forest where young people gather to have a few beers,” he says. “I've heard that the owners of the forest don't want social gatherings there. The story is that they're using drones to find them so they can be dealt with straight away.”

Lorna Allen, who lives in Vancouver

Vancouver – Lorna Allen

For Co Antrim woman Lorna Allen, who emigrated to Vancouver six and a half years ago, the global coronavirus crisis has thrown her future hopes into disarray. Lorna, who works in external relations, had been considering moving home to be back with her elderly mother and was planning to keep an eye on the economic impact of Brexit. Never did she imagine a worldwide virus would halt her in her tracks.

“My mum is in her 80s and has some health issues, though thankfully not respiratory,” Lorna says. “I'd been looking to coming home and was waiting to see what happened after Brexit. A recession would've scuppered those plans.

“But now this has happened and who knows what the long term financial implications will be. I haven't a clue what the future holds now.”

A visit home to see her mum earlier this month was cancelled as it required Lorna passing through four different airports. She doesn't know when she'll get to see her mum again.

“I am worried about her, but she has carers coming in twice a day to ensure she's taking her medication and I'm sorting out getting them delivered from the pharmacy.

“I speak to her regularly and order her groceries online for her. I've seen a lot of good in people too. People I went to school with, who I haven't seen for 25 years, have been offering to help. They're under strict instructions not to go inside but it's such a relief to me to know that I have people there.”

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