Life

Nuala McCann: My sore arm reminds me of how precious a vaccine is

We should be breaking open the Champagne, laughing, clinking glasses. Ain't life sweet, tra la la la. We are lucky and we know we are first world lucky. We are grateful, so grateful

Former pop star Noddy Holder is given his Covid-19 jab last week as the roll-out of vaccines continued across the UK. Picture by Freuds/PA

WE GOT there. A long journey, we had of it. It feels like scrambling off a raft on to a far shore after drifting in the ocean with an angry tiger for company.

It feels like that moment from the 1970s Colditz series, when an exhausted Robert Wagner collapses in the snow at the boots of who he thinks is a German soldier…

“How far are we from Switzerland?” he whispers in desperation.

“You have been in Switzerland for the past mile,” comes the reply. Oh, happy day.

The other day, I was first through the door of the hospital to get vaxxed up. “Just stick that needle in my arm,” I wanted to yell.

I got a cheer from the doctors and nurses on the way out. “Hooray, first of the day,” they said. It was all I could do not to cast aside my mask and kiss em all.

I was the second in our house to get the jag. The first spent literally two minutes in the doctor’s surgery.

“Did something happen, did they refuse you,” I asked because he was in and out of the car in double quick time.

“All done – it ran like clockwork,” he replied.

We should be breaking open the Champagne, laughing, clinking glasses. Ain't life sweet, tra la la la. We are lucky and we know we are first world lucky. We are grateful, so grateful.

We have fought the good fight, we have washed down the milk cartons and the weekly shop, we have dipped into the hand sanitiser more often than the old holy water font and we have kept far away from the world and not allowed anyone over the doorstep for nearly a whole year.

How I miss my nephew’s hugs. As we drive down the Ormeau Road, past the bars and the new houses that popped up out of nowhere and the pizza restaurant and the Polish food shop and on over the bridge, I realise it’s nearly a year since I last walked that pavement.

“Last time I walked along this road was on March 17 last year,” I say.

Hail Glorious St Patrick, I never thought it would be so long.

It makes me sad for those who didn’t make it: reminds me of Eliot’s lines:

A crowd flowed over London Bridge,

So many, I never thought death had undone

So many.

But we have not been undone.

Years ago when I first read Primo Levi, what struck me was how the war did not just end on a particular day and everybody did not just pack up and get home for tea. It would take nearly a year for Levi – wearied, starved, traumatised – to find his way home to Italy. The memories shaped the rest of his life.

And while there is an abyss between a year’s shielding and a concentration camp, a war and a pandemic are similar in that they don’t just end overnight. We proceed slowly.

Only now I promise to appreciate the reminder letter to get my flu jab; I’m grateful for the childhood vaccines – the MMR, the BCG, the Rubella jab – the sugar lump with the pink dot.

Young people have no memories of measles and days spent in hot misery with the curtains pulled to shut out the light and ward off the risk of blindness. They have not woken up to a rash of chicken pox across their bellies.

Polio is not so very long ago – creeping paralysis; row upon row of children lying in huge iron lungs. Remember the statue collection box of the little girl with a calliper on her leg?

I once interviewed a woman who caught German measles when pregnant and whose daughter was born blind and with a severe learning disability. I carry them with me.

Smallpox killed an estimated 300 million people worldwide. Those who survived had to live disfigured, blind, infertile. There is a wonderful documentary about how it was eradicated. People went from door to door, holding a picture of a child with smallpox and asked, did anyone know anyone who had this?

Track, test, trace, isolate – it all sounds so familiar. On May 8 1980, smallpox was finally declared eradicated.

Professor James Wilson of UCL said he believes the eradication of smallpox was up there with the Moon landing as one of the greatest events in the 20th century.

My sore arm reminds me of how precious a vaccine is.

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