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comment Let kids back training and keeping active in sport, they’ve suffered enough

Youth are really regressing after so long under house-arrest

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Eimear Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh and her Scoil Oilibhéir Coolmine team-mates celebrate after victory against Bracken Educate Together in the Corn Irish Rubies Cup during the Allianz Cumann na mBunscol Finals at Croke Park

Eimear Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh and her Scoil Oilibhéir Coolmine team-mates celebrate after victory against Bracken Educate Together in the Corn Irish Rubies Cup during the Allianz Cumann na mBunscol Finals at Croke Park

Eimear Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh and her Scoil Oilibhéir Coolmine team-mates celebrate after victory against Bracken Educate Together in the Corn Irish Rubies Cup during the Allianz Cumann na mBunscol Finals at Croke Park

So, over a year into this war with Covid, where exactly do we find ourselves? Running to stand-still, I fear. This lockdown is damaging people in ways, I suspect, that will only become apparent down the line.

You don’t have to be a virus denier to question the blanket nature of what we’ve done in this country, little if any distinction being made between activity that, on all available evidence, is relatively safe and that which categorically isn’t.

The net effect of this is as much psychological as physical.

And what compounds that effect is when you get the impression of political games being played between the Government parties, one almost contradicting the other in the race to get most prominence.

As I see it, that kind of point-scoring is making people angry, because it’s deaf to what so many have been going through for the last year.

Being honest, when this all started last March, I wouldn’t have dreamt of questioning Nphet or the acting Taoiseach.

But I’ve been observing this story through a lot of different eyes; through the eyes of a parent, a teacher, a husband and a son. And I count myself blessed that no-one in my family has contracted the virus or, worse, died.

But I see different levels of suffering right across the board now.

Yes, the television images from various ICU departments would stop you in your tracks. Our front-line health workers have been in a kind of hell and we should all be eternally grateful for the care they give on a daily basis.

But the mental health of people has taken a heavy shelling too. And I’ll ask this: Do we honestly believe that games like tennis and golf carry a dangerous level of infection threat? Or non-contact, outdoor training for children?

Do we believe that it’s actually safe for them to be back in a classroom now, but not in an open field?

I was a very anxious kid when I was young, fearful almost. It was sport that drew me out of that and gave me confidence in areas of my life that I wouldn’t otherwise have enjoyed. In some respects, I found myself through football. But that only came through the diligence of a coach who kept calling for me, recognising my insecurities.

As a teacher, I returned to the classroom two weeks ago and the principal was telling me that there have been six or seven individual cases of kids coming back in crying with fear, terrified by how the virus has been catastrophised in front of them.

Children have been so damaged by this past year, but it seems nobody has given them a voice.

I look at my own young fella, Micheál. He’s 16 this year and, like me at his age, just not hugely driven. It is so difficult for them to find motivation. Nobody can give them a clear pathway.

Nemo have been good in constantly sending out stuff to keep the young fellas ticking over. And they’ve been asking them to post their times for 5km runs, meaning a competitive edge has clearly developed with some.

That’s just not Micheál’s thing though and I can tell.

I’ve yet to see any evidence of Covid being passed on through kids’ access to a training-field, but I see plenty of kids regressing because of, essentially, finding themselves under house-arrest.

Trouble is, you can’t go from one extreme to the other. No way was I going to step back into that classroom last Monday and start hammering the students about all the ground that needed to be made up. I decided some time back that my priority would be to talk to them about what they’ve been through for the last seven or eight months.

I’ve no medical qualifications, but I do have a fair grasp of young people. And for me, the most important thing for them right now is that they feel listened to.

We’re all familiar with children who struggle to mix, those who feel isolated in a crowd. Trust me, there’s going to be a lot more of them coming out of this pandemic. I am sick of having conversations with friends about people from all corners of society suffering. Children going into their shell, elderly people without connection or hope . . . depression, addiction and suicide. But because they don’t have Covid, I feel it is kind of being put on the back burner.

And maybe it has to be. But do we need to be cut off all avenues to people, even those that are not a danger or threat?

And I find myself becoming increasingly frustrated with how we’re handling things. The sense of our leaders always being reactive rather than pro-active in their decision-making. It’s late March, yet we’re only now putting in place hotel quarantine for incoming travellers. The vaccine roll-out is still at a snail’s pace. You hear that last Sunday there were SIX second doses administered. You hear Billy Kelleher on TV from Brussels saying that they didn’t do after the vaccine as ‘robustly’ as other countries?

And classrooms are opening, but not playing-fields. Go figure.

More importantly, livelihoods are being lost through decisions being made by people whose own jobs and salaries are pretty much bomb-proof.

We are incredibly compliant people by nature. Broadly-speaking, most people adhere to whatever is the Government advice. But I detect an anger brewing in the most reasonable of people now.

It’s like the referee you might get at club level. He is the referee and you respect him and abide by his rules. But the more bad decisions he makes, you can feel it among players, management and supporters. He makes an absolute balls of the match. Sound familiar?

It is tough for the Government but people are tired of it, sick of toeing the line and nothing changing.

And I’ll ask this: Given we seem to have had the most severe lockdown of any European country, why don’t our case numbers reflect that caution?

I’m involved with Glanmire intermediates this year and we have 60-odd lads tapping into a training app on their phones.

We’ve no idea when they’ll be back on a field, let alone playing games. But what do you do? Stop completely?

We’re trying to keep it light-touch, phoning lads for a chat rather than checking whether or not they’re logging in their sessions. And we’ve been lining up a few social gatherings on Zoom, a quiz one night, a comedian another. We actually asked them if they wanted us just to pull the plug altogether and they were adamant that they didn’t.

And you know something? It strikes me that I’ve a different view on this pandemic to what I had at the beginning.

That difference comes from the evidence in front of me of people suffering, young people specifically. I find myself becoming increasingly frustrated by what I see.

By the way, I do understand the Taoiseach’s determination that this is our last lockdown because, frankly, I don’t fancy the chances of broad compliance if we have to enter another one.

But the Government’s communication skills have been awful, almost an exercise in one-upmanship at times between Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar. And that communicates party-political games being played at a time when a lot of livelihoods are hanging by a thread.

I’ve been making a point in recent months of asking my students on an almost weekly basis via Zoom how many were missing being at school and how many weren’t. And I noticed the number in the latter camp increase steadily, many actually withdrawing into their shell. Happy with just their own company.

That’s not healthy.

Kids need the company of kids. And that to me was the message communicated by the All-Star camogie twins, Katrina and Pamela Mackey, when they turned up at that recent anti-lockdown protest in Cork city.

I felt so much respect for them when I saw that picture of them standing peacefully in the street, holding up their placards in protest, essentially, at the toll lockdown is taking on the mental health of kids generally and young girls specifically.

There are a lot of people who share that view, but their voices get blocked out by the few morons who actively seek trouble at such gatherings. Genuine protest gets shouted down the moment violence rears its head. But the idea that protest itself is the problem is ridiculous and anti-democratic.

Unfortunately, a clown aiming fireworks at the guards facilitates the silencing of legitimate voices.

What the Mackeys did was hugely important. Do you think for a second that their message was indifferent to the strain our frontline health workers find themselves under?

Categorically not. It was simply highlighting the bluntness of this Government’s and Nphet’s approach to fighting the virus.

A bluntness decreeing just about every activity be shut-down, even the patently healthy ones.

For me, one of the greatest words in the English language is ‘balance’. It’s a vital force in every aspect of our lives, sporting and otherwise. And I’m not sure what balance history will judge this country to have shown in the battle against Covid.

I like to think I’m an innately positive person, but there are scars being left on our young people through this which – if we’re not careful – may well be there for life.

Yet, when I watch the evening news now, when I listen to Nphet, to the Government parties or to some of the zero-Covid zealots still being given so much air-time, an expression I almost never hear from any of them is ‘mental health’.

There’s almost a deafness to it, which is terrifying. A huge emphasis on the economy, on health for obvious reasons. But they are forgetting the damage they are doing to people they have locked down for the bones of a year. And they have made bad mistakes themselves along the way.

I am angry. I have changed my attitude from being very cautious and fearful about a virus I really knew nothing about. It’s going nowhere but I do know there are a lot of things I could do safely but I am not allowed. I am sick of it.

I’d say 99 per cent of us have completely abided by the restrictions from day one, but are you honestly telling me that golf courses being closed makes even a sliver of sense? For God’s sake, if you don’t socially distance on a golf course, you won’t be long for this world.

And this 5km limit? While I know it’s aimed at restricting movement, it’s actually just leading to congestion.

We have seen that most sporting organisations are more than willing to police outdoor activity in their sphere with care and professionalism.

Look at what the GAA achieved with last year’s inter-county championship and just think of how important that championship proved for so many people around the country.

But I thought that the new GAA President, Larry McCarthy, struck the perfect note in his Congress speech when he spoke of the importance of getting our young people back out on fields. What happens down the road at elite level will happen in due course.

But the kids should be our priority now. Just because they did not pick up the virus does not mean they haven’t been affected. Sport has been proven not to pose a threat so why are we dragging our heels?

Let them back out. Next week, children’s teams in all sports should be back. Adult teams and sports should not be dragging their heels either. They should be allowed back before summer. It can be done safely.

They’ve suffered enough.

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