Richard Chambers state of emergency turns Ireland’s Covid story into a quick page turner
Around the same time last year, I previewed the upcoming non-fiction books in 2021. Sifting through hundreds of titles, something curious came out: none of them dealt with of the problem of our time: Covid. Where was the definitive book on this?
it’s here now. A state of emergency is Richard Chambers’ full 320-page account of Ireland in the days of a modern plague. He’s ideally placed to do it: As a correspondent for Virgin Media’s newscast, he’s been covering history since his debut in early 2020.
Chambers managed to pull off an extraordinary trick here: taking a topic’s biggest problem and turning it into a compelling read. His rhythmic style makes him a page turner – I read it over a long weekend – and his approach of keeping it simple means he never gets lost.
His key skill is to condense this deeply complex story into 21 digestible chapters. It feels like every sentence is backed up by a wealth of research. It’s done with creativity and zest, but also with enormous amounts of humanity.
There is a lot of backstage gossip and bitches here to keep politics and information junkies happy, but the main purpose is clear: to remember those people lost to the virus and those who worked and risked their lives to take care of them.
I was caught from the first page. Written like a non-fiction novel, there is a touch of tabloid. His insider style, almost diary, reminds Piers Morgan. Using the form of the story to chronicle the story reminded me of Ken Follett’s blockbusters.
Starting with the scene of a distracted Tony Holohan having dinner with his family, he represents the chief medical officer just before Covid changes everything. Location: Dillinger’s restaurant in Ranelagh, Dublin. Date: January 10, 2020.
He’s distracted, ruminating on “clusters of pneumonia of unknown origin in Wuhan, the seafood market, the serious illness, the fact that there was no one in the world with any immunity to this thing.” If anything is to knock us over, he thought, this is it.
Little did I know that Nphet’s first meeting was called a few weeks later on January 27, as the rest of us watched the Chinese build new hospitals in a matter of days and people were still joking about this new thing. called coronavirus.
Dr Colm Henry, Clinical Director of HSE, describes our blindness to what was to come as a âmagical thoughtâ. âThere was a feeling of otherness about it – something going on there. Your way of thinking evolved into what you wanted it to be.
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The access Chambers has had to almost everyone involved is impressive. With one notable exception: Stephen Donnelly. The Minister of Health is bullied here by political sources, who present him as a cross between Ron Burgundy of Presenter and David Brent.
Such sarcastic ridicule is not limited to Donnelly. When Leo Varadkar publicly lashes out at Holohan, a member of Nphet remarks that while Leo may be a doctor, “he also didn’t set the world on fire while he was scrubbing.” Paul Reid is sneeringly nicknamed “The Professor” – you are not supposed to be working class and become the CEO of HSE. In Chambers’ account, however, he comes across as down to earth, devoid of nonsense and unafraid to challenge others.
Writing can sometimes turn into grinding territory. Terms like “FOMO” and “bandwidth” can creak a bit, as do bits of virtue signaling. References to himself and his colleagues in the media seem a bit unnecessary.
But Chambers has a playful side to it. I burst out laughing as I read the story of MicheÃ¡l Martin watching the Munster semi-final from the Taoiseach’s office, “going back to his desk with a bottle of beer, phoning the guys he used to be with. ‘go to the match’. On weekends, he âboils a few eggs and prepares a salad with chickpeas, sundried tomatoes and sheep cheeseâ. Crazy horse.
How could we have forgotten so much so soon? I had completely cleared my head of some important parts of the story. I had to remember how slow we were to start testing, or how the results would take weeks and long lines at drive-thru test centers. How Citywest Became a Field Hospital for Covid Patients; panic buying of groceries; the international battle for PPE for health workers; The existence of Simon Harris.
Chambers refreshes our memory and provides key information hitherto unknown. I had no idea, for example, how Professor Martin Cormican, the national clinical manager for infection control in Ireland, had been overlooked as a member of Nphet. I had no idea that Dr Syed Waqqar Ali, Mater’s doctor who died of Covid, one day entered the hospital for work and never left again.
The story of Covid is not yet over, as we see in the number of cases this week. It’s an essential book, but let’s hope there won’t be a follow-up.
Non-fiction: A State of Emergency by Richard Chambers
HarperCollins Ireland, 320 pages, hardcover â¬ 21; eBook Â£ 6.99