Listen: Watching the Pandemic Hit From Abroad

An Irish immigrant shares her perspective on America’s response to COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has now touched nearly every corner of the globe, but each country has responded in its own way. How does the United States’ response compare to others?

On this episode of Social Distance, Katherine Wells and James Hamblin call Maeve Higgins, a writer and comedian who left New York a month ago to return to her native Ireland. She shares her perspective on the different ways each country is responding to the coronavirus, and what the pandemic has exposed about the U.S. immigration system.

Listen to their full conversation here:

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: So you were living in New York, where you befriended Jim, but you are not from New York.

Maeve Higgins: I moved there seven years ago in January, and I’m Irish.

Wells: What prompted you to return to Ireland?

Higgins: Anyone who knows Jim or reads his writing will know that he started to get worried about the coronavirus ahead of most of the rest of us. And then this red-faced old Irish man, who’s the head of the [World Health Organization] Emergencies Program, was also getting really frantic about it. He’s been through a number of Ebola crises. I heard him a few times, and I thought, He’s such a serious person, and he’s taking this really seriously.

Then on March 9, the Irish government canceled St. Patrick’s Day. And when I heard that was canceled, it seemed like the bat signal calling everybody home—like a shamrock in the sky. And I thought, Okay, this is serious. It’s coming to Ireland. It’s coming to America.

I began talking to my friends who are ex-pats and immigrants. And my other friend from Ireland and I just decided to book a flight in case flights stopped, which was a fear at the time. A lot of countries were saying, “Come home now or you’ll miss your chance.”

I decided to return to Ireland because the government here seemed to be responding better. The signals they were sending out, and the way they were talking about it, seemed more responsible and more alert.

James Hamblin: The numbers that I’ve seen coming out of Ireland, as opposed to the U.K., for example, reassure me that you made a good decision in terms of a safe place to be. The last numbers I saw were that 365 people have died in Ireland of COVID-19, as opposed to 11,329 in the U.K., which, granted, has a larger population. But still, the rate of mortality is noticeably lower in Ireland.

Higgins: It’s an interesting comparison. The British and Irish media are at loggerheads at the moment because we’re neighbors, we share a land border, we’re both islands; there are a lot of similarities. The U.K. does have 16 times more people than we do and more population density.

But Boris Johnson was deliberately shaking hands with people and talking about a “herd immunity” policy at the start of the pandemic, whereas Ireland had put in social distancing about a week or two before Britain. It will take a while for it all to play out. But at the moment, I think the Irish governments have done a better job than the British governments for sure.

Hamblin: What was it like quarantining at home after you traveled? You and I had talked about this: You didn’t want to introduce risk to your parents, but you have more space in their home there than in your home in New York City. You can actually quarantine safely within your home in Ireland.

Higgins: When we first arrived from the United States, my friend and I just got an Airbnb in a seaside town. There were lovely beaches and cliff walks and sunsets there; it felt very strange being there and watching the coronavirus engulfing New York. But I’m now back home with my parents and living my 17-year-old self’s nightmare life. I live basically in front of my uncle’s farm, on an island off of Ireland. And my parents grow tons of food. So I’m really very lucky.

I’m watching Donald Trump really endangering people. And then I’m watching our prime minister here, Leo Varadkar, who’s literally a doctor, and he has actually gone back to work as a doctor. So there are a lot of really appalling contrasts that are hard to get my head around.

Hamblin: Can you tell us a little bit more about what it’s like to be back home now?

Higgins: Basically, it feels that my life is on pause, which I think is a pretty common reality for a lot of us.

I keep thinking, Okay, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to get really fit. And I fully appreciate my brain for giving me that relief of imagining a new version of myself emerging triumphant. But I think if I can just keep it together, and if my loved ones keep safe and healthy, then that would just be extraordinary.

Hamblin: Maeve, things have worked out really well for you. But you also write about the issues of immigration around the world. What could have gone wrong for someone in a similar situation of not being a U.S. citizen or finding themselves abroad at a time like this?

Higgins: A story that I’ve been really paying attention to is the experience of migrant workers and undocumented immigrants in places like Saudi Arabia and the U.S. In Saudi Arabia, they have been totally abandoned by their employers. And in the U.S., the only taxpayers left out of the stimulus package are [certain] immigrants without work authorization who still work and pay taxes. But they’re not allowed to get the $1,200 from the stimulus package. And so many of them don’t have health care and are afraid to go about getting health care.

There’s always been a lot of cruelty in the U.S. immigration system, but this particular cruelty seems insane to me, because you’re cutting people out of any protection. And you could make the argument that if some of us are sick, all of us are sick. The only way to defeat this virus is by taking care of the entire population. But I guess that argument didn’t work. And they’ve been left out. I think it could be dangerous for everybody.

Hamblin: It’s absolutely dangerous for everyone. But even in a situation like infectious diseases, we have these biases that make us unwilling to understand that, in the case of prisons or homeless shelters, you can’t just let some people get sick and hope other people won’t.

Wells: I’m curious if this has made you think differently. If it’s flipped your perception of the U.S. in any way, or if it’s changed how you feel about living here.

Higgins: This has always been a struggle going on in my brain, because I understand the brutality of America’s history and present, but I love New York. I live there deliberately, and I’ve met the best people there. And it’s so good for me.

But [America’s brutality] has always been a thought, and I think a crisis shatters all these windows in this mansion and causes you to see very clearly into every corner and see what the walls are really made of. And it just becomes impossible not to face it head on.