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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: Essential Workers and the Pandemic Cleaning an Empty University

24 June 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a new weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, author Caitriona Lally, School of English alumni, discusses her work throughout the lockdown as a member of Trinity College Dublin's Housekeeping staff.

Caitriona Lally, author of Eggshells

Every year when summer exams finish, Trinity housekeeping staff start their spring cleaning. With fewer students and staff on campus, offices, lecture theatres, and libraries are thoroughly cleaned before conferences start and international students arrive and a new rhythm sets in. Every year, that is, but this one. Trinity closed to students and staff mid-March and the world of housekeeping changed. Overnight, we had become ‘essential workers’, with letters to prove it, even if our wages didn’t show any sign of this essentialness. Skeleton cleaning crews have continued throughout the lockdown. With a one-year-old and two-year-old at home, going to work for my rostered days feels like a break, even as it poses logistical childcare challenges.

Front Arch is now closed, so at 6am I knock on the door and the security guard opens from a safe distance. I collect the keys to the Museum Building; I’m the only cleaner in there and I turn on the lights and check the toilets. There’s a ‘Marie Celeste’ feel in the rooms, the airless smack of a place abandoned in haste. There are woollen cardigans hanging on chair-backs and gloves left on desks, relics of a season long past. Diaries lie open to that week in March when the country stopped, timetables taped to walls give details of classes that never happened. Cleaners are usually told not to wash cups and plates in kitchens -- not to be ‘giving them bad habits’ – but staff departed so suddenly that their plates and cups were left dirty, and it doesn’t feel like giving anyone bad habits to wash them.

Office clocks in the building are still set to winter time: it’s disorienting to think you’re an hour behind when you glance up. There are desks in semi-circular formation from the last lecture in the Drawing Office and chalked equations on the blackboards. Cleaners are not supposed to wipe the blackboards but I figure those equations have had their day and wipe them off, in a reverse Good Will Hunting manoeuvre. When a bulb goes in a kitchen, I ask the maintenance man to change it, saying superfluously ‘no rush.’

Photo by Stephen Bergin on Unsplash

One morning in April I walked the length of the Arts Block during my break, hoping the coffee dock was open, but settling for a bag of crisps from the vending machine instead; when you’re up at 4.30, 9am is lunchtime. The stillness and silence were eerie, the hum of the vending machine the only sound. I waved to the attendant at his post, feeling like we were the two last soldiers standing after a grisly battle. There were days in April and May when the only people I’d see in Trinity were the security guard on the way in and a different guard on the way home six hours later. It’s bizarre working in almost total silence, hearing only the creaks and cracks of old wood, the hiss and gurgle of the pipes, the rhythmic thud of the clock in the Museum Building’s main hall, where I’m watched over only by the huge skeleton of the Irish elk.

Cleaners are used to the College being quiet in the early mornings, but emerging from the Museum Building at midday to total silence is striking. I see foxes many mornings, and the squirrels eye me as if I’m invading their habitat, which in a way I am. I miss chatting to my colleagues. A cleaner I work with left some presents for my kids in the tiny housekeeping kitchen, a room so small it can no longer safely be used for breaks. In return, I hid some sweets and a magazine for her, in a box under the table, and she reciprocated with more little treasures: in this way we are carrying on a socially-distanced chocolate conversation.

It’s June now and there are signs of life on campus again. Small petals and leaves work their way in to offices through closed windows, construction work on the cobbles in Front Square has resumed, the occasional staff member appears as though from unseasonal hibernation - I feel proprietorial, eyeing them the same way the squirrels on New Square look at me. Maintenance men are measuring safe distances for students in lecture rooms; a room that holds 70 will now hold just 12 students. I struggle to wrap my brain around the logistics of this – I’d rather do manual work than the mind-addling task of trying to arrange the timetabling of tutorials or cleaning schedules. As the academic community in Trinity have had to get used to online teaching, so the housekeeping community will have to get used to new cleaning practices when term starts in September. Cleaning has taken on a new significance; it will doubtless be done more often and more extensively, and I reflect - having lost a job in a previous recession – that at least I may be in a pandemic-proof occupation.

Caitriona Lally's debut novel, Eggshells, was published in 2015. She is the 2018 winner of the Rooney Prize for Literature and was awarded a Lannan Literary Fellowship for Fiction in 2019. She lives in Dublin and works as a cleaner in Trinity College.





Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

Joyce and the Pandemic with Professor Sam Slote (17 June 2020)

The Pandemic and Education with Dr Ann Devitt (9 June 2020)

The Pandemic and the Planet with Dr Ruth Brennan (2 June 2020)

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