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W e are nearly a year into the pandemic, yet widespread denial of the pathogen and the crisis still persists. The hard objective truths are undeniable: millions infected globally, hundreds of thousands dead and a lightning-quick scientific breakthrough with vaccines now beginning to be rolled out around the world.
For most healthcare workers, life is split into two: the outward reality we share with our family and friends (the Instagram fodder of home-cooked meals and time with loved ones), and the peculiar and often traumatic inner world of working in healthcare, where supposedly once-in-a-lifetime events such as births, deaths and life-changing illness occur daily.
Right now, this second world feels darker, more chaotic and uncertain. Covid is ripping through hospitals at an unprecedented rate, while an exhausted workforce, already running on fumes not from “just another winter surge”, but due to a second wave of Covid cases worse than the first, attempts to battle it. For us, the objective truth is undeniable: patients are desperately sick. Patients who often decline quickly and suddenly, needing intensive care, ventilation and specialist support.
And yet in the outer world, our social media and even newspapers amplify a different “truth”. That there is no major emergency, that it’s misdiagnosis or global hysteria, which every major country, and their established academic and medical bodies, has inexplicably and simultaneously fallen prey to. Perhaps it was too much to ask that the brief period of trusting and listening to experts during the early days of the first spike might last through the winter.
These two worlds are difficult for healthcare workers to reconcile. We go to work on packed trains, rammed with maskless faces, only to arrive at hospital to treat the consequences of this lack of responsibility. We come home from wards filled with patients, faces sore from hours of wearing PPE in high-risk environments, to tweets from Covid deniers and internet trolls saying they “walked around a hospital and it wasn’t that busy anyway”. To actually do this would be idiocy, not to mention impossible – an evening sojourn would not allow access to the areas of intensive clinical care where patients with the infection are being treated.
It is perhaps worth exploring a few more of these Covid myths, so that we can enjoy catharsis, if not put the issue to bed.
“Patients are dying ‘with’ Covid, not ‘of’ it.” The death certificate data from the Office for National Statistics, which provides us with the most reliable figures on Covid deaths, records causation. But even more obvious is what a patient with Covid pneumonia looks like clinically. They have very low oxygen levels, a dense white shadow in both lungs on their X-rays, a particular pattern of low platelets and specific white blood cells, and very high marker of clotting called D-Dimer. This is a clinical pattern doctors all over the world have seen time and time again. Trust us, they are dying of this disease.
Another bizarre claim is that our hospitals are empty. This despite several trusts now recording major incidents as they risk being overwhelmed, and the national database showing England and Wales has more Covid patients admitted than at the spring peak, and climbing.
And, the worst myth of all: “Covid only kills the infirm and the elderly.” While age is a significant factor, we are routinely seeing patients in their 30s and 40s on ICU. Data from Scotland shows the average age of admitted ICU patients is 61, and more than 85% were living completely independent lives before they were sick. It could be any of us, or someone close to us.
“My GP is still closed, so I have to go to hospital.” Your GP’s office is open. It has had to adapt to an airborne virus to protect you and its staff, but it remains open. They may triage you over the phone. If you need to be seen and examined they will organise this.Government delay has exacerbated the NHS Covid crisis. We need a lockdown now | Claudia Paoloni Read more
Perhaps most confusingly: “It’s just like every winter for the NHS.” Firstly, winter in this country for the health service is no garden of delights. It is an ever-worsening pandemonium resulting from an underfunded, understaffed and under-resourced health service grinding on, fuelled by the goodwill of its workers. That being said, now that we face a virus that can cause such rapid deterioration on top of our annual cataclysm, and can so utterly overwhelm intensive care departments, we are indeed facing an altogether worse proposition. On Wednesday alone, 981 people died of Covid.
The virus has returned in full and terrifying force. But public goodwill seems not to have done so to the same degree as in spring. The attacks from Covid deniers are a kick in the teeth. Their claims cause outrage among staff exhausted by shifts, only to have their lived experience, their sacrifice and their suffering, and the suffering of the patients in front of them, denied.
In our role as trustees of the Healthcare Workers’ Foundation we are doing all we can to support the welfare and wellbeing of staff through counselling and PPE support where we can. Where we can’t, we support their bereaved families with respite and practical and educational support for their children. We see the impact on healthcare workers not just of the virus but of myths like those above. No one is immune: by August 620 health and social care workers had died from Covid-19. All left families and loved ones behind.
This pandemic is gruelling. The measures to control it impinge on our quality of life, hurt our freedoms, undermine our rights. But to demand rights and deny responsibilities isn’t rebellion, it’s adolescence. The inner world of medics is fast becoming a war zone. And once again it is hidden from public view, except for those unlucky enough to find themselves on the inside, as patients. For those sceptics demanding to see this world with their own eyes, I hope your demands are never met for your own sake.
Jeeves Wijesuriya is a junior doctor working at a London hospital and a member of the Healthcare Workers’ Foundation