By Oisin Hayden Burrell
Coronavirus has fallen out of the public spotlight at the moment, albeit for a hugely valid reason. The death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in police custody, has ignited global passions for racial equality across the world. Racism is undeniably one of the biggest issues we face at the moment, and we stand in absolute solidarity with all of those fighting against racial injustices. I have found it extremely powerful to see the socially distanced protests that have happened in Stroud over the last couple of days and it was a huge pleasure to attend. But it is paramount we do not become complacent over Covid-19, with the very real risk of a second spike potentially looming.
Lockdown is now being eased here in the UK, albeit not to the same extent that it has in other parts of the world. Many scientific and medical professionals have warned against relaxing restrictions too soon, but as it stands now we can meet up to six people in a public area whilst maintaining social distancing. This announcement was made not long before the British death toll hit 40,000, with daily deaths at around 300-400 and suspected new infections at around 2,000. Statistics like these beg the question as to why lockdown is being loosened at such a critical juncture. That said, you can hardly blame people for wanting to see their friends and families after months of isolation. Had it not been for the government’s initial reluctance to impose a lockdown back in March, small gatherings would be safer, and people could return to some form of normality without the constant worry of spreading or catching this deadly disease. Many countries around the world with proactive governments that took immediate action when the virus first arrived have returned to what could be considered a new normal. Minor distancing measures and work from home schemes are the height of restrictions in New Zealand, while they maintain a closed border.
Regardless of the current situation, it’s important for us not to forget how poorly our leaders have handled aspects of this pandemic, from Dominic Cummings breaking his own government’s lockdown rules to inadequate PPE for many of our key workers. An issue that seemed to go under the government’s radar for far too long was how poorly the care sector was prepared for this pandemic. Care workers and those living in care homes have been neglected by our government, meaning that now over 28% of Covid-19 deaths have been care home residents, when they make up only 4% of the total population aged over 65. This is without factoring in all the ‘excess deaths’ that can’t be directly attributed to Covid-19, but are almost certainly linked to the pandemic. A cardiologist quoted in The Daily Telegraph said: “We discharged known, suspected and unknown cases into care homes, which were unprepared with no formal warning that patients were infected, no testing available and no PPE to prevent transmission. We actively seeded this into the population that was most vulnerable.” Sending Covid-19 positive patients back into care homes – facilities that are quite literally designed for housing the vulnerable – is nothing short of negligence. The government have continually prevaricated on the issue of care homes, and it appears their inaction has had severe consequences. This is an issue that has been felt nationwide, and Stroud is no exception.
I spoke to a contact working in a local care home about their experiences during this extraordinary time, asking how the home had been affected in terms of deaths and infections. I was deeply saddened to hear that over a quarter of the residents had passed away since their first confirmed case of Covid-19. In an already mentally taxing time, it’s hard to comprehend the stress this must have caused. These care workers are setting aside so many of their own concerns to help the most vulnerable; to be given so little attention by the government is frankly unacceptable. Fortunately, the care home my contact works at had adequate PPE, with masks, aprons and gloves. Some homes across Britain saw the chaos that was ensuing in other countries and decided to stockpile protective gear early on. But not all care facilities had the means to do this, a situation where the government really should have stepped up and helped to provide PPE. There have been reports of staff in both hospitals and care homes using swimming goggles due to the lack of visors and having to bring their own make-shift masks.
More positively, it also seemed that this Stroud care home had other measures in place to help mitigate the spread of the virus; for example, items were left for 72 hours in suspected or confirmed Covid-positive rooms of residence to reduce the risk of the virus being passed on. However, my contact said that not all staff understood the importance of these measures and weren’t taking them seriously: “It’s hard to say how much impact this had, but it wasn’t nice to see.” At the height of this epidemic, some of the staff were working for ten days straight and lots of staff were isolating, meaning the home was incredibly short of hands. They highlighted that this was largely down to there being no tests available for the staff; an issue found across the board for key workers. This was at least partially due to the government’s sluggishness in setting up an effective test and trace program, which unfortunately still appears to be a major problem. Germany was testing around 500,000 people a day when our government was struggling to get over 10,000 in mid-March to early April, clearly demonstrating our own issues with the supply and manufacture of our own tests. The rewards of effective testing have been reaped by the countries with drastically lower death tolls: in South Korea, there have only been 273 deaths due to Coronavirus, and the country has implemented an extremely effective test and trace scheme.
I was interested to hear what my contact had to say about the ‘clap for carers’ movement, knowing lots of key workers were uncomfortable with a gesture that some had described as tokenistic. Speaking to an NHS worker, it was clear some felt as though the clapping was simply setting them up for martyrdom; that it drew public attention away from the fact that due to government incompetence, our healthcare system and care homes were completely unprepared for this pandemic. I felt this was a very reasonable stance: after all, many of the Conservatives applauding were the same ministers who spent the last ten years privatising and underfunding our public health service, deepening its unpreparedness. This is to say nothing of the frequent wartime rhetoric and WW2 comparisons invoked by the Tories in the context of the virus, which almost suggests that the deaths occurring in the healthcare sector are a necessary loss if we want to overcome this virus. In actual fact, these deaths have been – and are – almost entirely preventable. I think the only fair analogy we can draw between the situation we face now and the wars of the past is the egalitarian nature of humans in the face of such adversity. Really though, very few second-guessed the nature of the clapping: for most it was simply a kind gesture to show appreciation for the people who have put everything on the line to help others in this incredibly tough time. As my contact put it: “Personally, I don’t mind the clapping – as long as it’s not from Tory voters who have never shown any support for the NHS.”
In this case we have a care home that was reasonably prepared for the virus, but still faced a horrendous amount of deaths. I can only begin to imagine what it must be like in the care homes that weren’t quite as ready. As my contact said: “Overall, I think our care home has handled the outbreak as best we could, given the guidance we had. The other workers and I have continued to show up and support the residents we care for. It’s a shame the government hasn’t.”