Notes on Covid: Then and Now
In the last few weeks, nearly five months after my own experience of covid-19 pneumonia and subsequent hospitalisation, I have been asking friends and colleagues if they can explain why the news media, regardless of political persuasion, across newspapers and TV and indeed social media, is no longer paying attention to who is dying. For weeks on end, until the middle of June, there were detailed accounts, photographs, obituaries and accounts by loved ones. We also became aware of the social demographics of the pandemic, who was most at risk, who tragically died while caring for others. Then, suddenly, it stopped. Was it that a simple reduction in the numbers of those dying justified a turning away from this ongoing reality, a focus of attention on other things? Yet, full busloads of deaths were occurring every week, indeed plane-loads, without it seeming to merit commentary from public health professionals, and without wider political and public debate.
Was this the result of some sort of moratorium decided behind closed doors? Or was it a media convention that, with the crisis past its peak, some sort compassion fatigue kicks in on the part of audiences and readers such that it is time to move on? Had we all had too much of the suffering and grieving, the hospital documentaries and the relief when those who came so close to death eventually recovered and could be let home? But the need to know goes far beyond the vagaries of human interest. There is a politics that accompanies the rituals of public mourning. Those who died at the height of the emergency were duly acknowledged as deaths that, in many cases, could have been avoided. But what of those dying now, could these deaths also have been prevented with better and earlier public health measures in place? they not merit the kind of public recognition accorded to their counterparts from just a few months back?
One personal question that flits through my mind is if I had sought help sooner would I have been spared the pneumonia? Could I have avoided the way the virus seemed to invade my entire body, seeking out from my head to my feet any cells that it could find to rest in? At the time that I got ill, having no cough and no temperature for about 8 days, my symptoms of intense nausea, fainting on the bathroom floor and losing all taste and smell, did not figure as strong indicators that I was in danger. It was only after 10 days of the infection that I was admitted to hospital, fortunately only needing oxygen and not ventilation. From my hospital bed, as I began to emerge from the hallucinations and tremors, I was flicking through Twitter and saw alarming words from my colleague at Goldsmiths, the writer Michael Rosen. Still at home he was experiencing the exact same symptoms that had finally set in for me by the time I was in the ICU ward: intense shivering and trembling limbs from the waist down, and a 40 degree temperature around the face and head and shoulders. I wanted to reply and tell him to call an ambulance, but I did not have the energy.
In fact he was admitted to the same hospital (the Whittington in Highgate North London) on the day I was discharged, and he remained there for 6 weeks. When he was finally allowed to leave, he had to go to a rehab ward at St Pancras to learn how to walk. So we both almost did not make it. Could earlier intervention have left us less impaired? Or was it the case that age, me 69, he 73, and the density of the doses we somehow contracted, were going to inevitably push us down those near fatal pathways anyway? These are questions that have some urgency especially for older people, since no shielding measures can be totally effective, people cannot stay indoors and away from others indefinitely. And here too poverty and inequality exact a toll. Increasing numbers of the over 65s work, often in low pay service sector and in janitorial roles. Will they simply have to give up work and rely on pittance level pensions to protect themselves from infection? And how will older people living in multi-generational families manage to maintain social distancing in the months to come, to say nothing of those already in the retirement homes whose quality of care varies according to the weekly rates paid by the residents? So many grandparents provide free childcare for working parents in a context where the cost of nurseries and after school care are spiralling exponentially. They have had to stop doing this during the pandemic, but when schools do re-open and parents are back at work will grandparents step back into this role?
The question of how the different national media outlets have reported on what is happening beyond their borders also carries enormous political weight for the forms of solidarity we can enact, and for the de-nationalising and de-westernising that it would require. My own experience here is limited to the life I have led between London, Glasgow and Berlin in the last two decades. (And I almost certainly got the virus en route in the first days of March). The German press is by and large more wordy and highbrow than the UK, and less visually fixated. In Germany, the response may not have been quite as fast as it seemed to outsiders, but the scientists and medics were less drawn into a political maelstrom than their colleagues in the UK. By the end of March, friends and colleagues in Germany who I had told about my hospitalisation already had information about blood plasma being used, and a whole stream of measures including the use of steroids, that seemed to be in place to reduce the death rate amongst the seriously ill. Likewise, with the lockdown and then track and trace system, the preventative measures put in place have worked more efficiently in Germany than elsewhere. Few British journalists have looked in depth for European comparisons beyond the graphs and the statistics – for instance little is known in the UK about how the retirement care homes (Seniorenpflegeheime) system in Germany seemed to avoid the scenes of distress so widely witnessed in Britain. Have they always had PPE at hand? Are care workers less likely to be employed on a short term or sub-contractual basis? Is there more regulation and inspection?
Amongst my own colleagues and doctoral students in Germany, the swifter and more efficient response to the virus means that they have had little direct experience of the suffering. I'm the only person they know who has caught it. When I say that, especially in London, we all know of at least a handful of people who have died, and that the country as a whole has been propelled into trauma and national mourning for the health care workers and the bus drivers and those who did not get admitted to hospital in time and so on, there is often an embarrassed silence. In addition, it seems the ‘long Covid’ as it has been called in English-speaking countries has little or no existence here in Berlin, at least so far. When I report on the many long term after-effects – the respiratory therapy I need three times a week, the extensive loss of muscle even when I have been taking gentle walks for an hour daily still there is dragging on my feet, the lasting damage to my vocal chords, the weak muscles on my neck, the dramatic hair loss which began 6 weeks later and lasted for nearly a month during which time 60% of my hair fell out in clumps as I showered – all of this has prompted first sympathy, and then among a few some suggestion that I was exaggerating or had become very neurotic.
These responses matter not at a personal level but because they also underpin the waves of neo-populism which have emerged across significant numbers of the population. Protests against mask-wearing in Germany have grown in recent weeks, on the grounds that this is an unacceptable erosion of freedom and liberty on the part of an authoritarian state. This too marks the power of the recent neo-nationalisms that blunt, if not extinguish, the possibility for solidarity and for transnational support and empathy. Here too the media has a responsibility. In Britain the downward spiral of circulation for the liberal press as well as cost-cutting at the BBC has limited the number of foreign correspondents over the last decade, and this is offset by the decline of students taking modern language courses and then going onto become journalists. We have subsequently become a nation less curious about others. Throughout the pandemic, this thought struck me often. What about Iran? What about Ireland? What about Jamaica? What about continuous rather than occasional on-the-ground reporting and in depth analysis of how other countries and their medical experts were responding?
What then does Britain have, if anything, to offer in the field of good practice in times of a pandemic? There have been outpourings of gratitude for key workers, for NHS staff, and for the low paid people behind the counter in the local food stores and those continuing to deliver mail, and this deep affective current of understanding and compassion makes the likelihood of anti-maskers gaining any substantial support minimal. Neo-populism too has almost run its course and been replaced by greater awareness of the chasms between wealth and poverty in Britain today. One senses that the electorate finds the pithy slogans from Number Ten increasingly vacuous.. The privileged white men in the cabinet cannot even pretend to show kindness or compassion. There is a sense that civil society has re-discovered itself in this great absence of leadership and its indifference to suffering. This has not just been a matter of community deliveries of food to those shielding, or the volunteering amongst the young and able. Its also apparent in the many support groups that have sprung up, the C19 patients’ activism on so many fronts, something that is quite unheard of at least in Italy and Germany. There has also been most important of all a cross articulation between the politics of race and the scale of the inequalities revealed by the high rates of C19 in deprived communities. For so long the ravages of neoliberalism in British society appeared to be irreversible – who could imagine a more equitable housing market? Who could see a situation where cleaners and janitors and people doing care work with the elderly might find a voice and be listened to? The political priority for now for the left must be to find ways of maintaining this openness to hear and engage with and make louder the voices of others. And, likewise, the liberal press and media. To abandon coverage of those who are still dying is to swim against the tide of empathy and kindness which amongst ordinary people this crisis has unleashed.
Angela McRobbie teaches at Goldsmiths University of London. Her most recent book is Feminism and the Politics of Resilience (Polity 2020).