‘I found myself’: how the pandemic brought out the best in people

“When there’s an absolute catastrophe, you really find yourself. And I think I love being a GP.”

It is perhaps not surprising that Dr Farzana Hussain loves her work, given that the east London GP has become known as the physician who made it her mission to try to call every one of her patients who had not yet been vaccinated. Added to that is her incessant work on combatting misinformation and conspiracy theories online.

What might be surprising is how she found the energy. Like all frontline staff, Hussain was already working at an alarming rate trying to deal with the fallout from the pandemic during the second wave. “It sounds like a cliche, but I think I really found myself professionally and that gave me more energy to do it,” she said.

Hussain estimates that she and her colleagues working in the Newham area personally called about 500 people – focusing on the most vulnerable – to convince them to come and get vaccinated.

All of this while dealing with what she calls the “worst time ever” for healthcare workers – late 2020 and early 2021 – when she said they were surrounded by distressing rates of sickness and death.

The area, she explained, has been one of the worst hit by the pandemic in the whole of England and has had some of the lowest rates of vaccinations. Yet her practice, the Project Surgery, has had success – so much so she was chosen to help front an official campaign pushing for greater vaccine uptake, with the government praising the “tireless efforts” of the “hero GP”.

Part of this, she said, was because Newham’s demographics, with its large communities from several minority ethnic backgrounds, as well as white people from relatively deprived backgrounds, meant they were targeting their help on many of the groups who needed it most.

On a personal note, however, she said her work during the pandemic – and the rise to prominence it prompted – has been less fulfilling.

“I’m a real people person,” she said, explaining that her numbers of in-person consultations have fallen dramatically as most became remote to protect people from transmission. “On a personal level, I miss them. I miss my patients, so it’s not as satisfying for me.”

For Matt Fowler, the co-founder of the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice Group, public speaking and campaigning is an awkward experience. “I’m not an especially sociable person. And it has definitely taken me out of my comfort zone a bit to do the things that we’ve done.”

But, he said, they needed to be done. “I can’t get away from the fact that it’s something that is necessary. And it shouldn’t be necessary. As far as I’m concerned, the campaign should never have existed.”

Fowler started the campaign with Jo Goodman after his 56-year-old father, Ian, a retired design engineer for Jaguar Land Rover, died on 13 April 2020. Despite being out of his comfort zone, he and his colleagues have kept up the pressure for an immediate public inquiry so that lessons can be learned, he said, before more people die.

And they have provided one of the most striking images of the UK’s response to the tragedies of Covid-19: the memorial wall opposite the Houses of Parliament, where volunteers have painted more than 150,000 hearts – one for each of those who have died.

One of the things that angers him most is the fact his campaign has had to spend so much of its time fulfilling what he believes should be core functions of government during a national crisis.

“At the start of the campaign, we wanted to build a support network for people who were bereaved because they really did feel like they were on their own. The information available from the government was pretty sparse and a lot of the time people were coming to us because they didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing or how to deal with things.”

He described “bereavement support and counselling and financial support for funerals and things like that, because they had no idea about it. There just wasn’t that support network for those people.”

For someone so ill at ease in the spotlight, would he like to slip back into relative anonymity? “It’s an interesting question. I am very much out of my comfort zone and there is a big part of me that very much wishes for that sort of anonymity again.

“But another part of me is also thinking that what I’ve done has been the right thing to do. And I don’t think anybody should shy away from doing what’s right, no matter what it is and no matter how difficult and unnerving it can be.

“I very much feel like I’m so far out of my depth that I can’t even see the way back to shore. But it’s something I had to do. And if there is still that necessity for me to do something then I’ll have to carry on doing it because I can’t really contemplate walking away from people in need.”

“There was a moment as we hit £12m – in about the second week – that, for me personally, I realised things had changed in a way that I couldn’t change them back.”

Hannah Ingram-Moore is at the centre of a fundamental conflict. She does not believe the experience of becoming a focal point of so much attention after her father, Captain Sir Tom Moore, started raising money for the NHS by walking laps of his garden has changed her as a person. And yet it has changed her life and those of her relatives immeasurably.

“We had drones trying to take photos, we had long-range lenses over the hedges. There were helicopters overhead, there were satellite vans around every corner of the boundary of the house. And the world was calling my phone – it was heads of global organisations, countries, politicians, everyone that you can imagine,” she said.

The attention was placed on Ingram-Moore and her family as a result of her father’s fundraising. His laps of his garden and other activities run by the family have collectively raised millions of pounds and made the second world war veteran a hero to many.

Captain Tom died in February, aged 100. And as she travelled to Yorkshire to bury his ashes, Ingram-Moore described how she is now stopped in the street wherever she goes by people who want to talk about the charitable work she and her family have done.

And yet, she stressed, she would remain the sort of person who always agrees to stop and chat. “The conversation is about human connectivity; about the fact that people are fundamentally good and not bad.

“My father really believed that – he really believed that humanity is fundamentally good. And so we feel a responsibility to this incredible gift, a legacy that my father has left us.”

She added: “If you ask me: have we changed? I think, honestly, no. But have we grown into our new roles? Yes, I think we have.

“And I try personally to respect my father’s legacy every minute of every day. And every time that somebody talks to me, I know that what we represent is an ordinary family. We are just like everybody else, just centred in this incredible, extraordinary legacy.”

When Claire Hastie first contracted coronavirus on 17 March 2020, a week before the first lockdown, it didn’t cross her mind that over a year later she would still not have recovered.

“Having coronavirus has been life changing,” she says. “I’ve had to use a wheelchair for over a year, I can’t walk 100 metres even. I’m hoping it’s temporary, but so far it’s been pretty life-changing not being able to walk or work. I haven’t had a symptom-free day.”

Hastie is one of the estimated 2 million people in the UK who has some variation of long-lasting symptoms from coronavirus, symptoms that can range from fatigue to loss of mobility. At the point when she’d been bedridden for seven weeks, she set up a support group for people suffering with similar symptoms.

The group, Long Covid Support, now has more than 42,000 members from across 100 countries, and provides support and practical help for people experiencing long-Covid symptoms.

“I’m not very techie, I’d never set up a Facebook group before,” Hastie says. “But now we have a team of admins and moderators across different time zones. It’s grown into such a lovely community and is such a safe and supportive space.”

Despite the virus having affected many areas of her life, including her mobility and cognition, the work Hastie’s done on supporting those with long Covid and campaigning for more awareness of the condition has kept her going. Alongside founding the support group, Hastie also sits on the on the NHS England long-Covid taskforce committee and the long-Covid roundtable chaired by Lord Bethell.

“Running the group has kept me sane,” she says. “If I’d been lying in bed with no focus or purpose, it would have been a completely different experience.

“Even though at times I’ve felt horrific, I wouldn’t change what I’ve been through because of the learning and enrichment it has brought. In terms of the friendships formed, the people I get to interact with and the meetings I get invited to, I feel like it’s made a difference.

“The support group itself is a beautiful thing. It catches people when they fall. We have so many people commenting and saying that this group is the only thing that keeps me going through this.”

With the removal of almost all coronavirus restrictions being imminent, Hastie wants to make sure that people with long Covid aren’t forgotten. “When everything opens up, that’s when you feel like you’ve been left behind,” she says. “Everyone else would be resuming their normal lives but many people with long Covid won’t physically be able to do that.”

The moment Holly Avis became so infuriated at how pregnant women were being treated due to the pandemic was when the country began to open up after the first lockdown.

“Then it got to June [2020], and things like shops are gyms started to open up. Our local Primark in Rushden made the news due to how long the queue outside was,” she says. “At that point, I was like, hang on a minute? I’m allowed to go shopping with my friends but I’m not allowed to have my partner with me for the entirety of my labour?”

At that time, due to measures put in place amid the pandemic, restrictions were placed on the amount of time birthing partners were allowed to be present during their partner’s labour. The measures meant that in many hospitals, birthing partners were only allowed to be present once their pregnant partner was 4cm dilated.

Believing these restrictions to be a huge injustice, Avis, who was heavily pregnant with her third child at the time, set up a petition that called for a chosen birth partner to be allowed throughout the duration of the birth, as well as being able to attend any scans and appointments.

The popularity of the petition was something Avis didn’t expect, amassing more than 200,000 signatures in a few days. After the launch of the petition, Abbi Leibert, a doula from the Birthbliss Academy, got in touch with Avis, and the petition became part of a wider campaign known as #ButNotMaternity. The campaign, made up by a collective of volunteers, seeks to ensure that maternity restrictions in the UK are proportionate to the risk of birth trauma as well as coronavirus. The campaign was instrumental in all NHS trusts allowing partners to attend scans and appointments since May.

Before coronavirus, Avis wasn’t a campaigner, nor were birthing rights something she particularly thought about. “I didn’t know too much about it before,” she says. “I mean, I had two children previously but my knowledge of maternity and birthing rights was very limited. But now, the campaign has definitely put the seed into my head.”

Avis is pleased with impact of the petition and the wider campaign has had. “I’m glad I listened to my own inner voice because it became the voice of so many people,” she says. “The thought of going into labour alone was frightening enough, but through the campaign we’ve heard stories from people who had lost their baby, for instance, and how even more frightening that experience must have been.”




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