COVID-19: Our World Under the Microscope

There’s been an eerie stillness, a timeless nudge somewhat, that has prompted me to write once more. Usually. I am focused on who I am writing to, who I am writing as, and in what person; very much like I do when I give my talks on focusing our lens, our vision, on a story, as though we’re looking through a metaphorical telescope (see TED talk link at end of blog).

But today I am uncertain. I am uncertain as to who I am writing as – a medical student, a young disabled person fighting against stereotype and stigma, a patient, or just another, very ordinary, passer-by to the context?  I really don’t know.  But what I do know, is that this message, this blog post, I hope can address and relate to every single one of you.  I hope that I can provide insight, reassurance, truth, and a lens for you all to see through, not into that vast, optimistic, futuristic telescope that I often talk about on stage with a smile, but through this laboratory microscope, that right now, has the world’s very true colours displayed all on one small slide.  And is all very, very real.  This, is the story, of how a virus has changed the face of an entire world.  

The first time I had really focused my attention on the coronavirus COVID-19, was not when it had swept through the seams of Wuhan, but when it had reached, and by this point, suffocated both resource and people, by the thousands, in Italy.  My social media feed bled with picture after picture of these apocalyptic scenes, in place of what were otherwise scarily familiar territories.  People, or really, bodies, were lined up, swathed in white clinical sheets, rigidly fixed to glum monitors, ventilators moving up and down, in and out, as healthcare staff dressed in bubbles of spacesuits, paced between each patient of a modern, highly-specialised Intensive Care Unit.  Some will eventually walk away.  But others will never make it out.  I knew that place, I thought.  I know them. Back in the summer of 2018, I lay there, in that very same place, as a patient, on life support for 3 weeks, following a horrific bout of sepsis and respiratory failure.  But the healthcare staff were incredible.  They were calm, collected, and gently guided my family through the highs and lows of my ordeal, and later, recovery.  I revisited this ICU 16 months later, to give my thanks for saving my life that August.  

But next to this photograph, now, reads a long text message.  A good friend of my parents’, also a highly-respected doctor in this Italian hospital, of whom was heavily involved in my own admission, told us this:

“We find ourselves in this situation which is serious.  The contagiousness is very high.  About 80% with negligible symptoms…I very much hope that this epidemic will not reach your country”.

We were obliged to remain cautious, and on guard, but in reality, none of us really understood what that meant.  I carried on going to the hospital, back here at home, as a medical student on placement, treating patients, day in and day out, as they coughed, sneezed, spluttered and sniffled next to me.  I visited my 88 year old Papa, widowed and alone in his own little house, for tea and biscuits.  Later that weekend, my Dad’s parents also visited, and we shuffled to a wispy, windy beach on the South Wales coast, before a hearty Sunday roast at the local carvery.  It was like any other family gathering.

A few days later, we received another update from our friends back in Italy.  I had not given much thought to the crises unfolding over there.  After all, it was far from home here, and it would be highly unlikely that it’d reach us. Surely.

“The feared prediction of a rapid growth in the number of seriously infected people has occurred in time and is a crisis for hospitals.  Every day there is the miracle of multiplying the places in intensive care, to immediately realise they are not enough.  I really hope that for a fortunate clemency of destiny, the UK will remain happily isolated…but it would be good to remain fearful”.

Maybe fear was to be a good thing.  Because now we are here.  It, is here.  And nobody can quite justify this strangely calm, yet quietly terrifying, dimension we find ourselves so abruptly locked into.  But beyond the four walls of my own house, the University Teaching Hospital up the road continues to buzz that white, clinical merriment.  Though it’s not merriment, it’s panic shielded in an uneasy humour as we continue to be so typically British and brush things aside.  Brushing other things aside though, supermarket aisles have been bleached to a nothingness, the stray float of cardboard vandalised in the centre of an empty aisle, like the remnants of a hurricane.  But no human soul remains lingering there.  Except for a frail elderly man, in his 80’s, shuffling slowly to the back of the shop, looking for his tinned beans and milk carton.  Nothing. He stumbles home, empty-handed.  I think of my Papa back at home, sitting in his chilled living-room, widowed and alone, biscuit packet empty.  

But I can’t go and visit him.  I can’t even see my own parents.  I am working, studying, mostly on the so-called ‘front-line’, and yet I, as a young 26-year old, have a history of multiple ICU admissions, owing to a respiratory condition.  Equally, I can’t afford to ‘join in’ on this virus.  We keep our heads low, my winter gloves on as I gingerly press the traffic light button.  Others avoid eye contact with me out on the streets, of the small handful of us still braving the outdoors.  A runner in blue shorts speeds past me, widening his distance lengthways as he passes by.  I sniffle from the cold wind yet I am met with nothing but a horrified stare.  The world has become even more judgmental than ever before.  We have become selfish, greedy, ripping bottles of hand-wash off of the walls in our hospitals, our places of safety. We have become xenophobic, offended, defensive of our identity, and our age, trying so adamantly to prove our own invincibility, with so little care for others.  And then the world continues by, as we scrutinize the news and our politics – it’s either never enough, or too much.  We continue asking the questions but still refuse to hear the answers.  The truth

Then, just a few days ago, this:

“I am concerned by the intentions of your prime minister.  I hope that all of your citizens will oppose the intention of obtaining flock immunity through exposure of the whole population not to a vaccine, but to a live, non-attenuated, highly contagious virus free of targeted therapies with a mortality rate of 1% in the most rosy estimates.  Keep the maximum precautions”.

They often say that we don’t believe it, until we see it.  Only then can something become a truth. I didn’t see the same runner in the blue shorts gallop down the hill I walked up this morning.  The buzz of the hospital concourse has now died down to a hum, and my friends, colleagues, the healthcare staff, of our hospital, dot quickly away in their recycled overalls, thermometers in hand to check for walking fevers en masse, white face masks to hide each other’s solemn expressions. But here, the pizzas have been ordered. Food is shared around and in turn, small businesses who have since been shunted away by the consequential economic crash are being lifted back up from the winter floor.  Humour hides our absence in a plea to reassure, as violinists comically play in an empty toilet-roll aisle.  I, amongst many other medical students nationwide, tap into databases and forms, expressing our availability to volunteer, taking on childcare duties for our fellow colleagues, whilst our medical schools postpone and close down at the height of this outbreak.  Neighbours that have barely spoken over the years reach out their hands over tarnished garden fences, and many get stuck in with assisting food deliveries, company, a helping hand, in the community.  Although with hands far apart, and faces covered, the world’s true colours of this awful pandemic has perhaps now been lit underneath the microscope?  Yes, we’ve embarrassed ourselves with greed, selfishness and shame, ignorance and obliviousness, deafness and blindness, but what’s become more viral than Coronavirus itself is this true kindness, unity, restoration and value, in the face of united devastation, fear and uncertainty.  Somehow, the voices of every Italian singing on each balcony have harmonised in the silence where the world has become so desolate; where we now hear nothing but a phantom birdsong, we see miles through water, unpolluted, the concrete pavements smooth of footsteps.  But it’s not quite over yet.

I’m not sure when I will next sit at the table to eat a Sunday roast with my grandparents, and I hope to high heaven that my Papa is spared from even the ‘simple’ sore throat. Will I still have the same number of family members sat round that same table at the end of this even? I could be away from my family for months, as I learn to enjoy the basic surroundings of a single, self-isolated room. I have no knowing of when I, and my friends, can return to the front-line to help our colleagues and people we too call our patients.  I don’t even know what it means for myself, coming through this.  If I were to catch it, if, will it be mild, or will it be more?  Nobody knows.  But what I do know is that, whilst every course and path each coronavirus takes in each of us will be different; some proving more vulnerable than others, each and every face behind those white, clinical face-masks are all the same– because we are all human, all exposed, and all journeying through COVID-19 together.  This, is what the world looks look under the microscope.  And no coronavirus will ever destroy that.  

Stay safe all x

TED Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8eAaxl0pTw

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