Week seven of Shelter in Place or Lockdown in London. Whatever we call it, this means remaining vigilant and at home. There is a new sense of ‘wait a minute’ … a new dawning of how life is really changing. Workers on building projects have had enough time off and money is running out. White vans are again parked on the roadside and masked laborers trudge in and out of the buildings. With luck, money will slip into empty pockets by the day’s end.
Meanwhile not only are all retail shops shut but so are most of the services that we have come to rely on. Hair is an optional accessory: some of us have it and some of us don’t, and blessed are those with a hairstylist in the family. Here in Camden, Ossie’s and the younger hip barber shops are all closed. So too are the ladies’ salons. Stylists have all gone home. The phrase ‘Shut up Shop’ has taken on a new meaning. As middle-age recedes, giving way to our senior years, we face the decisions we have made. Some of us have gone silver and others golden. Yet most of us try to do so something. Maintenance has become an almost full-time occupation while ‘You are looking very neat’ could be accepted as a compliment in these times. No longer able to enter the high street chemist’s I turn to the internet and find there is a run on ‘Age Perfect’ from L’Oreal and that Amazon is only allowing one package out with each order. But one is enough for the moment and will take me behind the closed bathroom door for a morning. Soon it maybe time for a pony tail clip.
But others are not so fortunate. The nurses, doctors and auxiliary personal on the front lines of the medical care of the COVID-19 epidemic can give no time to such personal considerations. Showers and laundry are all they can manage, meals are often gifted from the communities they serve. Some staff have even been camped in hotels, isolating themselves away from their families for weeks on end.
As we enter May, and come into Nurses’ week, celebrated around the world for the birthday of Florence Nightingale, I think of us nurses particularly. There are stories, penned in hours of exhausted lonely frustration, by Intensive Care Nurses working on the front lines from London, New York, Europe and throughout the world. These are heart’s weepings at the incredible loss of life they see and the family sorrow they bear witness and give comfort to. It is in writing themselves to sleep they join in comradeship with each other.
When patients are admitted to hospital with a clinical or tested diagnosis of COVID-19, this may be the last time they see their families. The death rate of those admitted to Intensive Care still remains at 50%. So many relatives have no time or way to say goodbye to their dying family members. It is the nurses who try to bridge that gap, calling families, holding mobile phones, and then holding hands with their dying patients. Nurses take their place at the bedside with both physical patient management and emotional support. If the nurses are lucky and gowned into proper protection, it is only their eyes that the patient can see, their voice the patient hears, and the warmth or a gloved hand that they feel. These can be enough. It is what nurses do.
The hold that the National Health Service has on the UK psyche is deep. It was conceived and brought into being in 1948 by Labour’s health minister, Aneurin Bevan. Subsequent governments have all taken turns nipping away at the NHS funding, mostly with cutting the salaries of nurses and doctors alike. This virus could be the a moment that the people say: Enough. Pay our staff.
Every European country with a socialized medical system sings its own praises. “Italy has the best Health Care System in the world.” says my Florentine friend Idanna. In less serious times I would banter with her that ours is better. But Italy, like all of the socialized systems has been sorely let down by their own government at this time. Italy went into lock down on February 23rd. Other European countries quickly followed with their own forms of isolation. It was not until March 23rd that the UK government asked this country to Shelter in Place. Italy quickly turned to music for community comfort. People came together across balconies and plazas to sing in praise and gratitude to their medical teams. Spain, Germany, France, England, China and America even, began their rituals of standing on doorsteps, singing, clapping and banging on whatever they can find to say thank you.
At 8:00 PM every Thursday, as night gives way to spring-time dusk, people around this country, on doorsteps, outside of hospitals, fire departments, and public services come out to clap, smile and wave at each other and for a moment not feel so alone.
This has been A Letter from A. Broad. written and read for you by Muriel Murch.