Covid changed my life, so anything I say about it is coloured by what has happened. To my mind, we are chewing over several levels of trauma at the same time: personal, social, national and possibly global. This can feel as if we have been bombarded.
Even though I have the date clear in my mind when I started getting ill, I don’t know which of the things I was doing in the days prior was “the moment”. I ask myself, did the virus get into my lungs at home? Or at the Emirates Stadium watching Arsenal? On a school visit, surrounded by teenagers asking for a selfie? Or in the BBC Today programme studio talking about why I thought an unpleasant attitude was emerging that suggested that if old people got Covid and died it mattered less than if young people got it?
These questions place the virus in the midst of our social life. We live and work in groups. It reminds me that the virus doesn’t “spread”. We spread it. We cough, sneeze and breathe on each other. Whatever we do about the viruses that may harm us will affect and change our social existence. When millions of us have been harmed or killed, we feel it as a social trauma in ways that I don’t think we’ve thought through yet.
There were moments when we turned on each other, sneering and insulting each other for wearing or not wearing masks, for caring or not caring whether 80-year-olds died, for believing or not believing that long Covid existed. As I came out of my 48 days in intensive care, 40 of which were in an induced coma, I harked back to that conversation I had had in the Today studio and wondered whether in March 2020, when I got ill, the government really did want to protect me.
I started researching the timeline: what had the people in power said just at the moment I got ill? On 3 February 2020, Boris Johnson gave a speech in Greenwich, south London, where he said: “We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational.” Instead, he suggested, “humanity needs some government somewhere” to be the “supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other”.
This takes a bit of translating: the “autarkic rhetoric” was in fact people calling for a public health response to a new virus. “[S]ome government somewhere” was him appointing himself in that role as the “supercharged champion” of the free market – the free market that would defeat the virus rather than a public health policy.
This, then, was Johnson’s first reflex in the face of the pandemic. Every time I hear the phrase “he got the big calls right”, this speech echoes in my head.
By 3 March, he was boasting: “I was at a hospital the other night where I think a few there were actually coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.”
As late as 13 March, three scientists advising the government all talked to the media on the same day of “herd immunity” being the way to “stop” the virus. This newspaper has shown many times that this was both misguided and bad science, probably confusing the resistant response we build up in our bodies in the present with the kinds of “vertical” immunity that living forms build up through evolution; that is, through the elimination of breeding individuals unable to resist a virus or bacterium.
I came out of my dose of Covid and my time in intensive care not being able to stand up or walk, with one eye hardly seeing and one ear hardly hearing. Micro-bleeds in my brain have permanently knocked out the respective optic and auditory nerves. I readily admit that I look at the comments by Johnson and those scientists and feel aggrieved. And I’m not even the loved one of someone who died in that time. I’m not a health worker who lost a colleague at the very moment the PPE was insufficient or poor. On one occasion the PPE that came into my ward was secondhand and one piece had blood on it (as testified by the consultant).
I have been in meetings with people in this situation and many feel desolate, betrayed and abandoned. All the more so, when they hear people telling us that it was a “scamdemic” or that we had underlying health problems or that we were so old we were going to cop it soon anyway. One famous journalist reassured me that she knew I had been ill, “but,” she added, “you are 74”. That “but” is doing a lot of work. What’s “but” about being 74? Are my days less valid than her days, I asked myself. What kind of social contract do we have with each other in which I can be dispensable because I’m 74?
Meanwhile, this great invention, the NHS, saved my life, taught me how to walk, helped me help myself get fit, through the gloriously cooperative labours, skills, knowledge and experience of hundreds of people, many from (or with origins in) many different parts of the world. When I meet any of the nurses, doctors, physios or occupational therapists who looked after me, I am moved to tears.
To my mind, they represent the best of us; togetherness in the face of danger and loss. And, take it from me, they have suffered and are still suffering. Some have been unable to go back to the wards. When I signed permission for me to be put into induced sleep, I was told I had a 50:50 chance of waking up. It turned out to be a slightly better ratio: 58% of us survived; 42% died. That’s a lot of death for young health workers to cope with.
Actually, 200,000 is a lot of death for all of us to cope with. I wait – and keep waiting – for that national moment, that service in St Paul’s, that official gathering where we can all reflect at the same time on what has happened to us. Because the deaths have happened to us as individuals – and not in a public shared way, in some horrific act of war or genocide – it has become easier to tidy it away. The burden of the national and social trauma is being carried by us in our families and personal relationships. It’s almost as if this government that went into the pandemic mocking the public health response is afraid of our tears and our rage.
Michael Rosen is a writer and broadcaster, and a former children’s laureate. He is the author of Many Different Kinds of Love, a story of life, death and the NHS
July 16, 2022 at 12:37PM Michael Rosen