Diana Thomas looks beyond personal loss to question our priorities
On 6 February 2020, I posted a picture on Facebook. It was neither glamorous, nor remotely artistic, just a pile of groceries – packets of pasta, coffee, olive oil, long-life milk, baked beans, digestive biscuits – sitting on my kitchen worktop. This, I wrote, was the first stage in my Covid-prepping. We were going to be in for a very tough ride. I was getting my supplies in early.
I was, by then, avidly following the progress of the disease towards Britain from China, via Italy and Iran. Day after day, I would post the latest death stats, which at that point appeared to show a fatality rate of between three to five per cent of all known cases.
Lots of friends argued that I was exaggerating the threat of the disease. This was no more than another flu variant. An old university chum, one of the scientific whiz-kids of my Cambridge generation, now in affluent semi-retirement in northern California, went into great detail (far more than I could comprehend) about the genetic structure of a coronavirus. This one, he assured me, was nothing to worry about.
My response to the nay-sayers, whether they were boffins or not, was always the same. If Covid-19 was not a massive threat, why were governments across the world acting as though it was?
In mid-February, I caught a terrible cough. For the best part of a month, I was regularly awake half the night hacking my lungs out. The daytimes were no better. It got so bad that when I breathed I could hear a hissing noise after I’d stopped exhaling, as if my lungs were leaking like a punctured tyre.
I wondered whether this might be Covid, but my temperature remained normal and my senses of taste and smell were unaffected. I decided it probably wasn’t. At that stage, there were no tests available to decide the matter one way or the other.
Still, I tried to be careful when I went to visit my father, who was 86 and had serious, chronic heart and lung conditions. I did my best not to hug him, though our hugs were precious to us both. I tried to wash my hands as often as possible.
My big worry then was that Dad was determined to maintain his regular walks into town to do his shopping and pick up the pies that were, along with Scotch whisky, the mainstays of his diet. As I left his house on Tuesday 17 March, I implored him to look after himself.
“Dad, you’re the person Covid goes for. You’re right in the bullseye,” I said.
“Don’t you worry,” he replied. “I’ve faced far more dangerous things than this in my life. I can beat it.”
Four days later, Dad was admitted to hospital, complaining of terrible back pain. It was soon discovered that his blood-oxygen levels were dangerously low. A doctor called to tell me that Dad was suffering from pneumonia. He had been tested for Covid, but they did not think he had it.
Within half-an-hour I received a second call. Dad had tested positive. He died in the early hours of 4 April. Three weeks later, on a rainy Thursday afternoon, my sister and I were the only people at his funeral service. We gave our readings and memorial speeches to an empty room, watched online by a virtual congregation of 50.
Dad had tested positive. He died in the early hours of 4 April. Three weeks later, on a rainy Thursday afternoon, my sister and I were the only people at his funeral service, watched online by a virtual congregation of 50
Now, you might reasonably suppose that the loss of my father, whom I adored and now miss terribly, would have made me even more Covid-conscious, and fervently supportive of any and all measures to constrain it. In fact, the effect was quite the opposite. Dad’s death demonstrated not only that Covid really was a killer, but also whom it killed – overwhelmingly the elderly and already very ill. A nurse had set up a video link to his hospital bed, just a few hours before he died, so I knew that his passing had been peaceful and painless. Dad had been spared the humiliating decline into incapacity that his increasing frailty would otherwise have ensured, and which he would have hated. In that respect, his fate was far more merciful than my mother’s.
She has spent the past six years in a home, surrounded by other similarly afflicted old folk, suffering from the dementia that has robbed a brilliant, successful, vivacious woman of her capacity to utter a coherent sentence, recognise her own family, or control her most basic bodily functions. Her last clearly articulated wish, before she descended into the hellish half-life of Alzheimer’s was, “I want to die.”
We would not let our pets suffer in the way she does. And so, since Alzheimer’s is the most common co-morbidity for Covid fatalities, I came to wonder whether deaths in care homes – however awful it might be that loved ones could not be there to comfort the dying – were perhaps a form of mercy killing. Was the coronavirus bringing a release that we were too cowardly to provide ourselves?
Meanwhile, I was still avidly following the Covid data, via the daily reports of deaths and hospital admissions on the NHS website, and the weekly digests provided by the Office for National Statistics. A number of trends became glaringly obvious as the spring and summer went on.
In the first place, children and teenagers were at virtually zero risk of death from Covid-19 and the under-40s were only marginally less vulnerable. Even now, one still sees TV or newspaper reports in which hospital doctors claim that they are getting more and more young patients. But that is not what the numbers say. As I write this article in the second week of January, only 28 youngsters under 20, and 365 adults aged 20-39 have died in English hospitals, having tested positive for Covid-19. That is a total of 393 deaths, out of almost 30 million people under 40 in England. And all but a handful of those patients were already seriously ill.
But while the disease is very specific in its targets, the measures to counteract it have affected everyone. Educationalists, child psychologists and children’s organisations regularly report on the damage being done to young people’s education, mental health, physical fitness, life-prospects and even safety by the combination of lockdown and the virtual cessation of full-time education.
Meanwhile, the relentless “Save the NHS” rhetoric has served to divert attention away from what has actually been happening to people’s health. Throughout the late spring, summer and autumn, the ONS weekly death statistics told the same story. Overall deaths were slightly lower than average for the time of year. Hospital deaths were well below average (as, by the way, were hospital admissions and bed-occupancy). But deaths at home were regularly between 700-900 higher, every week, than was normally the case. So thousands of people were dying at home who should have been in hospital. And one has to presume that at least some of those people might have been kept alive by medical treatment, had they received it.
I have found that when I talk about my father’s death, virtually no one has a similar experience of bereavement. Until fairly recently, most people barely knew anyone who had tested positive, let alone had any serious effects.
The British media have at no point made any attempt to set Covid deaths into context. They remain far lower than those from dementia, heart disease and cancer
But if the subject ever turned to the damage done to, for example, cancer treatment by the obsessive concentration on saving the NHS from Covid, the story was entirely different. People talked about neighbours and relatives whose cancer had become terminal for want of treatment, or had only been dealt with because an entire family had clubbed together to pay for someone to go private.
A hospital doctor friend told me, “We’re just going to lose an entire cohort of cancer patients.” On my GP’s advice, I am personally having to pay more than £1,500 to have tests taken for a possible cancer. It would be months, he said, before I could get them on the NHS.
Then, of course, there are the effects of lockdown and social distancing on businesses, jobs, people’s livelihoods, and the known health and mortality effects of economic recession, particularly among the poor.
I became increasingly concerned that our government and scientific community (and others elsewhere) had not been brave enough to carry out a balanced, clear-sighted analysis of the balance of risk. Clearly there were no easy, right answers. But there might be least-worst options. And lockdown might actually be the worst-worst, neither curing the disease, nor protecting us from the collateral damage wreaked by futile, Canute-like attempts to hold Covid back.
It soon became clear, however, that even to mention the economy was to define oneself, in some bien-pensant eyes, as an evil, rapacious capitalist. My Californian friend, realising to his shock that his relaxed view of Covid was worryingly close to that of Donald Trump, immediately became a fanatical proponent of lockdown. When I tried to use data to suggest, calmly, that harm was being done to the poorest members of society, he accused me of posting “hateful rants”, and terminated our friendship soon afterwards.
A family member launched a similar assault, saying I lacked any conscience or compassion and cared only for profit (he was, ironically and hypocritically, under investigation for tax-evasion at the time). In vain, I pointed to the official policy of the World Health Organisation: that lockdown was so harmful to deprived people and nations it should only be used as a short-term measure to avert imminent collapse of one’s health system. Facts were of no relevance in our new, post-truth age.
Perhaps this explains why the British media have at no point made any attempt to set Covid deaths into context. In the UK, for example, they remain far lower than those from dementia, heart disease and cancer. It’s as if death did not exist until Covid came along, and we can never be safe until Covid is entirely obliterated and death is banished forever.
I suspect that generations to come will see the pandemic of 2020 not as a medical event, but a mass-psychological phenomenon. I think that the West has revealed itself to be an essentially decadent society, unable to face reality or mortality, incapable of making tough decisions, simultaneously crying out for leadership, yet despising those who lead us.
Yet for all that, I actually support the current lockdown. For the first time, the numbers of admissions and deaths really do suggest that our health system may be overwhelmed. And, for the first time, the arrival of effective vaccines provides the prospect of a way out of this mess. It therefore makes good sense to press the “Pause” button for a month or two.
Meanwhile, my larder remains, as always, very well stocked. And girlfriends who followed my advice a year ago and did their shopping while the shelves were still full have been thanking me ever since.
Diana Thomas has written or co-written fifteen novels, including three U.K. No.1 best-sellers (but none in her own name). She is also the current PPA Magazine Columnist of the Year.