Opinion

To live or lay low? My experience as a student and care worker during the Covid-19 pandemic

Cases of Covid-19 have surged over the last few weeks.  Hospital admissions have greatly surpassed the level seen during the first peak of the pandemic.  With these trends has come another national lockdown.  Students sigh as their plans to reunite with friends at the start of term have been scrapped.  Families struggle to cope with “working from home” in crowded conditions. In March 2020, there was an atmosphere of real fear; this time around, a feeling of resentment seems more prevalent.  Of course, frustration and anxiety surrounding lockdown rules are natural reactions, especially when considering the disconnect between the government and the public following months of inconsistency and failed policies.  Yet the opinions of healthcare workers seem like a world away from the general public.  Doctors, nurses and carers were relieved when the government announced stricter measures, which many had been pleading for weeks before.

As a carer in a residential care home, I have seen first-hand the pain caused by this virus. As a student, I have also felt deep frustration that my first year at Oxford was not what I imagined it would be.  When I first started work after Michaelmas Term, my care home was in a place of relative stability, with no COVID cases, staff beginning to be vaccinated, and visitors only being allowed to see residents via a glass screen. On Christmas Day, one of our residents went into hospital with a general ailment.  We found out two days later that he had tested positive for COVID-19.  The care home has been locked down since that day, with seven more residents testing positive.  In practice, this meant that no one left their bedrooms for weeks, except until recently when deemed safe to do so.  No one had visits from family or friends.  And to make the situation worse, a few staff tested positive, forcing them to stay home and isolate.  This put extensive pressure on an already understaffed home. 

These issues are not unique to my care home, which is at the higher end of the spectrum in terms of quality and expense.  The care sector has a systemic issue with staff-recruitment, yet homes cannot (or will not) afford to offer workers anything much higher than the minimum wage.  My colleagues work 12-hour shifts, day after day until someone else can pick up the slack so they can have a day off. While I have the option to stop working to study my degree, giving me some respite and a refresh, my colleagues do not have this luxury.  As with all worn-down health workers over the last year, they keep going.

On top of this physical strain, there is the emotional pressure that COVID has added.  As a carer in a locked-down home, I am often one of the only people a resident will see that day, and so will be the person to whom they express their worries.  It saddened me beyond words these past few weeks seeing how residents deteriorated in isolation, suffering from boredom and loneliness.  I think back to my own isolation period in November, during which my sanity seriously suffered, and that was in a situation where I had a purpose in my academic work, and a support structure of friends and family keeping me going, not to mention the technology that allowed these connections (which elderly people do not always have access to or are able to understand).  When the national lockdown was announced, most young people lamented how awful this was going to be, how they couldn’t cope working from home, they wanted to see their friends, they were sick of their family.  I too experienced these frustrations, but then I thought about the ‘lockdown experience’ of my care home residents.  The comforts of my home suddenly appeared all the more luxurious.   

Then there’s all the conflicted feelings one experiences when caring for a COVID-positive resident.  When one hears the term ‘PPE’, an Oxford student might think of Kant and microeconomics, but most people would picture a doctor wearing scrubs, gloves, etc. with no skin showing.  What is frightening in the care sector is how ‘PPE’ really means a flimsy single-use plastic apron, gloves, face covering and a visor – leaving you neck, hair, ears, arms, tunic and trousers exposed as surfaces to carry the virus.  I have had several experiences of feeling very uncomfortable helping a COVID-positive resident wash and dress for fear of transmitting the virus to other residents or my family, and yet also feeling so sorry for the person in my care, just wanting to comfort them in their illness and isolation.

All across the UK, care home residents have been failed by the sector, the government and the wider public.  These people have done nothing wrong – they have not put themselves in harm’s way.  It upsets me that their rooms have signs on them like plague markings, personal care is done speedily so as to avoid unnecessary exposure, and no one stops by for a chat during the endless days of isolation.  COVID-19, aside from its physical effects, is a lonely virus.  In all the facts and figures of case numbers and death rates, we miss what it is really like for people whose lives have been cut short.  What has been most distressing is how little power you have as a carer once someone has contracted COVID-19.  One resident had no symptoms of the virus for over a week, and then deteriorated and passed away on the day she was meant to come out of her isolation.  Another man was so ill during his last days that he couldn’t even facetime his family to say ‘goodbye’.  

About a week into the new year, I came into work to hear that a female resident had died from COVID early that morning. A wonderful, chatty, cheerful woman, a woman who was someone’s mother, grandmother, even great-grandmother.  Seeing the undertakers with the stretcher caused something inside me to ping.  While working in the care home, I had never been so confronted with death as in that moment.  This woman’s death, and over 81,000 others to date, were not the result of chance or unlucky circumstances.  They were the result of a virus which we as a nation have failed to contain – to be precise, the deaths in my care home were most likely the result of social mixing that happened around Christmas. 

Of course, the lack of direction by the government has played an immense role in this,  but every rule an individual breaks or bends has an impact.  Whether that be hugging your friend goodbye after your socially-distanced walk, inviting someone into your house for your picnic because it ended up raining, or, at the extreme, attending a large gathering like a house party.  I am no saint myself, but I realised that when I started work I needed to change my behaviour and truly adhere to the rules to keep my residents safe.  

Aside from the groups of COVID-deniers and anti-vaccination protestors, I am deeply demoralised by the ‘normal’ people who seem to rationalise irresponsible behaviour without blinking an eye.  The idea that it’s ‘just old people’ dying from the virus is no longer true with ever-younger patients admitted to intensive care units in hospitals.  And what kind of justification was this anyway?  The elderly people I care for are human beings.  They are parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends to people like you and me.

COVID got into our care home before our residents could be fully protected by the vaccine, but there are many who will be vaccinated in the coming months who could well die if they contracted COVID-19 now. While the vaccines available are truly remarkable, they still need time to work. Vulnerable people are very much at risk until at least 21 days after their vaccination.   Every individual action impacts the local and national situation.  Like many young people, I used to think the pandemic didn’t really affect me and that I did not affect it.  I now see this was wrong.