• Ali Millar

Better, not Worse.

I start to feel, not exactly better, but better than I was. I'm still wary but slowly I start moving around again, working, teaching the children, unpacking. I can walk longer distances without feeling pain, until suddenly, I can't.


We live near the top of a hill, by the time I reach the crest I feel as if there's a band round my lower chest, any further than that and I feel like I have a stitch. I decide to blame it on the dust that settles as we're unpacking boxes; hayfever, I say, as the smell of lilacs comes in the open window after the rain; I don't want to think about what it could be, what it more than likely is. Nights are the worst. I wake feeling as if there are hundreds of tiny needles in my lower chest. I can't get comfrotable, have strange dreams. Yesterday, like all the other days of the last seven, my husband says, you have to phone 111 again.


I call them. The recorded message tells me they're only taking calls related to Coronavirus. I try not to think about what happens to the heart attacks, the strokes, the babies with rashes that refuse to disappear. The first operator assures me I more than likely have Covid-19, but I'm well enough to stay at home. I reiterate what I've just told her, that I had symptoms in the middle of March, that in April I had oxygen and an ECG, that I don't have a temperature or much of a cough. Oh, she says, if you're not calling about Coronavirus then I can't talk to you. I explain that I am calling about Coronavirus but that it's the affect effects I'm worried about, the not being able to move from room to room, the not being able to sleep unless I'm at the one precise angle that doesn't hurt. She transfers me to a medical advisor who asks about the pain and quickly dispatches an ambulance to take me in for a chest X-Ray.


The sun comes in through the frosted slats on the ambluance window as inside they check my oxygen and watch my heart that's behaving itself this time. We drive through the streets of Woolwich, a queue snakes itself round Tesco, most people's faces are hidden, masks are normal now. There are police in the square breaking groups of people up. It'll spike again, the paramedic says from her seat across from me, no one cares now we're past the peak. I ask her what it's been like, surreal, she says, and a shambles. She tells me how to begin with they were told to leave people at home, and then people started to die at home, so they were told to take everyone in. The first weekend in April, she says, all we saw was Covid. We'd be pumping oxygen in as fast as it was coming back out. We'd see people and their sats would look ok and then we'd walk them out to the ambulance and they'd plumet. It's a shambles, she says, we used to be in our own depots, but once it got bad they put us all together up Shooter's Hill, we're all in the one place, all of us, and there's no social distancing, nothing. We're all in contact with the virus all the time then we're supposed to take breaks together, she shakes her head, they think I'm mad, she says, they call me anal cos I take my breaks at home, don't want to be with all of them sitting there with their masks off having their cups of tea.


When we arrive at the hospital I ask if she wants me to close the ambulance door behind me, no, she says, leave it for them, and she points over to a transit van where cleaners sit waiting ready to clean each ambulance as it's vacated. She tells me to wait in the lobby as she checks which zone I'm to go to, hot, she says to me as she comes back. The emergency department now has two waiting rooms, hot and cold. Hot is where all Covid related cases are to wait. We're given masks before we go in, and are instructed not to appraoch the receptionist. All the seats are laid out normally, it's up to us to work out how to social distance. There's a split TV screen the top half playing a quiz about diabled athletes, and the bottom warning to check your blood pressure numbers. It's a strange juxtoposition. Still, the weather forecast rolling along the bottom is good.


I don't have to wait long until I'm on the conveyor belt of urine, blood, X-Ray, consultation.


Quiet today, the nurse says, it's been a quiet week, and then she laughs, well, quiet for now. I adjust my mask as she reaches for the needle. I hate these, I say. Me too, she says, I hate them. These ones, and she points to her flimsy mask the same as every patient is given, these are the rubbish ones. The ones that work best get wet inside from your breath, they make me feel sick. Some of the ones the doctors have are amazing, she says, as if there's maybe a hierarchy to masks and who gets which ones, I'd like to ask, but she's sticking me with a needle.


After my X-Ray a doctor calls me through to the ward. You're from upstairs aren't you, he says to me, when I tell him no, he says he must have got it wrong, it's mainly nurses he's been seeing this week. He checks my oxygen again, and then suggests we go for a walk to see what exercise does to my levels. His ID badge is under his apron, the photo on it doesn't seem to match his face, he's got dark hair in the photo and dark rimmed glasses, but now he's blonde with no glasses. I've been watching too much Hannibal, I tell myself as we go for a walk with my finger attached to the oxi-meter. The numbers go up. It's very confusing, he says. We go back to the cubicle where he tells me I'll need to wait for the X-Ray and blood results, and that it sounds either like the aftereffects of Covid or a reinfection or a different infection. We don't know enough about the virus, he says before he leaves leaving the curtain open.


Through the space I watch the nurses. They debate if they should wear eye protection. One says she always does, the other says she doesn't like it, the first says the other should be wearing a different apron for the next patient. The second nurse changes into her new apron, one so big is seems to swallow her up, then a male nurse arrives and asks why she's wearing that, because she told me to, the nurse says, looking around for the first nurse who by that time has disappeared. She keeps her apron on.


Everyone's confused.


I can see the feet of the patient in the cublicle opposite me. His left foot is wrapped in what looks like cotton wool, and his right is too, up to the toes. His toes stick out, swollen and purple, larger than any toes I've seen before. His nails are long and third one is missing. I hear singing and it takes me a minute to realise it must be coming from him. He mumbles and I see his feet trying to move. He starts singing again.


A nurse asks him how he fell, he says he doesn't know, she asks if he knows where he is, and he says he doesn't know. I see her at the end of his bed, filling a vial with clear liquid, he sings until the sound of him stops.


A voice over the tannoy tells the nurses who's coming next and what to expect. Every second word sounds like Covid. A trolley with an old lady on it stops outside my cubicle. Her foot's hanging off it. She's wearing socks, thick with a chevron pattern on them, I worry she must be too hot. It's then I know I couldn't be a nurse, the feet would get me. I couldn't look at them. They're too human. I'd go home and cry about feet every night. I'm nearly sitting crying about feet right now. Sylvia, the nurse says, or maybe it's Isabel she said, some name you never hear babies called now, the old lady looks up, you're ok, the nurse says, even though it's clear she's really not ok. Her breathing is laboured, her nightie is open and her chest is fighting to go up and down, they stand debating about the best route through the hospital as I try not to think about her feet and the way she is clutching her phone with huge buttons. I try not to think about how alone she is.


They wheel the man opposite me out and as they do, I see he doesn't match his toes. He's old and shrunken under his blankets with a drawn in grey face and beard peering out the top. His toes surely must be the largest thing about him.


The doctor comes back to tell me I don't have a blood clot, not that I knew they thought I might. I do have messed up lungs like crumpled tissues, it was pneumonia he says, and you're still inflammed. He prescibes painkillers, 60 co-codamol with no questions asked, as if there isn't an opiate epidemic and I'm on my way home again.


This is about as much as I can think. I can't seem to feel about what's happened or is happening. I can't seem to make it feel real. Not the ambulance or the seriousness of the virus or how lucky I am or the falling death toll which at more than 600 deaths yesterday is still too staggeringly large to comprehend. I can't assimilate any of that or the groundhog feel of every day that's become strangely comforting; getting up and teaching the kids, Joe Wicks leaping around in the background, taking shifts to work with my husband, the impossility of finishing a to do list or a complete thought. In the background there's the rising right and their agenda of misinformation, a government that's never cared about the human cost of its policies, the inability to protest when we're all confined to our houses, the hope this results in something different but the fear that all too soon it'll be back to business as usual for the sake of the economy, and my children will be guinea pigs back to classrooms too small for the idea of social distancing to be anything other than that, and we'll all be expected to bang pots and pans on our doors steps because we're so fucking lucky to be alive and come the next election and long before it too, it'll all be appropriated and at least 30,000 deaths will be politicised by all parties for gain. I don't want that to be background noise. I want to feel angry, short changed, lied to, but for now, it's survival mode, it's head down and gritted teeth until this is over.


It's long from over. We're a long way from knowing how it ends. The only certainty is years of economic uncertainty - uncertainty made more certain by cavalier decisions taken by a Darwinist goverment when they still had enough to time to prevent the virus spiralling like it has. I hope the future looks better than the past, but we need more than hope, we've always needed more than hope. We need a health service that's prepared for pandemics, and not theoretically, but practically. We need a health service that's valued and properly funded, not pilaged. We need a flexible education system that responds to the needs of children and parents. We need new ways of working and to stop equating value to income. We need ways of working that can withstand a pandemic. We need a new economic model with people at its heart rather than growth. We need to a free press people can trust, squeezing out the space for fake news. We need a populace who can think critically and make decisions for themselves. We need to prioritise environmental factors and to rethink ways of making the city work for all its citizens. We need a universal basic income to cushion the effects of ill health. We need a better understanding of how limiting the lived experience of people with disabilities can be, and to work out ways of improving access to experiences, events and culture.


At best this pandemic can work to disrupt outdated ways of doing things. It needs to lay the basis of a new manifesto, we need to imagine better.

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