COVID-19 was traumatic for many. It’s important we remember this, even if it hurts to do so.

Adam Gordon is Professor of Care of Older People at the University of Nottingham, President of the British Geriatrics Society, and a Consultant Geriatrician. He tweets @adamgordon1978. Here he speaks about the National Day of Remembrance for COVID-19.

In recent weeks, the ITV drama Breathtaking has represented an important step forward in public discourse around the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s important as a moment for national reflection. The COVID-19 Inquiry is ongoing but, as is often the case with legal proceedings, is dry, factual and reflects little of the emotional impact of how COVID-19 affected patients, families and health and social care staff on the ground. A drama does this better.

I have, in all honesty, only been able to watch short snippets of Breathtaking. The excerpts I have seen suggest that the story has been told in a very compelling way, and with brutal honesty. Colleagues whose views I trust, and who have had the emotional fortitude to sit through it, speak highly of both its accuracy and the emotional gut-punch it provides.

The reason I can’t watch Breathtaking, and the reason I was unable to watch the previous drama on the COVID-19 outbreak in care homes called Help, is because it still feels too raw for me. I remember being accosted by a trailer for Help during a television advert break and finding myself sobbing uncontrollably at the memory of what care home residents and the colleagues looking after them faced. It was a very strong and visceral reaction. I didn’t need to think about how I felt. I was just suddenly crying. I haven’t been formally diagnosed but I guess this is a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder. I felt the same emotions welling up during the excerpts of Breathtaking which I’ve plucked up the courage to watch.

I know I’m not alone. Last weekend, on our departmental Whatsapp group, a colleague told us she’d started watching Breathtaking. She was about 20 minutes in. She had paused the programme and stopped to ask how many of us had successfully watched it in full. To a person, nobody had been able to. Some, like me, had struggled to start. Others had made it some of the way through before they had to turn it off. Perhaps our wisest colleague had dusted off her vinyl collection, poured a glass of wine, and pretended it wasn’t on. This is, I guess, the highest form of compliment to the production team involved. It was so real and resonated with people’s lived experiences so completely, that many couldn’t bring themselves to watch.

I can tell you about the memories that even the adverts for these two dramas brough back for me. I remember phone calls with care home managers in the spring of 2020, where they told me they’d lost more than half their residents to COVID in a few weeks. They were struggling to continue to provide care amidst overwhelming sorrow and a deep sense of dread at what was still to come. We cried together. I remember the patients in the early days of the pandemic, drowning in their own secretions from a condition we knew next-to-nothing about how to treat. I remember them struggling to understand what I was saying as I struggled to communicate through my mask and visor, holding their hands as they struggled for breath. I remember the loss of colleagues to COVID. In April 2020 we lost our first colleague, a consultant in the Emergency Department. A hero to many in our hospital. Suddenly gone. Many others followed in the subsequent months. Every one of them was keenly felt by those of us left behind. Silences of remembrance became a common thing.

I remember the doubt that pervaded around much of what we were asked to do. It’s clear that our Personal Protective Equipment in those early days was inadequate. We weren’t sure we were safe when we went to work. We weren’t sure of the risk of carrying the infection home to our families. We established clinical pathways based upon the best evidence available – but we were dealing with levels of uncertainty that we don’t routinely encounter in clinical practice. We therefore weren’t even sure, at times, if we were doing the right thing. Fortunately, in retrospect, we mostly were.

I have found myself angry at COVID-deniers because of these types of memories. When you have experienced something so viscerally, it’s hard to be told it’s made up, exaggerated, or part of some type of conspiracy. These ideas have surfaced again in the debate surrounding Breathtaking. Its author, Dr Rachel Clarke, has been the focus of what can only be described as character assassination by elements of the press as they have attempted, unsuccessfully, to debunk its content. I am sorry that she has been subjected to this. We are in her debt for having presented the story with the honesty and clarity that she has. We are even more indebted for the intelligent way she has engaged in debate since the programme came out.

It’s important for those who weren’t there to watch the narrative that Rachel has laid out. For many of us who were there, a TV drama and the surrounding furore seem too noisy a way to reflect on what we lived through. This Sunday, the National Day of Reflection is a quieter time to remember those who died during the COVID-19 pandemic. The day is curated by the Marie Curie charity. The accounts on their website often speak about those who died from cancer during the pandemic and remind us of those who died because they struggled to access treatment during the pandemic or because they delayed seeking help. We saw similar impacts upon cardiovascular diseases. There is also emerging evidence that many people became frail during the pandemic and were unable to seek, or put off seeking help because of fear of the virus, or a fear that the NHS was overwhelmed.

We all had different experiences of COVID-19. Many of them traumatic. We can only learn from them if we choose to remember. The COVID Inquiry will hopefully help us remember and learn on an intellectual level. But we can only understand the importance of its findings if we remember emotionally as well. It probably doesn’t matter whether we do this by watching Breathtaking, or by taking some time this Sunday to reflect more quietly. What does matter, though, is that we remember.


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