Marble Falls Working with essential workers and their struggles over the last several years makes me hope that the recognition of the critical dependence we all have on them is more permanent than the pandemic. Unfortunately, I’m a realist, so I recognize how quickly people forget and try to put it all in the rearview mirror. The pushback from businesses and politicians on wages to meet the current inflation surge for such workers is a wakeup call for any who believe that the fond memories and stark realizations of the last several years will be sustained.
Nonetheless, we need to learn the lessons of the pandemic, both large and small, which led me to read with interest, The Coronavirus Doctor’s Diary: Stories from the Frontline and to speak on Wade’s World with John Wright, a doctor with the famed National Health Service in the United Kingdom, who was the author of the diary and an epidemiologist. The diary is based on the first year of the pandemic, especially the lockdown period. His experiences at Bradford Royal Infirmary in a mid-sized city in the north of England were powerful reminders of a time we seem everywhere in a hurry to forget. For me it was a bookend of sorts. I had met Dr. Wright, along with his family, in my last overseas trip before the shutdown in Leeds when I visited there in February 2020. It was hardly a coincidence since one of their daughters, Kat, is a pillar of the ACORN organizing staff in the UK as our field director. Wright’s perspective was especially interesting because, unlike most of us fortunate souls, he, along with Helen, a nurse and his wife, were veterans of epidemics having dealt with other devastations like cholera and AIDS in Africa, as well as the Ebola nightmare.
Since many of the diary entries were also reports broadcast by the national radio BBC from behind the closed walls of the hospital during the lockdown, there were many personal stories tragic, heroic, and sublime from both workers and patients. The population of Bradford holds a majority from South India and elsewhere, making it somewhat unique in England as well, and Wright noted the increased impact and mortality in the city, similar to what Black, Hispanic, and lower income populations have experienced in the US as well.
We can all remember the crisis triggered in the early days by the shortage of ventilators and the fears that hospital staff would have to triage who lived and died based on access to these life-saving machines. I was fascinated by Wright’s discussion of how BRI had adapted by buying 100 hospital-grade continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, normally used to deal with sleep apnea, as an effective early response therapy for seriously threatened patients, keeping them out of ICU wards where mortality rates were higher. Maybe that hack was widely used, but if so, I hadn’t heard about it. It was equally important that the CPAP machines used less oxygen, because there was a limited availability and the hospital’s pipes were never designed to handle this level of demand. These are lessons we can’t forget. Sadly, the breakthroughs that the lockdown allowed for these kinds of responsive innovations at the individual hospital level, rather than at the top-down systems level of the NHS, already seem to have receded.
Asking Wright about the current wave of new variant strains, his view was sobering. This and other viruses to come will perhaps be more permanent than our memories and always with us. Wright insists that we keep our masks handy and continue to demand multi-use vaccines. No one is immune. Dr. Wright himself has been infected by Covid twice at the frontlines of the fight, which is also a lesson in the power of the peril, despite best precautions, and a warning to everyone that luck is not a plan, now, or in the future.