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As the weeks have turned to months and the days have grown darker, the pandemic has increasingly divided people into two worlds. In one of these worlds, people have direct experience of COVID-19. They know what the virus does to the human body and mind. These are people who have had the disease, or have cared for someone who has, at home, or in hospital or care homes. They are health care workers, family members or friends. They are bereaved, exhausted, shattered. 

In another world, there live people increasingly frustrated by endless rules, which have also brought loss: pubs closed, theatres silenced, stadiums deserted. Many people have lost jobs, seen their studies disrupted, missed family reunions, marriages, holidays. In this world, our public polling is showing a steady loss of confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic. While a majority of people support the principle of tighter restrictions in areas with higher cases, a growing minority of vocal people are questioning the need for any restrictions, and some even doubt the truth of the pandemic.  

These two worlds can feel as far apart as air and water. For those submerged in the daily reality of dealing with the virus, it must feel increasingly hard and exhausting to keep explaining to everyone else what their world is really like, and what all these rules and restrictions are there for.  

Stories can bridge these two worlds more powerfully than any dots and bars on a chart. Even for those who understand the enormity of the data presented in press conferences, the testimony of people who have direct experience of the virus hits home like nothing else.  

This month’s newsletter brings together three projects that bring to life the stories behind COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, we supported documentary makers Sandpaper Films to tell the stories of patients in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at King’s College Hospital in South London. At the time, the media was full of statistics about the pressures on ICUs but there were only ever brief glimpses inside, with patients in the background, inert, faceless shapes in beds. The documentary makers wanted to produce something very different

The result, Surviving COVID aired on 2 December on Channel 4. It was filmed over six months and tells the story of four patients, their families and those who cared for them while in the ICU. Without using a single chart or voice-over, it captures the brutal reality of the virus, and its unequal impact on the population.  

The four patients are all men, two of them from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. One of the four never recovers consciousness. We see the journey that his wife and daughter make, from bravely cracking jokes by his bedside, as his chest labours on the ventilator, to inconsolable at a scaled down, socially distanced funeral.  

For the three who lived, we see what this means. Days of delirium, trying to yank away cannulas and breathing tubes. Days of exhaustion, too weak to lift their own heads, speak in more than a whisper or to open a can of coke. Days of tears, unable to hug their children, the youngest of whom hangs back in fear when she sees how changed her dad has become when he returns home.  

The film also captures the stories of the staff who cared for these four and countless more. From the doctors we hear about the speed with which the virus destroys the organs of the body – better understood now, but still unpredictable – and see the exhaustion of making constant choices about when to push harder and when to stop. The day to day caring from nurses, physiotherapists, and occupational therapists is captured in the film, along with the compassion towards their patients who they know will suffer for many months to come once they’ve left hospital. They also know that some may never fully recover.  

Above all, Surviving COVID is testament to the power of family bonds, and the courage shown by the wives, sons and daughters to allow cameras into their lives when they were at their most vulnerable. Over the coming weeks we’ll also be releasing a series of four videos to accompany the documentary, drawn from additional footage captured by the filmmakers. The first of these, Behind each statistic lies a human story, was published earlier this month.  

Courage is also a powerful theme in the second project we’ve supported that uses stories. A new installation from the Empathy Museum – From Where I’m Standing  – records life in 2020 during the pandemic, using the stories of 34 people from around the UK. There are accounts from frontline health, social care and public health workers, including a Q member and a Health Foundation grant holder. Each story contains audio and photographs, and is a very personal record of the impact of COVID-19 on the minds and bodies of those in caring roles. It follows the success of our A Mile in My Shoes project with the Empathy Museum and complements other work by the Health Foundation improvement team on the wellbeing of health and care staff during the pandemic. 

The third and final project uses stories to reflect the indirect damage that COVID-19 has brought to the lives of people in the UK. With a vaccine now rolling out, many people are understandably eager to resume their normal lives and forget about it all. But the pandemic will cast a long shadow over communities which had already been dealt an unfair hand: those living with chronic illness, precarious jobs and unfit housing. Our COVID-19 impact inquiry is gathering evidence of the unequal impact of COVID-19 and how the measures taken to control it have taken an uneven toll on society. The vast majority of the evidence analysed will be in written form, but behind all the graphs and words, the human reality of all this must not slip from our sight. In this film, produced as part of the inquiry, we spoke to three people in detail about how the pandemic has affected different aspects of their lives, including work, access to health care services and mental health. 


Ruth Thorlby (@RThorlby) is Assistant Director of Policy at the Health Foundation. 

This content originally featured in our email newsletter, which explores perspectives and expert opinion on a different health or health care topic each month.

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