Essays

ESSAY: ‘Special liberties’ and the amnesia of Covid-19 suffering and sacrifice

Stories from frontline adult care worker staff

The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under increasing pressure to respond to accusations that members of his cabinet were having a Christmas party at the height of the second Covid-19 wave in December 2020. He potentially joins Matt Hancock, Dominic Cummings, Professor Neil Ferguson, and many others of the supposedly untouchable elite who, throughout the pandemic, have exercised their ‘special liberties’ – a kind of self-justified permission to inflict multiple harms of varying magnitude on human beings and their environments, before therefore defining themselves as essential to the continuation of progress and prosperity. While the wine, cheese and laughter at Number 10 represent this crude individual sovereignty against a collective good, across the country people had been instructed to avoid socialising in efforts of solidarity to prevent Covid-19 infection. Millions of people – made already depressed and lonely from the previous lockdowns and continuing restrictions on public life – were continuing to follow public health measures in the hope that the number of infections would decline and life would, soon after, return to how it was.

At the very same time, in December 2020, morale was crumbling further in the underfunded UK adult care sector as frontline care workers continued in their relentless service of the vulnerable elderly. Poor strategic management and investment in the sector meant that when Covid-19 spread in care homes in March 2020, staff struggled to support the elderly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in that first lockdown period between 2nd March and 12th June 2020, there were 66,112 deaths of care home residents in England and Wales, of which 19,394 (29%) were officially attributed to Covid-19. However, the attribution of these deaths directly to the virus has since been questioned, largely because those dying with or from Covid-19 were not distinguished. Care home residents, who were also subject to lockdown and social distancing measures, were confined to their rooms which increased the chances of morbidity and raised safety and staffing concerns. Furthermore, the reduced contact with their families meant that already-fragile care home residents had less contact with their families and carers which equated to more deaths.

Despite calls for an independent inquiry during the summer of 2020, the same depleted and demoralised staff would have to continue their sacrifice in the face of another infection wave under the same working circumstances. As Number 10 were preparing for their Christmas party, Rebecca was one of five care workers faced with caring for 34 residents at the height of the second wave. Under normal circumstances, the workforce would have been 31 but 26 of them – including the cook and cleaner – had either contracted the virus or were self-isolating. Rebecca was compelled to move into the care home as she attempted to provide as much support as possible. The situation was chaotic, the residents were “frightened and in pain” and “Public Health England never sent anyone else, no one came.” She reflected:

It was scary looking in all these rooms and they all have these symptoms, coughing, hacking up, sneezing, and I was thinking shit and it had been in the media about the virus and now I am here in the home and everyone has got it and I am here. You can’t get the meds to them as they were coughing so much and they were dehydrated so they couldn’t take their tablets. It was awful. Sometimes I still think about it at night, and I am walking through those corridors and I am thinking I don’t know where to start.

To add to this misery, Rebecca “couldn’t say goodbye” to her own mum who had been residing in another care home when she “died with Covid.” It was only when she tested positive that she withdrew herself from the situation and had to “self-isolate at home” and had to “stay in a room for 10 days, crying and very emotional”. Like Rebecca, the stress and trauma of the deaths witnessed by Carmen was a devastating reflection of substandard policy and planning in the context of the possible spread of an infectious disease. Covid-19, she remembered, didn’t even spread in her care home during the first wave. Instead, it was the measures that the government implemented which contributed to the downfall of her residents:

It wasn’t all down to Covid though [dying]. It was more that the families that couldn’t come in. When they stopped, that’s when our residents went downhill. That was heart-breaking. You knew that link had gone. Once Covid come in it just took them out, one then two a day. They were already weak, they had given up many of them. I could see them wanting their family. There was nothing we could do.

Carmen summarised how “their immune system so low because when flu comes it can do the same.” Yet, in the lead up to the alleged Number 10 Christmas party, Carmen found herself in an almost impossible situation: she had to work in a Covid-infected care home, home-school her children and support her elderly parents:

We got Covid in one wing so we shut that down. Staff had to wash hands, gloves, temperature taking and it was quick. We didn’t get Covid until October or even November 2020. It was hard as I was home-schooling, the kids stayed at home, I was going out to the shops and doing work, and it was hard as I am a single mum. No one was out. I couldn’t see my mum who has Alzheimer’s and lives with my dad. That was difficult.

As the second UK lockdown continued – likely just as the Christmas party was underway – there were further unintended consequences for Carmen’s eldest daughter who tried to take her own life:

My daughter took a turn for the worst as she has mental health problems and she couldn’t be left alone. She is 16 and has always had depression but lockdown made it a lot worse. She had too much. Like a lot of children her age, lockdown has done damage to them. My daughter took an overdose while I was at work during the Covid in January so I rang her and paramedics answered. I had to take time off work.

The disturbing fact is that not only has interest waned in interrogating what took place in care homes but that it all seems forgotten and already archived; perhaps that ‘amnesia’ a symbol of how a compromised media consistently propels the general narrative around Covid-19. Instead, the suffering and sacrifice made by so many frontline workers like Rebecca and Carmen during periods of immense pressure on their professional and personal lives is ridiculed by the brazen arrogance of the privileged political elite who seem to display no concern for the welfare of the nation behind closed doors.


Summary of research cited as:

Briggs, D., Ellis, A., Telford, L., and Lloyd, A. (2021) ‘Working, living, and dying in Covid times: Perspectives from frontline residential care workers in the UK’ in Safer Communities, Vol. 20 No. 3, pp. 208-222.

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Also, be sure to check out Dr. Brigg’s conversation with Collateral Global Scientific Advisory Board member, Toby Green.

Daniel Briggs, PhD is a Professor of Criminology at the Universidad Europea in Madrid, Spain who researches social problems and conducts a wide array of ethnographic studies. In collaboration with members of an International Covid-19 research team he leads, he just published Researching the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Critical Blueprint for the Social Sciences (Policy Press, 2021) and Lockdown: Social Harm in the Covid-19 Era (Palgrave MacMillan, 2021). You can also find him on Twitter @LockdownStudy

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