The pandemic changed all our lives in an instant. But as these stories of courage and adaptability reveal, from crisis came hope – and humanity.
Covid-19 struck the UK and immediately changed the way our nation lived and worked. Businesses haemorrhaged revenue and staff, families were forced to live apart and with overwhelming grief and the resilience of the NHS and its staff was tested like never before. Every one of us felt the effect of the virus.
But how, as individuals, did we cope? How did we adapt and heal, and how are our lives forever altered?
These are the questions the team behind a unique biographical project, ‘Faces of the Pandemic’, sought to answer.
We wanted to expose the full extent of the damage caused but also the incredible human capacity to fight back and re-emerge on the other side. We were given unprecedented access to people’s homes and workplaces at a time when human contact was so hard to negotiate. The result is a unique body of work that celebrates the human spirit.
‘It’s taught me a lot about humanity’
Nicholas Freer (opposite and right), 43, a detective constable in the Metropolitan Police, was deployed to the Pandemic Multi-Agency Response Team for seven weeks. He attended the scene when anyone who wasn’t in hospital died of coronavirus and safely prepared the body for the coroner.
At its peak, around 60 people a day across London were dying of Covid outside of hospital. I personally handled about 20 bodies in those weeks. Dealing with the families, who were often in grave shock, was sometimes harder than dealing with the bodies. Especially when you consider that we arrived in the full hazmat suit with a mask, goggles and gaffer tape around our wrists.
The case that sticks in my mind – the hardest one – was a 21-year-old student who died in the living room of her mother’s home. She was an only child. Her mum couldn’t accept that she’d gone.
I persuaded the mother to come into the kitchen with me so my colleagues could do what was needed. She told me to be quick because it was her daughter’s dinner time soon. It was extraordinary to see how the human brain was trying to fight against the reality in front of her.
The paramedics were usually first on the scene. When they had declared the person deceased, we would arrive. A body took 20 minutes on average to prepare and would be wrapped in a body bag. We had to protect any further contamination in the household, as a deceased person can still emit gases.
A very hard part of the job would be to consciously not look at the casualty’s eyes, knowing it’s not the time to get emotional and reflective about it. We are paid professionals and knew it wouldn’t help if we were all crying over the body.
Before we left, we placed a dignity blanket over them, usually a white sheet. It was better for the family to see them that way. I always made a point of telling the next of kin that we had treated their loved one with the utmost respect. Saying those words made a big difference – we didn’t just leave.
The body stayed in the home until the undertakers collected it, sometimes as long as six or seven hours. We always advised the family not to touch the body but there might have been instances where relatives were desperate to unwrap the body to see them one last time.
After my assignment had finished, I was given seven days’ decompression leave – time to relax at home and prepare to return to work. I struggled going back to my normal day job. At first, I was comparing the grief of these families with emails about things I felt did not matter. I’ve had to try to separate the two worlds.
I’m less fearful of death now, but it has affected me. During the peak of the pandemic, I remember standing in the queue at a supermarket and momentarily picturing the person in front of me as being dead, feeling grateful they couldn’t tell what I was thinking.
But it’s good that I can look back and know I was there when I was needed. The experience has taught me a lot about humanity.
‘Everyone was in turmoil… Welcome to my world’
Deborah James, journalist, broadcaster and presenter of You, Me And The Big C podcast, was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer at 35 and told she wouldn’t live to see her 40th birthday. She will be 39 in October. Her cancer treatment continued throughout lockdown when thousands of others were paused.
I found lockdown weirdly fine. Everyone’s lives got thrown into turmoil but I live in turmoil anyway. People were saying, ‘I don’t know what the future looks like’ – well, welcome to my world. I don’t forward plan anything.
During lockdown, the government gave cancer treatment priority to patients with curable, lesser-risk cancers. I should have been bottom of the list as mine is incurable. But I am treated at the Royal Marsden hospital, who co-ordinated London’s cancer care during the pandemic. They deemed me fit enough for continued treatment to be a benefit. Had they followed the strict letter of the guidance, I might not be alive now. For others, it didn’t work out like that. I buried a good friend during lockdown, who didn’t die from Covid. Her cancer care had been paused.
I hope you don’t get cancer in 2020, though of course one in two of us will over our lifetime. My advice to anybody is go to your doctor right now because the backlog for treatment is going to be so big that it will crush the system.
Official NHS figures show that at the peak of the pandemic the GP two-week wait referrals were down by 75 per cent. For April alone there are at least 9,000 cancers missing in the system; thousands of people sitting at home undiagnosed. The ‘stay at home’ message was so strong, hardly anyone came forward. What we need people to understand is that GPs are open for business. Delays of over three months in diagnosis across all cancers cause more deaths.
It seems to me the government prioritised some cancer patients and left others to die. You can’t say the extra two months of life you get from continuing your cancer treatment isn’t worth it – that your life isn’t worth it.
My friend Kelly Smith, who was living with bowel cancer, was so scared of Covid, she spent the last few weeks of her life shielding, not seeing anyone. But she died of her cancer because she couldn’t access the drugs she needed. She had a six-year-old son – and two months is two months when you have young children.
‘I took the church to the streets’
Pat Allerton, 41, the Instagram Portable Priest, is the vicar at St Peter’s in Notting Hill, London. During lockdown he took to the streets to deliver hymns and prayers to local communities.
Covid forced us into our homes, out of the community, and brought fear and death. No one was experiencing the fullness of life, so I took a bit of church to the streets to help lift spirits by pointing them to God who’s alive and loves them. To bring some joy.
Before lockdown, we would have around 80 people at a Sunday morning service. Now 150-200 people are tuning in to our livestream on a Sunday morning and more watch it later. People are getting a huge amount of succour from the online church and there has been a large spike in the number of people googling ‘how to pray’. For months all the headlines have been about death rates; people are reminded they’re mortal, they feel humbled. We’re realising we’re fragile, we’re not all-powerful.
Until a vaccine is found, the church service will look very different. We’ll have to sit two metres apart and we can’t offer communion in the same way. But the pandemic has been a powerful lesson for the church to remember it’s not about the church building, it has always been the people.
‘I didn’t know if she’d survive’
Purabi Lakhani, 48, is a single mum to 17-year-old Rhea, who has multiple conditions including cerebral palsy, visual impairment, global development delay, epilepsy and scoliosis. Purabi also cares for her 79-year-old father (below, with Rhea and Purabi), who has dementia, at their home in Croydon, South London.
Rhea has two carers, 24 hours a day. They work in pairs, doing the day and night shift. This means we can manage all Rhea’s needs at home, without going to hospital. We’re a family of three but I call us a family of five with two aunties who change every 12 hours.
I’m petrified to go downstairs to Rhea in the mornings because her life-threatening episodes mean I never know what emergency I’m walking into. Rhea’s day is made up of tube feeding, medication, life-saving procedures, ventilation – there is just so much in the way of medical care.
But she also needs to be a little girl. She needs to experience the same things that other children do. Pre-Covid I took her everywhere – we’d have day trips to London, visit Buckingham Palace, get her hair braided.
When Covid hit I didn’t know if she was going to survive from one minute to the next, let alone the initial 12 weeks of shielding. We found fun things we could do from home. Rhea enjoys gardening, she breeds butterflies, we had a cellist come and play outside our front door.
Usually we have professionals coming into our home all the time, endless phone calls and medical meetings. In lockdown our lives became private again in a very uninterrupted way. I decided to make a memory video to capture our lives together – normal everyday things like pushing her in her wheelchair, cuddling in bed, painting her nails, doing her make-up. Some people might think it’s a little morbid, but she could go in the blink of an eye.
I will know I have succeeded in life if my dad and Rhea spend their last day on this planet at home. I don’t want either of them going into care.
I feel sorry for people who had nothing more to complain about during lockdown than not being able to go to the pub or get a haircut. I’ve had to evolve into a person I am really proud of. Being Rhea’s mum has been the most rewarding job of my life but also the most heartbreaking. She has taught me how to be a mother, an advocate, a fighter, a best friend and a good person.
‘We need to look after the precious NHS workers’
Dr Dominic Pimenta, 33, a cardiology registrar in London, is co-founder and chairman of Heroes, a charity set up six months ago, which has so far raised £1.1 million to provide vital resources for NHS staff during the pandemic.
Our mission as an NHS charity is to draw attention to the ongoing crisis for NHS workers and to make sure we don’t sleepwalk into another disaster. People are the most precious resource that we have in the healthcare sector and we don’t look after them.
When we started the charity, I knew we could never solve all of the problems, but we could contribute something to this mountain of need. In the beginning the small things were so rewarding – we kept a hospice open for a weekend because we managed to get masks there in time. Our efforts made a very small but tangible difference.
The crux of the crisis lasted 6-8 weeks, and during that time we focused on providing affordable childcare for NHS workers, delivering them food, supplying PPE, offering financial support and counselling services. Moving forward, the wellbeing services are key. Some trusts didn’t even have rest areas before the pandemic; they had to create them. We never had hot food during night shifts before. Knowing you can get a plate of chips gives you something to look forward to.
It’s been reported that around 300,000 are considering leaving the NHS after the pandemic. The worst-case scenario is that we lose massive numbers of staff and then have a second wave. If you don’t look after these people, you can’t provide the services.*
The full interviews and portraits will appear in an exhibition of the work including documentary footage by film-maker Andrew Gemmell. Full project curation by Emma Gold and Hannah Hill of GSP Events. For more information, or if you have an extraordinary story you would like to share, visit facesofthepandemicuk.org. Faces of the Pandemic supports the following charities: The Captain Tom Foundation, Women’s Aid, Age UK Wandsworth, Heroes, Make-A-Wish, WellChild, Caudwell Children and Child Bereavement UK.
Duty of Care: One NHS doctor’s story of courage and compassion on the Covid-19 frontline by Dominic Pimenta is published by Welbeck, Price £8.99. To order a copy for £4.99 until 11 October go to whsmith.co.uk and enter the code YOUDUTY at checkout. Book number: 9781787395596. Terms and conditions: whsmith.co.uk.
Interviews: Jade Beer