Rachel Surtees – Fear In The Time Of Coronavirus

A couple of Sundays ago my 7 year old was acting out of sorts. Nothing dramatic – just a bit more clingy than usual, picking fights with his brother, getting upset over things he’d normally brush off. 

I’d taken the week that should have been half-term off as annual leave, to try to keep some sense of normality going, and so I was a bit irritated that the last day of our time off together had been a bit bad tempered, but didn’t think too much more about it.

Then 10 minutes after going to bed, he called me back into the room. He told me between sobs that he was worrying, that he felt like he had something in his throat and that he was choking. And suddenly we were back in April. Back to the three bleak weeks when as a household we staged our own battle against Covid.

His tears were an abrupt reminder of the long tail of fear.

My husband and I were both unwell with the virus at the same time. We avoided hospital admission, though arguably, maybe shouldn’t have done. Family and friends brought us daily care drops and checked in on us, but of course couldn’t come in to distract the kids. Our youngest knew that things weren’t right, but wasn’t going to question the chance to watch Paw Patrol for 8 hours a day whilst chomping down beans on toast. Our 7 year old however, understood that the seriousness of the situation. The daily bombardment of news was unavoidable. Reports of the growing death toll, of the emerging evidence that men (my husband) and people from BAME backgrounds (me) were at higher risk of dying seeped into the house despite our best efforts to cocoon ourselves. And although he didn’t ‘get’ all of it, he got enough and became increasingly anxious. It didn’t immediately stop when we recovered, and for a few weeks after, me going into work was a worry for him, and Sunday evenings were a particular trigger.

And so on that Sunday evening came the dawning realisation that his fear hadn’t gone. He’d got used to managing it well enough that he’d stopped talking about it, but my week off from work was enough of a disruption to his new routine, that suddenly the fear was prominent in his mind again.

I don’t think he is alone in that. Coronavirus is a fear inducing disease. Just the phrase ‘global pandemic’ is enough to make your heart skip a beat, and not in a good way. Enough time has passed since the start of the outbreak that the fear might not be as acute and visible as at the beginning, but it hasn’t gone away, we’ve just got used to it.

We are not all scared. But some of us have been, and some of us still are. And that’s ok. Lots of people who I talk to are scared for others rather than themselves, and at times that creates a new set of dilemmas between your responsibility to your employers or patients, and your responsibility to loved ones.

There is a risk that in our rush to make things normal, and ok again, that we inadvertently end up pathologising fear. That we talk about it as sign that something is wrong. When arguably, being scared of the thing that at the time of recording has killed nearly half a million people around the world, seems like a pretty normal reaction to me. 

There have been many comparisons made to the war and military. We talk about going to battle, about the frontline, about command structures and being deployed into units or teams. Having Covid, to me, felt like being invaded. But for all of the accuracies of the parallel, and I realise I’m stating the obvious here, health and social care staff aren’t soldiers. The experience of working in an environment that carries a high level of personal risk, the realities of losing colleagues who you may have worked alongside for years, is new. Very new, and it requires an adjustment.

Whether we like it or not, and whether we are individually experiencing it or not, fear (our own, our families’, our colleagues’, patients’) is now a much more frequent feature of our working lives. The challenge is how we are able to acknowledge this whilst still getting on with the job. 

When the first wave of lockdown restrictions were lifted, sections of the media ran with a narrative that the government messaging had been too effective and that people would need to be forced back out into public spaces. The sunny weather and bank holiday weekends proved them to be very wrong. But behind the narrative was an undercurrent that people’s fear was somehow silly or unfounded, and worse, that it was being used as an excuse to shirk responsibility. I’ve heard similar conversations played out across workplaces up and down the country in recent weeks.

Now more than ever, when we’re tired and stretched, we need to be kind to each other. To work harder to understand different perspectives. To notice when a colleague might be struggling and need a hand. To create a culture in our teams where fear isn’t treated by default as a sign of illness or weakness, but that can be openly acknowledged without judgement.

Rachel Surtees is the Director of Strategy and Transformation at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. Rachel powerfully describes the impact of fear in the experience of a family being forced to really face the reality of the serious illness that Covid-19 is.

Wellbeing Quiz Profile: #RelivingTrauma