Pandemic diary

Mike Phipps reviews Everything is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic, by Roopa Farooki, published by Bloomsbury.

“A proposal on a drunken third date becomes a twenty-five-year marriage. A fertility appointment becomes four kids.” Roopa Farooki’s latest book – she has written several, one an award-nominated 400-page novel – is very personal.

It is primarily about her life as a doctor, plunged into the Covid pandemic in early 2020, just weeks after her sister died of cancer. At first, the awareness is slow to sink in: “There are… some cases in your hospital before you stop hugging people hello and goodbye. There are 130 deaths in the country before you stop shaking hands. You’re two weeks behind Italy, and still no one is talking about lockdown.”

As the first cases present in A&E, she works without protective equipment, categorising patients into high and low risk, mainly based on previous health history. If a patient has a reason for their symptoms, they are filed as low risk.

Everything is True is a diary of the first 40 days of the pandemic – the 13 hour shifts, the hour-long walk home from the hospital (Farooki daren’t take a bus or cab), the mounting demands of her domestic life, all while coping with her grief for her late sister. Numbness gives way to anger at the politicians: “credit-grabbing, feel-good photo-opportunists.”

There are some keen observations here. Swabbing for coronavirus isn’t especially accurate and produces lots of false negatives. But, even if all other signs suggest beyond doubt that a patient has died from Covid, if the swab test still says no, it can’t be counted as such – and doctors who write otherwise in the notes of deceased patients are called back by the bereavement office to amend their diagnosis.

Moreover, if the swab test is negative, staff don’t get the full PPE when handling the patient. “If you were the suspicious type,” she observes, “you’d say that someone, somewhere, wanted to play down the figures.”

If working long shifts without adequate equipment wasn’t bad enough, Farooki finds little support at home from a partner who yells at her that her job is endangering their children. “How could you be so selfish? he says.”

Back at work, safety rules change daily. But as for the room where she snatches a five-minute lunch: “The cleaner has given up coming to the place; it’s full of infected scrubs which are dumped on the cheap sofas at the end of the shift. It’s not a safe place to clean.”

The chances of a hospital-acquired infection are not quantified, but everyone she works with feels they must be high. This is brought home when a nurse Farooki recently shared a shift with dies of Covid.  Friends say: Don’t see patients without the proper equipment – which is “non-existent”. She responds: If I don’t see them, they will die.

While doctors’ leave is cancelled and rotas rearranged to include longer hours, management staff continue to take their holidays as normal. But Farooki’s anger, when she is not just overwhelminglyexhausted, is reserved for the fool in charge. She notes icily the special treatment given the Prime Minister when he succumbs to the virus .He is allocated a precious intensive care bed even when he is just on oxygen, which other patients get on a regular ward.

As the pandemic tightens its grip, her anger at the government intensifies. “It’s like they put the population in a long conga line, and shot every hundredth person. And they always put someone old, someone weak, someone BAME or in healthcare in the hundredth spot.”

The fight against the virus is repeatedly hampered by shortages, not just of staff and PPE equipment, but of computers, for example. Farooki’s ward has just three. Without access, she can’t check or order blood tests, check the patient observations or temperatures, access patient records or medical history, see their usual medications, refer to colleagues, discharge patients or arrange outpatient appointments.

The last 14 days of the diary fly by in a haze, as Farooki herself goes down with Covid, wracked by fever and exhaustion. Recovering, her dark humour does not desert her: “While you’ve been sick, Trump said out loud that ingesting or injecting bleach and sunlight should be explored by his researchers, while his medical advisor sat dumbly by, and didn’t contradict him, like a kidnap victim afraid to blink twice for help.”

Farooki’s book – not quite a memoir because she admits she changed some details to protect confidentiality and privacy – was described by one reviewer as a “brilliant, raging stream of consciousness.”  It comes with a front-cover endorsement from Adam Kay, whose own bestseller This Is Going to Hurt was recently adapted for television. In their shared contempt for hospital bureaucracy and political grandstanding, as well as humanity in the face of a gravely depleted NHS, they have much in common.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

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