Hazel McHaffie

statistics

Three months and counting

Milestones are useful hinges for reflection: three months ago this week the first Covid-19 death was reported in the UK. Since then, as per the official statistics yesterday, in this country there have been a further 39,727 deaths recorded where the deceased had a positive test for the virus. Say that again slowly – THIRTY-NINE THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED AND TWENTY SEVEN DEATHS. Not to mention the legion of unconfirmed cases. These are indeed unprecedented and calamitous times, so it seems fitting to consider something quite different here. Not a book; not a scientific paper; not even a film. But a newspaper article.

A beautifully written article in the Review section of the Guardian on Saturday, and one of the most sobering and moving pieces I’ve read in the proliferation of writings about this devastating disease. I wasn’t surprised to find that, before going to medical school, the author, Dr Rachel Clarke, was a current affairs journalist and documentary maker.

Her usual habitat is palliative care medicine in a hospice, but during this crisis she’s been working with patients dying of coronavirus. Politicians and journalists speak ‘loftily, from afar, an Olympian perspective’, she writes, and listening to them can feel like ‘a mathematical abstraction, an intellectual exercise played out in curves and peaks and troughs and modelling‘. But where she is, in a hospital, dealing with real people caught up in this horror, ‘the pandemic is a matter of flesh and blood.‘ And she is utterly appalled by the gloss the politicians have been putting on the devastation and loss.

Used as she is to comforting, hugging, being up close and personal, the very execution of her job now cuts her to the quick.
‘In PPE, everything is sticky and stifling. Voices are muffled and smiles obscured. Sweat starts to trickle into your underwear. Even breathing takes more effort. Behind our masks, we strain to hear each other speak and are forced to second guess our colleagues’ expressions. Being protected entails being dehumanised.’
Approaching relatives of the dying is immensely painful and counter-intuitive.
‘I am a doctor with neither name nor a face. My hospital badge is hidden from view and my eyes – the only part of my face still visible – are obscured by a layer of Perspex. So much for the healing presence of the bedside physician. I scarcely look human … Everything about this is wrong.’

She illustrates her experiences poignantly with reference to a single encounter with an 89-year-old man slowing drowning in his own secretions. His sons, bewildered and afraid, enter the other-worldly scene only for the last farewell. Her own emotions plummet as she watches helplessly, unable to offer the human warmth that is her instinctive response. Neither she nor they, want this elderly gentleman to be a mere statistic – a number reported in the next day’s death toll. He is so much more than that.

Dr Clarke and her colleagues at the frontline know for sure that the soundbites trotted out at the central podium in Downing Street each day have not been borne out by the reality in the Covid wards or the care homes. Social isolation, PPE, testing, lockdown – the deficiencies and delays and shortfalls have appalled them; the article captures the discordance perfectly.  Once lockdown was established, and the quarantined population were trying to manage its fears using ‘the unconventional strategies of baking bread and stockpiling toilet rolls’, the medical staff were reeling. Fearlessly, urgently, frenetically, they threw themselves into delivering high-quality pandemic medicine. They could only look on in disbelief as staff were obliged to fashion PPE out of plastic bags, patients were sent into care homes without tests to establish their Covid status, and restrictions were being lifted in the absence of the necessary infrastructure for proper testing and tracing.

The country may be letting its collective breath out cautiously as the numbers decrease, but they are still battling this deadly enemy. They feel sick as the politicians declare the success of their strategies; they know at first hand the stupendous costs of delay and deficiency, the real tragedy of thousands upon thousands of deaths and bereavements. They were, they still are, there, ‘up close with this dreadful disease‘,  seeing ‘the way it suffocates the life from you‘. For them political judgements ‘were grotesque‘. They themselves are ‘exhausted, stunned – shellshocked, even‘. Clarke’s verdict? The loss of so many vulnerable citizens is ‘entirely and inexcusably wrong … no one is expendable‘.

I certainly don’t envy any of the people who must make these decisions, but putting a spin on the devastation, peddling untruths and half statistics, making false promises, doesn’t engender trust or confidence. And as Dr Clarke says, ‘The point of our response to corona virus is not to flatten curves, ramp up headlines, protect the NHS or invent mathematically nonsensical equations: it is to prevent unnecessary dying’. And there you have it. The heart of the matter. Summed up by someone at the very kernel of this global catastrophe.

She’s the author of Dear Life, paperback version due out in September this year. It’s top of my wish list.

NB. To be fair, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, in her daily updates for Scotland, always stresses the tragedy of every single death.

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A few statistics to conjure with

Out and about with the granddaughters this week, we’ve learned a lot of fascinating statistics about owls, debunking a fair few urban myths along the way. (Did you know that The Scottish Owl Centre houses one of the largest collection of owls in the world? Yep – fact not fantasy. Everything from the huge Siberian Eagle Owl to the dinkiest Scops Owl – 40 species, 100 birds.) Anyway, contrary to popular conception, owls are not wise, which makes them a fitting symbol for what I want to say in this blog.OwlLast week the following email appeared in my Inbox: ‘On behalf of the Goodreads team, I want to say thank you. You’re in the top 1% of reviewers on Goodreads! Your many thoughtful book reviews help make us a vibrant place for book lovers.’

Wow! Goodreads is ‘the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations!’ – by it’s own description anyway, so I indulged in a little warm glow. Top 1%, huh? Not to be sniffed at. But then I discovered that they’ve just announced that they ‘now have 20 million members, up from 10 million members just eleven months ago.

OK, do the maths, and I’m one of 200,000 top reviewers. Hmmm. Not that impressive, eh? Especially not since reading is part of my job. But I find their site really useful for keeping tabs on what I’ve read, when, and what I thought of each book. So thanks, Goodreads, for a very useful facility.

You might remember I was toying with two topics for my next book: anorexia or abortion. Well, I decided the next step might be to see how many other novelists have written in this area – suss out the competition. Assess where the biggest gap is.

Type ‘novels including anorexia‘ into Google and up come 52 titles through just Goodreads and Amazon. With a footnote saying ‘218 best eating disorder books’ which presumably means non-fiction. Do the same thing for abortion, and 27 come up. Hmm. Not what I was expecting. Of course, it could all be to do with shelving, the blurb available, keywords, that kind of thing. I’m sure more will surface once I start reading. And I quickly discovered that a large proportion of the eating disorder ones are teen fiction.

By reading synopses and reviews of them all, I’ve whittled it down to a dozen must-reads on abortion and probably 29 on anorexia. Looks like I’m in for the long haul, anyway. Watch out for an onslaught of reviews, Goodreads!

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