Covid Stories From the Frontline: An NHS Specialist Lead Nurse

Anita Paradzayi talks to Sandra Jongwe about her experiences of working as a nurse on the frontline of the NHS's Coronavirus response, as well as the impact of the virus on her personal and professional life.

When 2020 came around, it felt as normal as it can be. No one had anticipated the deaths of loved ones and the uncertainty that followed due to COVID-19.

For those in the medical field, COVID-19 left a bitter taste for a profession they once loved. According to a survey conducted by The British Medical Association; doctors (60%), nurses, and other medical professionals are now suffering from varying forms of anxiety, burnout, or depression, and other issues that have greatly affected their lives.

So, this blog post is dedicated to one of the many nurses that have risked their lives in the fight against the Coronavirus. Sandra Jongwe is a nurse and at times poses as a lead nurse in a specialist unit that now takes on COVID patients. She highlights the impact the virus has had in her personal and professional life; from losing her mother-in-law (Senior Nurse Jane Jongwe) to the injustices that arose from the murder of George Floyd as “the world stood still”.

She has witnessed many changes in her professional life which has led her to believe that there are many “issues that will gravely affect the future of the NHS” and with Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London) quite recently declaring a ‘major incident’ in the capital, Sandra emphasises the extra impetus that is needed in demanding help from the Government.

Overall, she feels that the pandemic has “been a very stressful, scary and frustrating time that has made a lot of people in the medical field leave or retire early” which has left her “and other nurses and doctors with a heavier workload.” She continues by saying “There are pressures that were not previously there” which includes “the inconsistencies with PPE and ‘abandonment’ of patients. I work in a specialist unit (Gastroenterology) and we have had to limit patient’s access. This has meant that people with long-term conditions such as cancer have been left to become sicker and their conditions have become life-threatening or even led to deaths that could have been prevented.”

Here Sandra highlights what has been happening up and down the country. In June 2020, the Guardian reported that two-thirds of Britons with common life-threatening conditions had been denied care because hospitals had (and still are) focused on fighting COVID-19. Medical professionals have faced the difficult decision of cancelling planned treatments. This is inevitable this winter as 70% of Britain’s 240,000 doctors said that hospitals have too few beds and staff to maintain procedures for non-COVID-19 illness while the second wave has been unfolding.

In conversation, Sandra recalled the varying stages of the virus as the first lockdown brought her memories of the passing of her mother-in-law. She highlighted that over the months medical professionals have worked tirelessly to understand the virus and with this newfound knowledge and understanding she feels that “things could have been done differently to save her as there is now a higher chance of survival.”

The first lockdown was tough on everyone as people witnessed the loss of jobs, loved ones, and for children a ‘normal education’, the list continues. However, to ‘compensate’ the Government enabled a ‘summer freedom’. It was a time where Sandra felt that everyone including other medical professionals had a “false sense of security”, especially with initiatives such as the ‘Eat Out to Help Scheme’. As Government campaigns shifted, the public was now under a false pretence whereby “Everyone was a lot more relaxed, some of the Covid wards were closed and numbers had dropped significantly. Nurses were redeployed to their specialist areas, scheduled appointments, and operations were resumed. But we were in denial. We all tried to go back to normality too quickly without thinking of the consequences.” Sandra says.

Dr. Fetzer demonstrated a correlation between ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ and increased infections in areas of high uptake, and at the time new COVID-19 infections went up by between 8 and 17%. The scheme “subsidised the spread of the pandemic into Autumn and contributed to the start of the second wave.”

The second lockdown or “The summer hangover” came as no surprise. It was not as restricted as the first lockdown and with the Government introducing the tier system various activities were allowed. Not only that but Sandra considers how schools were better prepared as her children were “now receiving a much more tailored education in comparison to what they were receiving in the first lockdown, but, as the pandemic has progressed over the months it has shown that there is a class issue. Some children are less fortunate than others as they lack resources such as a laptop, Wi-Fi, or parents that care for their children’s education.” With schools being closed in the latest lockdown, the Government understands the effect of this on vulnerable children and so has promised to provide one million more laptops to disadvantaged students to support them during remote learning.

Nevertheless, “This time around is worse than the first and the pressures on the NHS have continued to mount. My frustration is borne out of the fact that there are still people going on holidays and not understanding that people could be carrying and the new spreading the new strain. So, this lockdown is necessary”

Sandra, however, does see the positives that have come out of the virus. Upon reflection of her personal life, she stated that she has learned to appreciate her family more, the privileges she has and that, though her job is dangerous, she also views it as “a financial safety net.”

She says that she has had more time to read and gain an understanding of what is going on in the world. “With the lockdown, people had more time to pay attention as the world was at a standstill. People had time to focus on unjust issues that changed consensus. Though the killing of black men has been broadcasted time and time again, this time it was different. There was time to listen because of this. It went beyond the killing of a black man. Organisations were being questioned on how they promote and deal with BAME issues in the workplace.”

The pandemic highlighted the political, socio-economic, and professional injustices. In consideration of the fact that BAME people made up most deaths of the people who died in the medical profession during the pandemic: “Organisations and leaders actively asked and dealt with racism in the workplace which shows that when given enough time most social issues can be solved.”

When asked ‘What would have helped you the most in your role during the pandemic - which you feel you did not receive?’ Sandra laughed and said, “ A pay rise” because she feels that people in the medical field are not appreciated enough as working “in something that is so tangible, with the possibility of catching COIVD more than 2 times and risking” her “life every day cannot be compensated with words from the Government.” Though Rishi Sunak confirmed that NHS staff will be awarded a pay rise, he suggested that this only applied to those earning £24,000 and under. But this is at a halt as Matt Hancock also confirmed, in December 2020, that pay negotiations for NHS workers were delayed amid ‘economic pressures’. RCN Chief Executive & General Secretary Dame Donna Kinnair criticized Mr. Hancock and Sunak by suggesting that they are ‘dragging out’ pay rise discussions: “Many nursing staff are worse off now than they were 10 years ago. They need an early and significant pay rise that reflects the true skills and value of the profession,”

The Government has tried to help in other ways by providing counselling services to the NHS, but Sandra feels as if this is not enough. She stated that “counselling does not help. It was offered but how can it help when I am still working in an environment that is worsening every day. If the stressor is still there, counselling isn’t useful.”

In ending the interview Sandra concluded by saying that the battle is not over and that “If we do not do everything we can now to protect the NHS, future generations will not be able to reap the same benefits as previous generations have. I am worried that my own children will not have an NHS.”

Sandra is right! With England having 80,000+ deaths and counting the British public needs to continue following the rules to stay safe. Most importantly the Government must be clear and conscise on their messaging and strategy to ensure that we go back to “some type of normality” that does not compromise the physical and mental health of the British public.


Anita Paradzayi is a part-time researcher studying for an MA in Public Policy at Kings College. Anita tweets at @Anitaparadzayi.

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