A-Z

Covid-19 in the community

The pandemic becomes real: growing awareness that Covid is serious

In this section we explore how people came to understand that the Covid-19 pandemic needed to be taken seriously. A range of things influenced how people we spoke to started to see the pandemic as a growing concern. These included:

  • Awareness of the outbreaks of Covid-19 in Europe
  • Travelling abroad and seeing restrictions elsewhere
  • Becoming aware that other people were changing their behaviours
  • Seeing the daily news reports of hospitalisations and deaths
  • Illness and deaths among friends and family and people we knew

 

 

Seeing films from Italy on the news made Jessica realise that the pandemic was now just down the road.

Seeing films from Italy on the news made Jessica realise that the pandemic was now just down the road.

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And so, I was... and actually, the BBC News presenter who covers Italy is... was my roommate at university and seeing his interviews with medics and with patients in Italy, you know, and you could tell this was really difficult for him, for the people he was interviewing, you know, they were all in tears. And then they were filming around the intensive care units in Italy and you could see all of the patients and it was definitely geographically close to home compared to Wuhan. You know, this was down the road, this was Europe, this was, you know, something that... and then... and alongside that, we have got a case and said, 'This is what's going to come for us next.' I think that's really what made it... what made it real.


 
Although some people became aware of Covid-19 in January or February 2020, most said they had tried to stay calm and carry on with life as normal. They hoped that this new virus would not become a major problem in the UK. Some people we spoke to said they weren’t sure if Covid was ‘real’ at that point in time. Some tried to persuade themselves that it would be just like flu, or that it would somehow be prevented from reaching this country. Paul remembered the Prime Minister at the time, Boris Johnson, being filmed on a hospital visit shaking hands with people at a point when many were being cautious about physical contact.
 
People working in the health and social care sectors remembered that there had been several pandemic alarms in recent years. They mentioned that the health service had started to prepare responses for Ebola, SARS and MERS, which had all been contained. They hoped and expected that Covid-19 would be the same (see The early days of the Pandemic). As the situation began to change in early 2020, the possibility of a pandemic that affected the UK became more real to people we spoke to.

Awareness of the outbreaks of Covid 19 in Europe 

Growing awareness that Covid-19 outbreaks were moving their way around the world, particularly once they arrived in Europe, had a strong impact on some people’s views about the virus. In February 2020 news and social media covered the outbreak of Covid in the Italian region of Lombardy. The distress of health care workers and citizens in a wealthy region of another European country, with a good healthcare system, was a wakeup call to many of those who saw this coverage.
 

 

Emdad had heard reports from China on the news. He became more worried when the government introduced the first lockdowns.

Emdad had heard reports from China on the news. He became more worried when the government introduced the first lockdowns.

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Basically, I have heard like Covid-19 since like around December two thousand and nineteen because it came like in the media that in China there is Covid, people have been dying like this but that time it was not serious with anyone because it was in China. It is far away from here, so I was not worried about but slowly these stories become like this spreading worldwide and it comes like around March it’s too much like and America has started like and the death rate is too high and Italy also around that time peak. Then March, end of March, government gave the first lockdown, then we really started worried like what will happen to the world? What will happen to the England? Around where I am living now so maybe it’s come to me.

 

Pooja realised that when it got to France and Italy it was definitely coming to the UK.

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Pooja realised that when it got to France and Italy it was definitely coming to the UK.

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Like when it all started to really set in, the reality of everything started to set in when other countries such as like Italy and France and especially Spain as well started to report major cases and then there’s all of the deaths, the tolls of the death tolls kept coming in. And then like, oh my god, I couldn’t believe that it is it is actually starting to come to this country as well.

 

Travelling abroad and seeing restrictions elsewhere

Those who were travelling for holidays, work or family reasons in the first months of 2020 remembered becoming aware that some other countries seemed to be taking the threat much more seriously, with mask wearing and temperature checks at transit hubs, like airports. Gwilym was on a cruise when ports in the West Indies started shutting to cruise ships. Some travellers were shocked to realise that when they arrived back in the UK, there had been no checks at the airport.  

 

In mid-March 2020 Samena changed flights in Dubai on her way back from Pakistan. She noticed everyone was wearing a mask.

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In mid-March 2020 Samena changed flights in Dubai on her way back from Pakistan. She noticed everyone was wearing a mask.

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We flew back on I believe, I can’t remember the date but I remember flying back to the UK on the, the Saturday and I remember everywhere in Dubai airports everybody just wearing masks, at this point it wasn’t, it wasn’t mandatory to wear masks and it was the first time really, you know, quite frightened everybody to see, you know, what was going on. I remember, getting from Pakistan I remember coming in to Dubai airport and everything was just shut, all shops, things were all closed there was a few sort of restaurant’s takeaways, everything else was just completely, you know, closed. Everybody was walking about with masks so at that point we said okay something has, it’s quite serious, you know, everything that was going on because in Pakistan at that point it wasn’t anything major you know, it was talked about it was, I don’t think even at that point there was many cases in Pakistan if there was any.

 
Becoming aware that other people were changing their behaviours

It became noticeable that people’s behaviour was changing, especially by early March 2020. Samena arrived back in the UK a couple of days before the lockdown and found that supermarket shelves were empty. Instead of reconnecting with family, she had to stay home.
 
Behaviour in public also changed. Nargis remembered that it became scary to be around people who were coughing. Some people, like Irene, had a growing sense that the UK government might not be doing enough. She became aware that people were making their own decisions to limit their risk of exposure.
 

 

A conversation with someone on the street made Cat wonder whether she was safe being close to other people.

A conversation with someone on the street made Cat wonder whether she was safe being close to other people.

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Mm. So I’ve been thinking about this recently actually, the first time I remember it being like, well I do remember it being a news story, but one of my earlier memories I should say is, I was doing research for an ethnography module, in 2nd year so last year and that would’ve been about, yeah about February, I guess. Yeah so, I was just about Valentine’s Day. And the thing is I was I was on Queen Street, and I did I think like 10 hours 15 hours-ish of just ethnography, just standing in the street watching what’s happening, and on one of those occasions I think someone came up to me, a woman came up to me she was asking for change potentially, I think I gave her some, and then she was trying to make conversation and she was like, “What do you think about all this corona stuff?” And I was like “Ooh yeah it’s mad isn’t it.” And she was like “Yeah it’s mad, it’s crazy.” And I was like “Yeah.”

And we didn’t really have anything else to say about it, but I remember that [laughs]. And that must have been before we were like wearing masks and stuff which feels weird saying it because it feels like we’ve been wearing them forever. But and I remember having the first flash of like “oh”. Potentially I shouldn’t be this close to someone I don’t know on the street, with like no barrier. And that was the first time when in my brain I was like ooh, this seems a bit of a weird concept that we like come so close to people, without, so yeah.

 

To celebrate her daughter’s birthday in early March, Irene went to a London shopping centre which was very quiet.

To celebrate her daughter’s birthday in early March, Irene went to a London shopping centre which was very quiet.

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And I was listening to kind of some of the research of particular radio scientist on a particular radio station that I listen to and I just thought, my feeling was that it was bigger than what it was but I don’t think that we, as a nation, were reacting to it. And then my daughter’s birthday was in March, March the ninth, and by that time, people were then, as I mean the nation, was then becoming quite worried because I was quite near Westfield’s in Stratford and so we met there for lunch and you just realised, no, it was Canary Wharf, sorry.

And then we just realised it wasn’t busy. The restaurants wasn’t really busy and yeah, it was just a whole different atmosphere and as March moved on and on and on and on, you just realised that people were worried and then we had the lockdown in March.

 

Noam realised when attending the festival of Purim that people were sitting separately.

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Noam realised when attending the festival of Purim that people were sitting separately.

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And I can remember it was Purim, the Festival of Purim and this is my connection to [City] over here. I was going to [City] for Purim to read the Megillah which is what we do on Purim. And you know, so, I was reading the megillah in the office over there by the Jewish centre and you know, people are sitting separate, which is not something I’d ever seen London yet. This was not heard of, but people said, you know, we’re not gonna sit in a room together and one of the people that was in that room listening to the reading of the Megillah was actually a medical doctor or professor of some sort that was on an advisory board about Covid and how to deal with it. And she was like saying, you know, about the seriousness of it.

 

Seeing the daily news reports of hospitalisations and deaths

Throughout spring 2020 there were daily news reports of how many people were in hospital with Covid, and how many had died. For some people we spoke to this convinced them that the pandemic was real and that they needed to take precautions.

 

In Rabbi Wollenbergs’ community, funerals started to take place every day, which was unheard of.

In Rabbi Wollenbergs’ community, funerals started to take place every day, which was unheard of.

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One of the things that really brought it home for us is that normally on a Jewish festival we don’t do any kind of work so, it would be almost unheard of to, for an orthodox Jew to travel unless it’s an emergency. And there is a dispensation which is very rarely used, if you have to do a burial you can do it on the second day of, the holiday, which happens sometimes in America. It’s almost unheard of in this country, it just doesn’t happen and there was such a backlog of burials taking place in our community. They were actually, they were actually using every day available to them. That’s how frightening it was. And I, I we’ve never, as a family or in my professional life, I don’t think we’d ever planned for something like this. The notion that we would, you know, go into a lockdown and be at home and our place of worship would be closed and our place of work would be closed and wouldn’t be able to do pastoral work which is so central to my role as a minister. And I actually did I, I did a series of interviews with different people, and I spoke to different people, and I said, you know, did you ever imagine. So, it was interesting because people in the social care sector said, well, we do have exercises for what to do if there’s a, you know an outbreak of infectious disease, but never really on this scale.


 
Sarita recalled the point in Spring 2020 when there was a big increase in deaths. Kashif commented that ‘slowly, slowly’ they started to hear about people they knew dying. For some it was hearing that young healthy people could die from Covid that shifted their thinking, as well as the very old and those with underlying health conditions.
 
People who worked in health or social care or who had reasons to visit a hospital during the Spring of 2020 could see the impact on services and how cautious and fearful staff were.
 
 

Matthew attended a clinic with Covid symptoms and felt that how the staff responded was ‘like a movie’.

Matthew attended a clinic with Covid symptoms and felt that how the staff responded was ‘like a movie’.

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It was really surreal. You know, it almost felt like pandemic movies, like all of a sudden, this has become a lot more real because I thought to myself, if this was a normal virus, they would have just seen me in a normal room, done everything normally, you know. People go into the GPs with all kinds of viruses and bacteria, which can be caught, nobody pays any attention. And I thought there must be something really truly bad about this virus if she won’t even touch me or come near me. If I’m being forced to sit in this room and you know, and that was reinforced more when I was actually in hospital and they were just doing their tests. They tested me for flu and they tested me for the Covid and then that that’s when a doctor came in, she didn’t have a mask on, but she was saying, “No, no, no, you can’t be here. You know, what are you doing walking in here like this? You’ve got to be outside. We’re going to have to put you in a hazmat suit.” Turns out I didn’t have Covid, at that time.

 

Illness and deaths among acquaintances, friends and family

Even for those who were initially unsure or, like Nargis, found the idea of a global pandemic a bit ‘hard to believe in this day and age’, it was hard to ignore it when Covid affected family, friends and colleagues. Fahmida became fearful when her son’s teacher was hospitalised with Covid. For Abdul it was the proximity in his family that made it real. As Haliza said ‘you can read about it but when it's someone you know, it becomes real’.
 

 

Gulsoom found out through social media that a relative had died from Covid in April 2020.

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Gulsoom found out through social media that a relative had died from Covid in April 2020.

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But then I myself, so then I think a lot of my friends and family started getting ill with Covid but it was only when my grandma’s brother passed away with Covid in April two thousand and twenty, last year and they said the cause was Covid and then the whole family had caught Covid and he was the first person in the family to pass away. And I think that’s when it really hit us that, oh my god, this is really serious.


 
There were also many social media links circulating which caused confusion about the reality of the pandemic. People we spoke to were more likely to trust information someone from their own community, or a combination of statistics and personal stories.
 
 

Ayny received a social media link to a video made by a Muslim doctor that convinced her Covid is serious.

Ayny received a social media link to a video made by a Muslim doctor that convinced her Covid is serious.

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And I remember one day we had this link sent from Muslim doctors and it was just showing the severity of this this virus. And it was, I think down to a tee - they weren’t being wishy washy about it. They were saying, it’s true, it’s real. When it affects you it’s deadly. It’s and I think when I had seen that then me, I got like a heart, my heart did sink a little bit and I felt, this is the first-hand doctors who are speaking, and I need to take this seriously.

 

Esther felt that a combination of the statistics on the media and hearing personal stories meant she couldn’t be ‘zoned out’ any more.

Esther felt that a combination of the statistics on the media and hearing personal stories meant she couldn’t be ‘zoned out’ any more.

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I think there’s also something about, you know, there was definitely a period of time and quite a long time, you know, throughout lockdowns where, you know, you’ve watched the news at any given hour and they would have the most up to date statistics on who, how many people had Covid. What areas were the highest percent, had the highest percentage of people with Covid and how many people had died that day from Covid. And seeing those numbers increase and increase and increase and increase, I think showed the severity of that. And it’s interesting because I often think that, you know, if you just see some statistics you can really zone them out and you just kind of become almost immune to, you know, watching numbers on a screen so to say. But, I think the thing about it was that it wasn’t just statistics on a screen. You know, it wasn’t like it was something that was happening on the other side of the world. You know, everybody knows somebody or everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who has, who, you know, who knows someone who’s died because of Covid or who’s been in intensive care because of Covid. And so whilst you have the statistics on the screen kind of increasing, you actually have the personal stories to go along with that and which is why I think that those statistics on the screen were actually really impactful because otherwise they just wouldn't be, otherwise you would just become, you know, you just zone it out. You’d just be immune to it. But because it was like pretty all-permeating and you just kind of constantly hear stories about friends or friends of family or friends of friends who were really, really ill with Covid. I think that made, that made it all the more different and I think that’s what made it real.


 
Some, like Samena, had got through 2020 without loss but experienced deaths among friends and family in 2021. Everyone who we talked to for this project had caught Covid-19, which provided them with the final proof that the virus was real and convinced them that anyone could be affected.
 
 

Laszlo, an intensive care unit nurse, described that his illness was a wakeup call to many of his colleagues.

Laszlo, an intensive care unit nurse, described that his illness was a wakeup call to many of his colleagues.

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One of the changes that they have done in the department was we had a so called red zone and blue zone. So red zone was where all the Covid positive patients were admitted, and the blue zone was where the one which were likely to be negative. And I can remember it was a struggle within the team very often when they put you into the red zone, so I know that many, many people were very frightened to, frightened to work in the red zone. And very often I said, “I don’t mind.” Just as I said, why should I be afraid? I’m wearing the PPE. I’m relatively young so this is going to be likely to affect those people who have a pre-existing medical condition, they are old and so on and so on. So, we had these pre-conceptions about this whole disease, about this whole virus. And I think, and this was the feedback I had received from most of my colleagues, they said, “Up until, Laszlo you got sick, we didn’t thought that this pandemic can get so serious. That was that was the tipping point for us to believe that this can happen to anyone. No one is completely safe no one can say that I am immune to this and that was the moment when we took things more seriously. So, I think even my story in this sort of way made a big change in the culture in the department and in the whole hospital.


 

 

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