It is almost unnecessary to state that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be undeniably etched into global history forever. Claiming the lives of c. 5.79 million people and irreversibly altering societal outlook, function, and political discourse, the pandemic will weigh heavily on our hearts, and country, for many years to come.
Yet, as fundamentally important as it is to remember our lost loved ones, and uphold their memory, we must, too, consider the victims not yet lost: the chronically ill. Labelled ‘vulnerable’, these patients’ lives have been dictated by a loss of treatment and a subsequent loss of quality of life over the past two years. Their decline in health can be traced back to an overwhelmed NHS, whose ordinary procedures were halted in the race to tackle Covid-19.
I had the privilege of speaking to two patients of the North-West Lung Centre, situated at Wythenshawe Hospital, Manchester. Both suffering from a severe lung-related condition (not disclosed for privacy), these women spoke to me at length about their experiences of being chronically ill during the pandemic. Their names have been altered for privacy.
Q: Pre-pandemic, how often were you requiring treatment?
Jennifer: Every fourth week.
Q: What did this treatment entail?
Jennifer: Spending five nights in the hospital having intravenous medication continuously for the whole period.
Hannah: Admission for medicinal infusion for five days.
Q: When this was cancelled, what support was offered to you throughout the pandemic?
Jennifer: Nothing. All treatment was stopped, the team became unavailable — there was no alternative plan put in place. Just a ‘we’re not doing this’ attitude. I was left to get on with it on my own.
Hannah: None. I received a phone call on the first Thursday of lockdown to say they had cancelled the infusion service due to Covid-19. I was told I’d get monthly phone calls but heard nothing for seven months.
Q: When will your treatment resume?
Jennifer: There is currently no restart date.
Q: What has your quality of life been like during the pandemic?
Jennifer: Terrible. I spend most days, all day, in bed. I eat most of my meals alone in bed. I have the laptop for company. I haven’t really left the house. The stairs have become almost impossible to do. If I do go out, it takes nearly 3 hours to get ready and then I literally can’t do anything for the next three or four days.
Hannah: I have no quality of life as the treatment relieved the constant chest tightness which now affects everything that I do.
Q: What, if any, effect has the pandemic had on your health now, and your medical outlook?
Jennifer: My medical outlook is uncertain. It feels like I’m hanging on waiting for the next plan to be put in place. I’m wheezy all the time. I never get any respite. Everything is a huge effort.
Hannah: The pandemic has affected not only my physical but mental health as it now feels like I’m housebound. If I do push and do something I suffer for weeks after, which makes me reluctant to do anything.
With no treatment plans in place, and their diminishing health evident, both Jennifer and Hannah exemplify a whole subset of society now significantly impeded by the absence of ordinary treatments during the pandemic. As around 15 million people in the UK live with a chronic illness, it is utterly devastating to consider the wider impact of the cancellation of ordinary treatment upon these patients. Yet their suffering is not an indictment of the NHS staff who worked so tirelessly throughout this tragedy, but of the lack of forward planning and preventative measures in place.
Chronically ill patients should not be an afterthought. Their lives should not be held on the whim of expenditure or forsaken in times of crisis. It is imperative that we learn from the adverse effects of this pandemic upon the chronically ill and develop mechanisms of support that can exist in times of future tragedy. But, for the chronically ill patients affected by a loss of treatment or investigation over the past two years, this is too little, too late. It is all we can do to acknowledge their suffering and commit to remembering their sacrifice during this pandemic.
Illustration: Anna Kuptsova