Are the shielded group in danger of being forgotten as the lockdown eases?
This week, our household begins our tenth week of “shielding” – completely isolating ourselves from the outside world, in a bid to protect ourselves from Covid-19.
Actually, it’s just my husband, Terry, who’s technically advised to “shield”: as a transplant recipient, he’s deemed to be at a very high risk from the virus, and, as such, back in March he received a letter from the government advising him of the measures he should take in order to protect himself. I wrote at length about those measures in my earlier post on the subject, but, to summarise, if he was following the official guidelines to the letter, Terry would currently be holed up in our bedroom, avoiding all face-to-face contact with the rest of the household, and having his meals left outside the door on a tray. He wouldn’t be able to go outside, but he WOULD be able to sit near an open window, which is kind of a big deal, really, when you’re encouraged to believe it’s literally the only thing that won’t kill you right now, isn’t it?
I mean, seriously: try to imagine what it would be like to spend 12 weeks (Which is the length of time that initial letter advised him he’d have to shield for) locked inside a single room of your house, unable to have any contact at all with another human being – not even your spouse or child – and with the prospect of sitting near an open window being the most exciting thing you could hope for from your day. It’s unimaginable, really. It’s also totally unrealistic, and not even remotely practical for most people – which is why, of course, we decided not to do it: or not to the extent suggested by The Letter, anyway.
Instead, we made the decision to isolate as a family: so, instead of Terry locking himself away, while Max and I continued as normal (By which I simply mean “following the same lockdown rules as the non-shielding members of society”), all three of us have been effectively shielding – which means that none of us have left our house/garden since March 16th. So, no trips to the supermarket, no “daily exercise” – nothing, in fact, that can’t be done within the four walls of our house, or the confines of our garden. And, to be totally honest, I’m not actually 100% sure we’re “allowed” into the garden, either…
How has it been?
Kind of soul-destroying, to be totally honest.
I think there’s an idea that being in the shielded group is a lot like being swaddled in a giant vat of cotton wool, all cosy and protected,and at peace with the world. Actually, though, being “shielded” feels more like being completely forgotten: and, as the weeks tick by, and the lockdown restrictions in some parts of the country start to be eased, I’ve been becoming more and more concerned that the complete destruction of the mental health and general well-being of the 1.8 million people who fall into this category will continue to be seen as a fair price to pay for the “reward” of them simply continuing to exist – even though simply existing is not the same as actually living.
I’ve been becoming more and more concerned that the complete destruction of the mental health and general well-being of the 1.8 million people who fall into this category will continue to be seen as a fair price to pay for the “reward” of simply continuing to exist
And, of course, with the UK still technically in lockdown (Some parts more so than others), I think it’s fair to say that no one is living the kind of life they’d like to be living right now. This huge change in circumstances is obviously not unique to the people who are shielding, and I don’t want to in any way minimise the fact that everyone is suffering because of the coronavirus pandemic: everyone. (Well, everyone other than that one friend who keeps posting on Facebook about how much they’re loving lockdown, and how it’s the universe’s way of telling us all to slow down, or whatever. There’s always one, isn’t there?)
For the shielded, however, there’s absolutely no end in sight. The initial letter that was sent out in March advised Terry – and the hundreds of thousands like him – to shield for 12 weeks. We’ve always known, however, that that time period would be extended, and it now seems likely that those in the most vulnerable group will be shielding in some form until there’s a vaccine: which, we’re constantly being told, might never come. (For the record, I do believe there will be a vaccine, and I’m hoping it will happen this year. Almost every time I see the news, however, I’ll hear some expert or other confidently predict that there’s virtually NO CHANCE of a vaccine, and that, even if there is, it won’t be available for a very long time indeed. So that’s reassuring.) Just this week, the government’s chief medical officer said we might have to live with the virus “for years”, and, even in the best case scenario, we’re facing the very real prospect that we will not be “allowed” to see our families or leave our home this year at all.
Even in the best case scenario we’re facing the very real prospect that we will not be allowed to see our families or leave our home this year at all
I honestly can’t even begin to explain what that feels like: and one of the worst things about it is that one of the many things the shielded group are not allowed to do right now is complain. Because, the fact is, the alternative for them is just unthinkable, isn’t it? Shielding might be unutterably awful: but at least it’s keeping us safe – and how can you realistically complain about something that’s supposedly saving your life? Instead, then, the shielded are expected to shut up and get on with it: to just quietly accept that their lives are effectively over until the vaccine (That might never come! Don’t ever forget there might NEVER be a vaccine!) arrives, and to be grateful they’re not dead.
It’s hard to argue with that point of view, obviously: and I’m sure I speak for the majority of the shielded group (Although probably not all, to be brutally honest: because, for some people, there are things worse than death, and I’d guess total isolation from the rest of the world is one of them…) when I say that yes, OF COURSE they’re grateful to not be dead. Let’s be honest, though: for most of us, simply being alive is not the only goal we’ve ever had for our lives: it’s just the absolute minimum we expect when we wake up every morning.
for most of us, simply being alive is not the only goal we’ve ever had for our lives: it’s just the absolute minimum we expect when we wake up every morning.
Now try to imagine what it’s like to be told that being alive is now the absolute MOST you can expect: that you will continue to exist, but it will be a very empty, narrow kind of existence, which will not include seeing the people you love, or doing any of the things that gave your life meaning, for the foreseeable future: and possibly for years on end, if the worst of the doom-mongerers are to be believed. It’s really easy to screech, “JUST STAY HOME!” or “AT LEAST YOU’RE NOT DEAD!” at people when they admit they’re struggling, but, to do so betrays a real lack of empathy, because the fact is, what’s being asked of these people isn’t remotely realistic, and my big concern now is that, as far as the government is concerned, out of sight means out of mind: that, having advised the most vulnerable to shut themselves away indefinitely, they can simply wash their hands of them, safe in the knowledge that it won’t be their fault if some of them eventually crack, and decide they just can’t cope any longer. They did warn us we’d die if we left our homes, after all: what more could they possibly do?
as far as the government is concerned, out of sight means out of mind: that, having advised the most vulnerable to shut themselves away indefinitely, they can simply wash their hands of them, safe in the knowledge that it won’t be their fault if some of them eventually crack, and decide they just can’t cope any longer.
Actually, though, I think there’s probably a lot more they could be doing to help the group they claim to be most interested in protecting. At the moment, however, although the shielding letter promises that Terry will be supported in attempting to meet the guidelines, there’s been very little in the way of actual support for him: in fact, other than a single phonecall from a nurse (Who opened the conversation by wryly asking Terry if he was managing to stick to what she described as the “totally ridiculous” guidelines, before assuring him not to worry, that not many other people were managing it either…), and the offer of a free food box should he be unable to secure one of the priority delivery slots made available by the supermarkets, there’s been no real sign at all that those in power are trying their best to make indefinite shielding a realistic possibility. We don’t feel supported: we feel forgotten – and as the rest of the world gradually starts to come back to life again, the shielding advice continues to insist that ALL activities outside of our house are too dangerous to be contemplated.
People who are shielding can’t do “unlimited” outdoor exercise, for instance. They can’t sunbathe in the park – or, indeed, meet someone from outwith their household there. These are, in many cases, fit, healthy people, who are willing and able to work, but who are now facing financial ruin, because they can’t go back to work, send their children to school, or accept family help with childcare. Almost every day, I see people talk about the importance of fresh air and daily exercise – apparently oblivious to the fact that there are 1.8 million people in the UK right now who aren’t supposed to set foot outside their own properties, and who are assumed to not require fresh air, exercise (Yes, we could do exercise videos at home. Would you want Joe Wicks PE to be your only physical activity for months, or possibly years, on end, though?) or face-to-face contact with other human beings.
And this, I think, is the root of the problem: this “othering” of the shielded, who most people seem to think are frail and/or elderly, and so sick that they’re probably used to staying at home anyway. That may well be true for at least some of the people in the vulnerable group, obviously, but it’s certainly not true for ALL of them. Terry, for instance, isn’t remotely frail or elderly: in fact, he’s a very healthy, active man, who, up until March of this year, was leading a totally normal life as a small-business owner, father, and mountain-climbing fan. He isn’t on the shielded list because he’s “just going to die anyway”, as so many people seem to assume: he’s on it because of a kidney transplant in 2003 that left him on immunosuppressants for the rest of his life.
This, I think, is the root of the problem: this “othering” of the shielded, who most people seem to assume are frail and/or elderly, and so sick that they’re probably used to staying at home all the time anyway.
The vast majority of the time, Terry’s transplant has absolutely no effect on his life at all. This year, however, it’s felt a bit like he’s being punished for having been ill 17 years ago, and that the very thing that saved his life back then has brought it to a shuddering halt now. He’s one of a huge number of previously fit and active people whose mental health and physical fitness is now considered to come second to the threat presented by Covid-19, and who are encouraged to believe – possibly incorrectly – that a socially-distanced walk in a secluded area would most likely kill them. Those who are shielding are also instructed to accept that, as long as they remain alive, they should just be grateful for that, and not expect anything more – not even any of the very basic human rights that most people still take for granted, even in lockdown. The right to hug your child, say. To go for a walk. To sit in the same room as the rest of your family, rather than locking yourself away, and talking to them from the other side of a closed door.
“What’s the alternative, though?” people ask, when the shielded dare to suggest that all of this is just a little bit much, maybe. For the last 10 weeks, we’ve been told repeatedly that the ONLY alternative to it is certain death: that we CAN’T expect things to change, because if someone like Terry sets a single foot over the threshold of this house, he will almost definitely die. While we have absolutely no doubt that catching Covid-19 would be very, very serious – and quite possibly fatal – for Terry, however, as time goes on, we are starting to ask ourselves if total isolation really is the ONLY way to avoid that.
Would it REALLY be so dangerous for us to take Max for a stroll around our cul-de-sac, for instance, given that all of our neighbours are aware of Terry’s situation, and know better than to approach us? We’re not expecting to be to able to start going to the supermarket, say, but can we REALLY not hope that we might at some point be able to meet up with my parents, who have also been isolating for the past 10 weeks, and whose chance of having contracted the virus without leaving their home (And while diligently washing / quarantining all of the groceries and mail that come in, too) is as as small as ours is – not even from a distance? We’ve accepted that our lives will revolve around our home until there’s a vaccine, but will Terry REALLY die if he drives once around the block, without ever getting out of the car?
The current government advice says that YES: Terry would place himself at an an unacceptable level of risk were he to even consider doing any of these things. Common sense, on the other hand, suggests that might not be strictly true: and that, actually, the greater risk might come from the deepening depression we’re both starting to experience as we contemplate a life in which we’ll continue to exist, but no more than that. And, ultimately, as we approach the end of that initial 12 week period of shielding, and there’s still no end in sight, I think we’re rapidly reaching a point where even the most vulnerable in society will have to assess their own risks, and decide for themselves whether Covid-19 really is the only real risk to them right now. Because, if our country is to take the position that even minuscule risks must be mitigated, no matter what the cost, then we’re all facing a very bleak future – and not just the shielded, but presumably everyone else who decides to do something that carries even the slightest risk: so, all of us, basically.
If even minuscule risks must be mitigated, no matter what the cost, we’re facing a very bleak future
In closing this post, however, I just want to quickly caveat it by saying again that I’m not in any way trying to minimise the difficulties of this situation for other groups, too: particularly those currently working on the front line, or who are being forced to go back to work, in conditions they don’t consider safe. I’m sure those people would love to have our particular set of problems, just as we’d love to have some of their freedoms, and I want to stress that, just because our family finds shielding hard sometimes, that doesn’t mean we think everyone else has it easy, or that we don’t recognise how fortunate we are to be able to stay safe. Pandemics suck for everyone, in different ways, and this purpose of this post is not to play Tragedy Olympics, but simply to talk about the ways in which this one sucks for us personally – which is the only perspective I’m qualified to give.