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Pilots of the airwaves: I salute you

Written and posted just before our Prime Minister announced a month-long England-wide lockdown…

In much the same way as our parents and grandparents talked of themselves (and others) as having had a “good (or not-so-good) war”, I fancy that once (please God) this now not-so-novel Coronavirus is behind us, we’ll talk about what we’re currently living through in similar fashion.

Me, if I had to rate my pandemic experience thus far on a scale of nought to 10, with zero being “Covid? What Covid?” and 10 being a total horror show, I’d give it about a three. Maybe four. I had a soft landing; I was lucky enough to be welcomed back into my family home for the duration of the (first) lockdown. A strange experience, but these were, and are, strange times; and we made it work. I chafed against being confined to barracks (comfortable though those barracks were) and became fixated about taking my hour-a-day’s exercise (and not a minute less). My alcohol consumption went up. And I indulged in a lot of introspection. Self-examination. Not difficult, as I consider myself endlessly fascinating.

Others had an even easier time of it; and certainly there were many who had it tougher. But since lockdown ended, life – my life, at least – has returned to something I recognise as near-normal. Being a writer is a solitary profession anyway, and working from home makes it even more so. Leaving aside whether that’s healthy or not, work having (thankfully) picked up it does mean I can spend great swathes of time in total denial that Covid is even a thing. When I do finish for the day and venture out to the shops or the pub, I don’t regard wearing a mask as much of an imposition – though I’d hate to have to sport one for hours at a time.

While early 2020 saw many of us hoarding loo roll, pasta and pulses, one commodity, or diversion, we have not been short of this year is – or are – things to watch, or listen to. Lockdown provided a perfect opportunity to gorge on visual and audio treats – to take our fill, and then take some more. To binge on box-sets, plough through podcasts and – for once – catch up with catch-up.

Personally, I scared myself silly rewatching the terrifyingly prescient Years and Years; sought light relief in Sex Education and Young Offenders; and discovered Danny Baker’s Treehouse podcast (I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but he’s a hero of mine. The first 60 or so episodes are available free on various platforms; accessing more recent content means paying a small subscription fee). I’m currently working my way through another podcast: My Dad Wrote A Porno – breathtakingly rude at times, but bloody funny.

Lockdown 2.0 (don’t pretend it isn’t coming) will doubtless mean more of the same. Which is all fine; but what I’m finding is that I am increasingly drawn to live broadcasts. Television, yes; but especially radio.

My attraction to live TV is easily explained. I am, or at least I was, a journalist; and there’s still enough of the newshound in me to go in search of up-to-the-minute information. Yes, we can get our news from the papers, and off the internet – and I do both of those things – but there really is no substitute for live reporting, especially with this godawful virus continuing to wreak such global havoc. I’m not interested in what happened 10 minutes ago, I want to know what’s happening now, and what the implications are, or might be, for me and those close to me.

My fondness for live radio, however, runs much deeper. It always has.

Working from home, alone, is not something I mind overmuch. As I say, there are many who maintain it’s not good for a person – and maybe they’re right; though I think it depends on the individual. But I will admit it can get lonely; and whatever the pandemic has or hasn’t done, it’s sure as hell exacerbated that feeling.

Which is why it’s so great, and I’d argue so important, to be able to hear a friendly voice, talking to you in real time. Personally, and as I’ve said here before, I’m a huge fan of BBC Radio 6 Music, which is broadcast from studios in London and Manchester – in both cases hundreds of miles from my home in Norwich.

That doesn’t matter. This is not about being in the same location, or experiencing the same things – the same weather, say – contemporaneously. But, with 6 Music’s mixture of uplifting tunes and grown-up chat, it absolutely is about knowing that the person fronting the programme is doing it live – that you are listening as he or she is talking; not an hour, a day or a week later.

I can’t explain why this matters – but it really, really does.

Podcasts and box-sets have their place. Prerecorded radio shows have their place too; and 6 Music airs its fair share of those.

But live radio is a friend indeed.

Conflicted by Covid

As recently as 14th/15th March, with the (now not-so-novel) Coronavirus establishing itself as “a thing” in the UK, the clouds gathering, the virus making itself felt in our daily lives, I’ll admit I felt scared. Anxious.

It wasn’t Covid-19 itself that worried me – I may get it, I may have already had it, and at just turned 58 and healthy I’m not very high-risk.

What I feared was societal breakdown. Already fractured by the shift to “online” and the agonies of Brexit, society, I reasoned, would be totally rent asunder by the weight of this latest onslaught. Cue the apocalypse. Anarchy. Survivors going feral. Shooting each other for a mouldy loaf of bread.

These are still relatively early days, but it seems I was wrong. While some news media need to take a long, hard look at themselves, much of the reporting (to date, anyway) has, to my mind, been measured, factual and non-sensationalist. (Though maybe you just need to know where to look.) And BBC Radio 6 Music has been nothing short of superb: a national radio station pulling off the neat trick of sounding like a local one, and somehow pulling a disparate nationwide listenership together with just the right mix of levity, concern, genuine warmth and great tunes.

Furthermore, my social-media feeds are full of positivity – which I did not anticipate. Ideas for how we can all help each other. Stories of how many of us – individuals, charities, businesses – already are.

I had expected people to run for the hills and pull up their drawbridges. (And to mix their metaphors, clearly.) What I hadn’t expected was a rebirth, a rejuvenation, of society, of community.

God, doesn’t it do the heart good?

But it’s not all upbeat. As I write, my brother lies seriously ill in our local general hospital, the Norfolk & Norwich (AKA the N&N), having suffered a perforated gall bladder 12 days ago.

He was taken to hospital on 15th March with severe abdominal pain, examined, and… sent home. Indigestion, that was the verdict.

The pain didn’t go away, but rather intensified. Forty-eight hours later he was properly admitted – and has since been on a course of serious antibiotics to fight the infection that the ruptured gall bladder, missed two days previously, has since caused; the latter cannot be excised until the infection has been beaten.

My brother’s wife has been able to visit. The rest of us, rightly, have been prevented from visiting because of the Coronavirus, but have been assured that he was “responding well” to the antibiotics.

That message now appears to have been stretching things a bit. The night before last he went into renal failure. Kidney function in a man of his age (68) and general state of health should be between 60% and 70%.

His was 3%.

A cannula was fitted to deliver essential fluids – and fell out. Despite repeated requests it remained unfixed throughout the night of 25th/26th March. So my brother set his phone to sound an alarm at 15-minute intervals; every quarter-hour, the whole night long, he woke himself up and forced himself to drink. It was the only way to stay hydrated, and alive. It is my belief that he is still with us only because of his own grim determination.

The latest news is that the N&N is likely to discharge him today. Not because he’s recovered, far from it; but because were he to contract Covid in his present condition it would definitely kill him; and the chances of coming into contact with it are increasing by the minute. The hospital is close to being overrun with the virus.

The National Health Service is a magnificent institution, of which we should be hugely proud; and right now NHS personnel are justly winning plaudits for their unceasing care and commitment. The NHS has its hands full dealing with Covid; we know that, and we make allowances.

But that doesn’t mean the organisation shouldn’t be called out when mistakes occur. A misdiagnosis is a misdiagnosis, and poor treatment is poor treatment.

To some extent of course, my brother is, tangentially, a Covid casualty; but in at least equal measure, he has been a victim of diagnostic ineptitude. Had his condition been correctly identified in the first place, when the N&N was not unduly busy, he would have been admitted on the Sunday, undergone surgery on the Monday, and discharged on the Tuesday: way before the virus made any real impact – in Norfolk as a county, never mind its central general hospital.

Instead of which, he faces an uncertain future. Self-isolation at home; weeks, possibly months, on antibiotics and a restricted diet; frequent visits from community healthcare professionals (when resources are already stretched); and at the end of all that, probably readmission for surgery when it’s considered safe (though gall bladders have been known to fix themselves). Self-isolation might be de rigueur for many of us at present anyway, but the rest would have been largely avoidable had the problem been correctly identified in the first place.

All of which is a bit long and rambly. I guess I’m conflicted, really. It is surely heartening to see (and be part of) the overwhelmingly positive outpouring of fellow-feeling that has overtaken the nation; and generally, our National Health Service has been, and continues to be, beyond amazing. But the NHS that is rightly winning across-the-board plaudits for the fantastic job they’re doing caring for Covid patients is the selfsame NHS whose misdiagnosis/negligence came close to killing my beloved brother. One to chew on.

Coronavirus: dry cough, fever, shortness of breath… and, as it turns out, cognitive dissonance.

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