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From the file

A year of Covid | We’ve all been affected by the pandemic, but few as severely as Geoff Woolf, the father of reporter Nicky Woolf. This is the story of his 306 days in hospital – and beyond.

Further reading

Further reading

Friday 12 February 2021

It’s been a year of Covid. Here is some extra reading material to help contextualise that time


It has been 378 days since the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the UK, on 31 January 2020. Then the first UK death came five weeks later, on 6 March. For most of us, the subsequent months have been indistinct, punctuated by little more than Zoom calls, daily walks, and putting on your face mask. For many others, they have been all too distinct, defined by illness and loss. Here is some reading material to help explain that terrible expanse of time.

The patients’ view

Our File began this week with Nicky Woolf’s Slow Newscast about the 306 days that his father, Geoff, spent in hospital after contracting Covid. Geoff is one of nearly 4 million people in the UK who have tested positive since 31 January last year, and one of over 414,000 who have been admitted to hospital. 112,000 have died so far. 

Stories like the Woolf family’s bring a human context to these numbers we hear reported every day. Sirin Kale’s ‘Lost to the Virus’ series for the Guardian did likewise. Each piece tells of the life and death of a Covid victim in UK – including Belly Mujinga, the railway worker who died weeks after being spat on by a passenger. Mujinga’s story was also extensively covered by the BBC’s Rianna Croxford for Panorama.  

If you want further insight into what it is like to be in a hospital with Covid, then this piece from the Japan Times last April, which includes quotes from patients who were treated in the makeshift Wuhan hospital, is worth reading. For a more scientific account of how the virus affects the body, by someone experiencing it, see Yale Tung Chen’s daily tweets after testing positive last March. 

There is little testimony from care home residents who have contracted Covid – and, frankly, too little testimony about them – although some care home workers have put words to their concerns. Speaking on an episode of the Let’s Talk About Care podcast last May, the managing director of a home in Nottingham, Anita Astle, talks about how “stroking somebody’s face as they slip away while you’re wearing a glove on your hand… it’s just not the same”. 

Some of Tortoise’s journalism has focused on care homes. For our Covid Inquiry, I described what happened when the pandemic struck. Last year, Ian Birrell undertook an extensive investigation of the sector. And in a recent Slow View, Simon Briscoe explained why the full extent of the crisis in care homes remains unknowable – we don’t have the data. 

The doctors’ view 

We talk about the front line against Covid; Intensive Care Units (ICUs) are where the battle rages hardest. But what are they actually like inside? The photography of Jon Williamson, an anaesthetist in a London hospital, provides an answer. We published one of his photo essays in our File this week, and we published another last year that told the story of Nurse Raquel, a hospital worker who contracted Covid herself.

Another glimpse inside was afforded by this article for Unherd from a pseudonymous junior doctor. “The most distressing part of their struggle is the air hunger,” she writes. “You can spot these patients easily, as they grasp the masks to their faces with both hands and gasp visibly for air.”

You might also remember the footage from within a hospital in Lombardy, Italy, at the start of the pandemic. Their head of emergency care told Sky News’s Stuart Ramsey that the UK ought to expect similar.

Of course, hospitals and ICUs aren’t just places of treatment – but also, potentially, of transmission. Sui-Lee Wee and Vivian Wang wrote at length for the New York Times on two healthcare workers who caught Covid in Wuhan. “Both were 29 years old. Both were married, each with a young child on whom she doted.” Yet one of them survived, and one of them didn’t. 

And this onslaught isn’t abating yet. Only this week, the NHS reported: “Almost one third of all patients who have needed hospital treatment for Covid since the pandemic began were admitted last month.”

We should have seen it coming 

This is not the first pandemic, and it won’t be the last. So should we have seen the events of this year coming? American science and nature writer David Quammen might say so. In his 2013 book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, he tracks down infectious diseases that originate from animals. Sound familiar? 

There has been foresight since the coronavirus, too. The pandemic had already taken hold when Donald G. McNeil Jr. spoke to various medical experts for the New York Times, but, even so, there was something prescient about their collective warnings at the time –  and something grimly compelling about them now. “[One scientist] and others foresaw an unhappy population trapped indoors for months,” the article notes, “with the most vulnerable possibly quarantined for far longer.”

Meanwhile, there’s a case for saying that this article by the New Scientist journalist Debora Mackenzie, and published on 29 January 2020, was the first mainstream report to claim that Covid-19 would create a pandemic. Her book COVID-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One lays out the red flags that governments ought to have listened to sooner. 

But Mackenzie ends her book on a positive note, or at least with a way forward: “Crisis can be an opportunity…. We desperately need to redesign the systems that failed to contain this pandemic if we are to, with luck, prevent or at least contain the next one.”