I feel compelled to write to you personally to share my experience of the first wave of COVID, working for a HE institution. I am a UCU member and Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University. I am writing in response to the current clamour to return to on-site teaching, in the hope that sharing this experience might help to bring home the gravity of what a second wave might cause and aggravate. The minimal discussions that my subject-group have been able to have over the summer period, have demonstrated to me that many of my colleagues have not had first-hand experience of the reality of what a serious contraction of this illness can cause. Because I, unfortunately, have had that experience, I thought that my experiences might be of some interest to other HE professionals weighing up the risks of their face-to-face teaching responsibilities.
In March this year my partner and I became ill, before the UK lockdown began, with symptoms closely matching what was then known about the Covid-19 virus. We followed the UK Government’s advice to self-isolate. At the time, we lived in separate accommodation, and isolated apart. Whilst my symptoms remained relatively mild, over the course of the next 8 days my partner’s worsened to some extreme. Following guidance from the ‘111 Helpline’ she remained at home, even when her fever spiked at 41 degrees – putting her at risk of cardiac arrest and brain damage. When, on the eighth day of her illness, an ambulance was finally called, she was barely conscious. My partner is 31 years old, with no underlying health issues.
In hospital she received a positive diagnosis for the virus, and her lung scans revealed a severe 99% coverage in pneumonia infection in both lungs. She could not breath without an oxygen mask, and her temperature continued to peak at 41 degrees for the next 7 days. I was in near constant contact with her via phone and text message – with every break in communication in this period came overwhelming dread that the previous message had been our last. (She was, by this stage, unable to talk on the phone.) Only by what one of the doctors described as “the toss of a coin” did she avoid being put on a ventilator – a decision which almost certainly saved her life. It took 7 days in hospital for her condition to stabilise, and when she was discharged a further 8 days later she required the use of a wheelchair, with her lung capacity little above 30%. Her physical rehabilitation is ongoing, and the experience of spending over two weeks in the ICU has probably caused permanent psychological damage.
In this time, I could not go to the hospital to see her, or bring anything to her. I had no other means of communication about her condition than the things she was able to tell me. She was on high levels of morphine to mitigate the severe chest-pains, and remained so as an outpatient for some time. Her final week in the ICU was spent in total isolation, with minimal check-in from a strained medical team attempting to save the lives of tens of other patients. We have their hard work to thank that she is alive and recovering today.
We are lucky, I know that. And the current pressure for HE educators to come back onto campus to deliver teaching that could be delivered online is shameful. We risk not only the health of our colleagues and students, but the wider public's too, by inviting and encouraging students onto our campuses. This is an unnecessary risk to a huge proportion of the population, and colleagues (be they UCU members or not) should be reminded of the real risks to their health, not to mention their loved ones and the wider public.
The push and pull conversations between onsite and remote delivery seem to forget the seriousness of this virus. I ask for the statement to be made anonymous because my current teaching workload and provision method are still under negotiation, and I genuinely fear being found in breach of contract if the UK Government does not follow the advice of the SAGE advisory report. This is a position that I (and other colleagues) who deliver teaching material which does not require lab- or practice-based teaching, should never have been put in. The risks are too great, and the gains so small. Media coverage of the cost to “student experience” are wholly misguided while there remains a certain risk to so many.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and for UCU's firm stance. I felt compelled to reach out personally because what we have endured seems so easily forgotten and ignored for those, thus far, unaffected