The BBC almost certainly didn’t set out to make a documentary about Jewish people affected by COVID-19. But by picking the Royal Free Hospital and Barnet Hospital as the focus for Hospital Special: Fighting Covid-19, it felt as though it had. While the struggle against this terrible disease goes on worldwide, for two nights we saw up close our own people as patients, medics, relatives and administrators.
There was Peter, struggling to breathe at the Royal Free, preparing for death with fortitude, helped by music and happy memories. On her doorstep his daughter showed us pictures of her father as a baby in Nazi Germany. He cheated death then, when his parents brought him to England in 1932. Now it seemed he would die of a disease the medics had never seen before. “It’s tough nuts,” said Peter, of catching coronavirus from a dinner party guest; “It’s really frightening and awful,” said Lisa of the prospect of her father dying all alone.
For Peter, there was a miracle. Just as the doctors feared the worst, the ghastly shadow clogging his lungs dispersed, and he was able to set aside the mask that had pumped thousands of cubic litres of oxygen into him and go home to his wife, looking forward to celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary in July.
But there was no such luck for poor, brave, devout Stanley, at Barnet hospital, prayer books at his side, oxygen levels dropping to the point where he had to be taken to Intensive Care, where 50 percent of patients die. “I hope God has the right plan for him,” said his wife Sonia, but alas Stanley did not survive. His daughters had recorded messages and prayers for him, and the family was left with the hope that these had given him some last comfort.
For all the families featured in these remarkable programmes, the pain of isolation added to their anguish. At Barnet, Eli and Jacob, nephews of Charles, sobbed out their horror that their uncle might die alone. Patiently, consultant David Levy explained why taking him home would prolong his suffering, against all their instincts, the family agreed. Charles died in hospital.
The trauma of families, the heroism of doctors, these stories are played out on the news every night. What we hadn’t seen much of so far are the decisions faced by administrators, the often maligned managers who make sure there are enough beds, enough oxygen, enough staff, even enough body bags and space in the mortuary.
All of these problems and countless others landed on the desk of Rachel Anticoni, Director of Operations for the Royal Free Trust, someone with so much responsibility and so much to do, that the BBC could only interview her by trotting in her wake as she rushed from meeting to meeting. “This is not even the start of it,” she warned, as the Royal Free filled up and areas full of other sick people began to be cleared to make more space for intensive care. Later, as numbers rose even further, she observed “It’s like building a plane while we’re still in the air.”
I thought my life was stressful before I saw Anticoni in action, I can’t have been the only viewer who recalibrated my expectations and felt utterly chastened as I watched her take in impossible numbers, impossible situations and deal with them again and again and again. “I haven’t had a chance to reflect,” she said at one point, I just hope she has had time to eat and sleep.
Right at the end she talked about her time working in war zones, and how it could take years to learn the lessons from those times. And it was far too soon to think about celebrating the end of coronavirus, because we have no idea when, or if, it would. By this time, I’d guess many viewers were in floods. Not Anticoni. She fixed the camera with a steady gaze, and got ready to do her job again and again and again.