The pandemic becomes real: growing awareness that Covid is serious

In this section we explore how people came to understand that the Covid-19 pandemic needed to be taken seriously. A range of things influenced how people we spoke to started to see the pandemic as a growing concern. These included:

  • Awareness of the outbreaks of Covid-19 in Europe
  • Travelling abroad and seeing restrictions elsewhere
  • Becoming aware that other people were changing their behaviours
  • Seeing the daily news reports of hospitalisations and deaths
  • Illness and deaths among friends and family and people we knew

Seeing films from Italy on the news made Jessica realise that the pandemic was now just down the road.

Although some people became aware of Covid-19 in January or February 2020, most said they had tried to stay calm and carry on with life as normal. They hoped that this new virus would not become a major problem in the UK. Some people we spoke to said they weren’t sure if Covid was ‘real’ at that point in time. Some tried to persuade themselves that it would be just like flu, or that it would somehow be prevented from reaching this country. Paul remembered the Prime Minister at the time, Boris Johnson, being filmed on a hospital visit shaking hands with people at a point when many were being cautious about physical contact.

People working in the health and social care sectors remembered that there had been several pandemic alarms in recent years. They mentioned that the health service had started to prepare responses for Ebola, SARS and MERS, which had all been contained. They hoped and expected that Covid-19 would be the same (see The early days of the Pandemic). As the situation began to change in early 2020, the possibility of a pandemic that affected the UK became more real to people we spoke to.

Awareness of the outbreaks of Covid 19 in Europe

Growing awareness that Covid-19 outbreaks were moving their way around the world, particularly once they arrived in Europe, had a strong impact on some people’s views about the virus. In February 2020 news and social media covered the outbreak of Covid in the Italian region of Lombardy. The distress of health care workers and citizens in a wealthy region of another European country, with a good healthcare system, was a wakeup call to many of those who saw this coverage.

Emdad had heard reports from China on the news. He became more worried when the government introduced the first lockdowns.

Pooja realised that when it got to France and Italy it was definitely coming to the UK.

Travelling abroad and seeing restrictions elsewhere

Those who were travelling for holidays, work or family reasons in the first months of 2020 remembered becoming aware that some other countries seemed to be taking the threat much more seriously, with mask wearing and temperature checks at transit hubs, like airports. Gwilym was on a cruise when ports in the West Indies started shutting to cruise ships. Some travellers were shocked to realise that when they arrived back in the UK, there had been no checks at the airport.

Becoming aware that other people were changing their behaviours

It became noticeable that people’s behaviour was changing, especially by early March 2020. Samena arrived back in the UK a couple of days before the lockdown and found that supermarket shelves were empty. Instead of reconnecting with family, she had to stay home.

Behaviour in public also changed. Nargis remembered that it became scary to be around people who were coughing. Some people, like Irene, had a growing sense that the UK government might not be doing enough. She became aware that people were making their own decisions to limit their risk of exposure.

A conversation with someone on the street made Cat wonder whether she was safe being close to other people.

To celebrate her daughter’s birthday in early March, Irene went to a London shopping centre which was very quiet.

Seeing the daily news reports of hospitalisations and deaths

Throughout spring 2020 there were daily news reports of how many people were in hospital with Covid, and how many had died. For some people we spoke to this convinced them that the pandemic was real and that they needed to take precautions.

Sarita recalled the point in Spring 2020 when there was a big increase in deaths. Kashif commented that ‘slowly, slowly’ they started to hear about people they knew dying. For some it was hearing that young healthy people could die from Covid that shifted their thinking, as well as the very old and those with underlying health conditions.

People who worked in health or social care or who had reasons to visit a hospital during the Spring of 2020 could see the impact on services and how cautious and fearful staff were.

Matthew attended a clinic with Covid symptoms and felt that how the staff responded was ‘like a movie’.

Illness and deaths among acquaintances, friends and family

Even for those who were initially unsure or, like Nargis, found the idea of a global pandemic a bit ‘hard to believe in this day and age’, it was hard to ignore it when Covid affected family, friends and colleagues. Fahmida became fearful when her son’s teacher was hospitalised with Covid. For Abdul it was the proximity in his family that made it real. As Haliza said ‘you can read about it but when it’s someone you know, it becomes real’.

Gulsoom found out through social media that a relative had died from Covid in April 2020.

There were also many social media links circulating which caused confusion about the reality of the pandemic. People we spoke to were more likely to trust information someone from their own community, or a combination of statistics and personal stories.

Ayny received a social media link to a video made by a Muslim doctor that convinced her Covid is serious.

Some, like Samena, had got through 2020 without loss but experienced deaths among friends and family in 2021. Everyone who we talked to for this project had caught Covid-19, which provided them with the final proof that the virus was real and convinced them that anyone could be affected.

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