reports and opinions

Being “Extremely Vulnerable” During a Pandemic

By Adefela Olowoselu

I’ve had an autoimmune disease for 9 years, making me immunocompromised curing the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s affecting me more than I’d like to admit and bringing back pain that I’ve moved past.

The world has not seen a pandemic this large since the influenza A(H1N1) outbreak of 1918-1919, over 100 years ago. Since then there have been a few reappearances of that virus, but never on the same scale as during the early 20th century, or what we are experiencing now.

Although people with underlying health conditions are the least likely to experience a smooth recovery from coronavirus, it is not only them that may have a fatal experience of it. Many people have passed away after contracting the virus, despite having no known underlying health conditions.

Hearing news like this sparks fear and anxiety across the world as it reveals how non-discriminatory coronavirus truly is – no one is completely safe from it.

I relate to this fear personally. I was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Ulcerative Colitis (UC) in April 2011 and I have been taking daily immunosuppressants since that date. It is a chronic illness. Needless to say, my immune system is intentionally dampened down with medication to reduce its overactivity in my large intestine and colon as this is what caused my UC.

I have been aware of my vulnerability to the common cold or flu since then, and I’m precautious with where I expose myself to, taking measures to avoid getting as sick as easily as I can. But over time, I have had increasingly fewer UC relapses, or what we refer to as flare-ups. This leads to me sometimes being careless with my health and not doing what is best for someone with this disease, because I don’t feel ill. I have learnt to live with UC in the back of my mind, yet in such a way that I don’t allow it to negatively impact my daily living.

However, it didn’t take long for me to realise I was immunocompromised when I heard about coronavirus. I knew that I was particularly exposed because of the state of my immune system from my medications. I held this in mind but I still had a life to live – lectures, travelling around London, seeing friends, etc.

Until, on March 16th, lectures were cancelled. ‘Okay.’ I thought. ‘This is serious. I’ll just be extra careful.’ However a few days later, social distancing and self-isolation became household terms. I told myself, ‘That means I have to see my friends less. Especially me.’ Processing that was hard; I already lived with 6 of my friends in a flat on campus.

Then things moved even faster. Less than two weeks after lectures were cancelled, my mum picked me up from Uni in a hurry because the Prime Minister was due to announce within the next 24 hours that would restrict travel and non-essential movement outside of your house.

That evening, on March 23rd, I received a text from the NHS beginning with, ‘NHS Coronavirus Service: We have identified that you’re someone at risk of severe illness if you catch Coronavirus. Please remain at home for a minimum of 12 weeks. Home is the safest place for you…’  The message went on to say that I can open a window but to simply remain inside, three steps away from everyone in the house.

The next day, another text advised me to sleep separately from others, keep away from children, eat separately with my cutlery and use a separate dishcloth and towel. Use a separate bathroom if I can and if I live alone (which I do not), tell a family member or friend that I am self-isolating.

On Wednesday, another text provided advice on how to keep moving to stay healthy with stretches, walking around inside and cooking; ‘…sit and look out into the world where you can, or get out into the garden or sit on your doorstep if you can.’

Of course, I am grateful for the instant help and advice that the text messages gave me. And I am taking it on board. But it remains a trying time for my body and mental health – there is a lot of substitution going on. Instead of seeing my friends face to face like I did most days this academic year, I’m texting and FaceTiming them. Rather than going to the gym 3-4 mornings a week to start me off right, I’m doing home workouts. Instead of going out to do things I enjoy, I’m finding recreation within the walls of my home.

Regardless of my level of health, this is what most people are doing, just with less extremity. However, although I am appreciative of the option to substitute, I can’t help but feel like I’m receding into reality, which is the fact that I am chronically ill. I am learning that this means that even when I feel fine, whatever is going on inside me means that I am not fine, and therefore I need extra protection. It is harder to accept that you are physically ill when you cannot see it. But this pandemic is reminding me of that.

I feel as incapable as I did whenever I was admitted to the hospital or recovering from a relapse. But help from the NHS is letting me know that my pain is acknowledged and understood, even if that means I won’t be able to move any more than I am now after the current government-instructed three-week lockdown. Also, I am among the 1.5 million other vulnerable people that received the text.

It is difficult to maintain mental clarity at this time, but I still need to do everything in my power to not let this situation affect me. I believe that I’ll only come out with a greater appreciation for my own definition of good health, and never take my own for granted again.

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