Novelist and junior doctor Roopa Farooki is thinking back to the strange atmosphere in those first fearful days of the pandemic, almost two years ago. “Do you remember how you’d walk out on a bright spring day and feel that there was something quite sinister in the sunshine?” she asks me, after another long shift at the English hospital in which she works.
One of the answers to her question might be: “I’m trying not to.” Perhaps necessarily, it’s been all too easy for some to forget how traumatic, difficult and anxious the first months of Covid-19, unchecked by medication or vaccines, really were. It’s only been two years, but it already feels like we might need the kind of honest, unvarnished account of the pandemic which is described in the pages of Farooki’s powerful new memoir Everything is True: A Junior Doctor's Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic.
“I feared that if I didn’t write and record the pandemic in some way that it might be forgotten, that the mistakes might be repeated,” she says. “Looking back now, I actually feel quite bitter about how little things have changed.”
Farooki, born in Lahore in 1974 and perhaps most well known for the Women’s Prize for Fiction-nominated novel The Flying Man, trained to become a junior doctor in her thirties – something she’d always wanted to do. She was on the acute medical ward in an accident and emergency department as the first Covid cases came in, and initially, she writes, was on the frontline without really realising it. “You don’t think of the virus as swimming about the people around you.”
Partly, that was because Farooki was processing – and writing about – the loss of her sister to cancer.
“And then, the pandemic came like a flood, and I realised that my grief was submerged in everyone’s communal fearfulness and grief,” she explains. “It became clear that it wasn’t just us trying to protect our patients, it was about protecting ourselves – and how we actually didn't have the means to do that then. We were trying to bat this virus away with open hands.
“So I started writing the book for my sister. And then I carried on writing it when the pandemic was happening because I felt this kind of duty… I know it sounds egotistical, but perhaps I was being some sort of scribe for my colleagues – and patients.”
Her perspective is often terrifying, both personally and politically. There is never enough PPE. She likens being on the ward to soaking the virus up in her hair like a sponge, waiting for the inevitable infection. Meanwhile, too many doctors from her background begin to die. It’s often said that in times of crisis, people find refuge and catharsis in writing, but Farooki found the process quite painful, having gone through a horrible day of death and anxiety in the hospital, she felt she was “rubbing salt in the wound, ripping off the plaster just when you start to heal”.
You can sense that rawness in the writing; its fragmentary bursts of hospital experiences for the first 40 days of lockdown in the UK melding with imagined interactions with her sister and very real depictions of home life. Farooki calls Everything Is True artless, and while it doesn’t have the poetic craft of her novels, she is being disingenuous. These snippets acquire a great power in their insight and honesty, their fury and their heartbreaking stoicism as she watches yet another person die without their family at their side.
There’s black humour, too. When Farooki tells her children she doesn’t want a particular person speaking at her funeral, they casually ask for a list. In that sense, Everything Is True is also an incredible account of the stresses every family experienced in that moment. Her relationship with her husband is put under huge strain; he accuses her of being selfish for putting her family at risk by potentially bringing the virus home. Her children ask why she can’t just be a "normal" mother again and go back to being a full-time author. Or just ring in sick. She cries.
None of this is meant to demonise her family, not least because Farooki realises that her husband might be right. The line between selflessness and selfishness is narrow.
“There is a weird egotism in being needed, in that sense of sacrifice,” she admits. “My sister would have said it was incredibly foolish to go into a hospital where there is definitely a virus from which people of my kind of demographic are dying. But you felt you had to, that you were doing an important job.”
And for all the people calling doctors and nurses heroes – which of course they were and are – it’s telling that Farooki never felt it was the right term. “We weren’t high-fiving each other at the lives we’d saved at the end of each shift, like some television A&E drama. It was fearful, we were working through our flaws, failings and aware of our fragility. But we still did it and there was a collegiate strength to that.
"At the same time, it did hit hard that while we were doing so much good in the hospital, we were shortchanging our families. Maybe it was a gender thing, but the women I was working with all felt very guilty about being on shift.”
As we speak over the phone, there is yet another revelation in the UK about the Downing Street lockdown parties, or should we say “work events”. Meanwhile, Farooki is “absolutely shattered”, her hospital is dealing with over 200 Covid-19 admissions. “I try not to sound too judgemental,” she says, “but it’s normally quite young people, who haven’t been vaccinated.”
In the book, Farooki is unsparing in her criticism of the decisions made two years ago, and nothing has changed since to alter her view that some kind of accountability needs to emerge. Perhaps that could be the function of this book.
“You know, I wasn’t alone in these thoughts. Everyone felt that way. I haven’t sugarcoated or polished; my book will stand alongside others – probably more eloquently written – in sharing our experiences of what was happening.
“I think one thing the pandemic really showed us is that the important people in our society aren’t the career politicians, but the people who care for our relatives, who teach our children, who deliver and provide our food. Nurturing us and nourishing us.”
Everything Is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic (Bloomsbury) is out now