Impact of ‘Covid-19 tsunami' will never go away

John Wright's diary logging the effects of the virus on his community is steadily expanding

BRADFORD, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 16: A general view of the Scholemoor Cemetery and Crematorium on November 16, 2020 in Bradford, England. In an essay for the BBC this weekend, Dr John Wright of Bradford Royal Infirmary reported how Bradford's main Muslim cemetery has been struggling to keep up with burials amid the country's second wave of covid-19 infections. However he cautioned that "it will take some medical detective work to determine the cause of this increase in deaths." (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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It is two years since life in the UK was turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic and a frontline medic decided to keep a dedicated record of the toll it wrought on the diverse populated he serves.

Back then it was pretty unthinkable that Covid-19 would still be raging by the summer, or another two winters, yet the situation in the UK, as daily case numbers surpass 100,000, is getting worse by the day.

In England, it was hard to imagine how severe the virus would prove. The initial camaraderie and wartime spirit became dampened as the true scale and impact of Covid-19 was realised.

Dr John Wright works in Bradford, West Yorkshire, an area of northern England particularly hard hit by the virus because of deprivation and a high proportion of people from ethnic minorities. Many of the patients he saw came from families that were more susceptible and at greater risk of death from the disease.

The scenes of heartbreak at mortuaries and cemeteries, the spiralling death tolls and the tragic stories of whole families being affected were revealed in regular diaries published by Dr Wright.

Cemeteries and mortuaries overflowing

“The full cemeteries in Bradford were a tragic illustration of the pandemic. The figures shown on the news daily somehow seemed divorced from the reality of what was happening, but the cemeteries overflowing really brought it home.

“We saw people dying in the hospitals but seeing the mortuaries and cemeteries being overwhelmed brought the wider picture of Covid to reality. With the vaccines the cemeteries are coping now. Deaths are rarer and many are those who have not been vaccinated.”

He exposed the grim reality of Covid-19 that he and his colleagues across the country were facing on a daily basis.

“I gave a local perspective on what was happening in Bradford but it was a good barometer for the nation on how poor, deprived areas with ethnic communities were being the worst affected by it,” he told The National.

Dr Wright’s stories of tragedy highlighted the plight of staff and patients on the country’s wards.

Although nothing could prepare them for what was coming, he recalls the moment two years ago when he knew life was going to change.

“The key moment for me was the preparation we were doing in January and February, it was the anticipation of what was coming,” he said.

“As doctors, we could see how it was affecting Italy, Spain and China. I remember the pre-pandemic fear before we went into lockdown.

“There was great camaraderie at first and then a fatigue before we went into second and then third lockdowns. That was followed by the new wave last November into January, and this year’s quiet summer before the unprecedented rise of Omicron.

Yorkshireman Dr John Wright has run a weekly blog during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

In one instance, Dr Wright wrote about how a Muslim funeral held at Bradford’s Grand Mosque for former Burma soldier Noor Hussain, before the implementation of the first national lockdown in March 2020, led to a mass outbreak of Covid-19.

It led to his son, Mohammed Hussain, 51, a criminal lawyer from Bradford, falling into a coma for five weeks.

He was one of Dr Wright’s success stories but, sadly, eight other family members were admitted to hospital and three died.

“He was unconscious for five weeks and was very disconcerted when he woke up in what looked like a science fiction film with everybody wearing visors and masks and gowns – he couldn't remember how he got there,” Dr Wright wrote in his diary.

“He had entirely missed the month of April.”

Muslim bodybuilder spent almost 50 days in a coma

More tragic stories followed, but many were tales of hope, including the case of Muslim bodybuilder and taxi driver Mohammed Azeem.

The 35-year-old spent 48 days in a coma, 68 in hospital and nearly died.

During his time in a coma his mother also contracted Covid-19 and did not survive.

Mohammed Azeem almost lost his life to coronavirus after 68 days in hospital. He woke from a coma to discover that his mother had died. Photo: John Wright

Mosques helped ease vaccine hesitancy among ethnic minorities

Dr Wright has been at the forefront of highlighting the importance of vaccines and wrote about Bradford’s mosques and community leaders setting an example.

He says the biggest challenge is the vaccine drive.

“We are rapidly building a seawall, every second counts, as we watch the waves of Omicron crash over us,” he said.

“It is a race against time for us to get people for their boosters as Omicron surges as we try and vaccinate as many people as we can. The challenge for us is still vaccine hesitancy.

“We were one of the first areas to describe this. Back when we started the vaccines it was a new thing and people were scared, it's now no longer the issue, it is now young people who are being complacent. They feel they are immune and don’t care, but they are risking their parents and grandparents.

Masud Ahmad, 79, receives an injection of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine at the Al Abbas Mosque, Birmingham, which is being used as a covid vaccination centre. Picture date: Thursday January 21, 2021. (Photo by Jacob King/PA Images via Getty Images)

“The misinformation spreading in ethnic minority communities is very powerful. We have seen this in Bradford and it is a real challenge. We have been working hard to address this with community leaders and mosques helping us, acting as role models.

“But it is a race against time, the seawall versus the tsunami. We have to hope our vaccines and herd immunity give us extra protection.”

'Covid-19 is never going away'

Dr Wright is continuing to raise awareness but says Covid is here to stay.

“Some people suggest we could be a zero-Covid country, like New Zealand, but the world is not a remote island and this is something we have to live with,” he said.

“It is a wizard virus and it keeps bringing new tricks from up its sleeve.”

As new variants appear, Bradford continues to lead the way in new initiatives to help fight it.

In the latest move it become the first city to open a vaccine clinic in an Asian restaurant.

“The Bradford community has really come together to help find new ways to deliver the vaccine,” Dr Wright said.

“We all now have to try and get through this next phase. I have been asked when the pandemic will be over, but sadly I’d say never, I don’t think it ever will.”

Updated: December 31, 2021, 5:52 AM