all Essays

Why now, More Than Ever, we Need to Reclaim Rest as a Political act

“Convalescence needs time, and the value we place on that ultimately comes down to what our politicians will support,” writes Dr Gavin Francis in his new book, Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence. I’m reading his book in the yellow armchair in my office, one of two armchairs that have become the centre of my world since I contracted M.E. six years ago – a post-viral illness that left me housebound. 

Rest and convalescence both seem like old words, belonging to by-gone eras. But their value, both as tools of recovery and an acknowledgment of our fundamental humanity, has never been more important than it is today. 

In 2015, when a virus first laid me low, I had no idea that trying to push through my symptoms would leave me permanently disabled. But this is now the reality facing millions of people struggling to recover from Covid, with similarly little support. 

Viruses are strange illnesses. They resist the application of effort with almost gleeful defiance. Whilst rehabilitation from an injury necessitates exercise, one of the worst things a viral patient can do is to deny their body the chance to rest, and a 2019 medical report into M.E. makes this case explicitly:

“Patients who are given a period of enforced rest from the onset have the best prognosis. Moreover, those who work or go back to work should not be forced to do more than they can.” 

It’s negligent in the extreme, then, that both the UK government and the CDC in the US, have cut the isolation period following Covid infection to a paltry five days

While this is egregiously irresponsible from an infectious-diseases standpoint, it’s also dangerous in another, far more insidious way. By cutting the mandated isolation period, politicians have also cut down the time in which workers are able to take a moment for their own recovery, with potentially disastrous repercussions.

In the UK today, an estimated 1.3 million people are living with some form of persistent symptoms following infection with Covid-19. These symptoms can range from fatigue and shortness of breath, to extensive cognitive and neurological problems. 

Crucially, many Long Covid patients will also meet the criteria for M.E., a post-viral syndrome that leaves 25% of its sufferers housebound or bedbound, and 75% unable to work. With this in mind, restricting worker’s recovery time is nothing short of criminal. 

Over the last two decades under austerity, worker’s wages have shrunk, housing and rent costs have soared, and unstable 0-hours contracts have been introduced, alongside drastic cuts to all areas of welfare. Consequently, rest, for most people, has become almost impossible without inviting poverty in through the back door. 

The sad result of this social precarity, is that rest as a concept has been demonised. Indeed, the “hustle” culture engendered by long-term austerity has left us with a collective fear of being thought of as lazy. Meanwhile, the pandemic has widened the gap between rich and poor like never before, forcing ever more members of our society towards the thin end of the wedge. 

Unfortunately, once they get there, there are now precious few resources available should they also become sick.

“In the UK, we’ve halved the number [of hospital beds] available since 1988, from 300,000 to 150,000,” writes Dr Francis. “It’s not possible for me now, as a GP, to admit [a patient] somewhere safe for nursing care and convalescence alone – the hospital gates don’t open unless there’s a medical diagnosis, and a plan in place that prioritises getting the patient out again as soon as possible.”

As Dr Francis notes, the act of resting isn’t as simple as just deciding to take a break. If there aren’t any social supports in place to facilitate it, then convalescence is an impossible aim.

Most workers – particularly those on low-incomes and from younger generations – are now working harder than ever, for far less than previous generations received. At the same time, a comfortable political class continues to exalt the values of hard work and resilience, whilst stripping away the social systems that might allow workers to protect themselves from sickness and poverty.  

With this in mind, isn’t it about time we changed the narrative?

We are living in the midst of a mass disabling event, and despite what philosophers may say, our bodies are animals, not machines. They cannot be run to exhaustion and then hastily patched up with extra-strength doses of Vitamin C and turmeric. Resilience can’t save someone from sickness, and when a body breaks, there’s no guarantee that it will return to “normal” again.

Rest, in the face of a society that tries to work you to your breaking point, is an act of resistance. It is a reclamation of power, a means of personal nourishment, and a powerful commitment to personhood. In the middle of a pandemic, it may also be the difference between a simple recovery, and a lifetime of disability. 

Now, more than ever, we need to reclaim rest as a political act, which is less of an individual issue than it is a societal one. It isn’t simply enough to encourage each other to take a break. 

We need to fight harder for the social structures that would allow everyone the opportunity to convalesce. If our politicians don’t support the systems that make this possible, then our society is just as likely to suffer as we are.

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2 replies on “Why now, More Than Ever, we Need to Reclaim Rest as a Political act”

Brilliant piece of writing Laura, well done. This speaks so eloquently to the key point the MSM & our woeful govt keep ignoring “Resilience can’t save someone from sickness, and when a body breaks, there’s no guarantee that it will return to “normal” again”. That 1.3M is going to keep going up, especially as the plan now seems to be to let covid run rife.

I feel so incredibly sorry for every single person who is currently blithely bumbling through life with no idea of the devastating impact a post-viral illness will have on them – it’s a life changing, mind-bending, slowly exploding bomb that rips through every aspect of the life you felt was built on solid ground & blows it to unrecognisable pieces.

I wish there was some way of getting this through to muggles – you won’t necessarily ‘just’ get covid & recover.

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