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A&E During a Pandemic: the Ultimate Equaliser of Rage and Despair

Everyone is here. There is an elderly gentleman, sitting resolutely without electric distractions and silently wishing he had a tablet to while away his sentence. Next to him sits a young Muslim couple, sharing TikToks and memes as they alternate glances at the clock. Opposite sits a mum and her young daughter, who she is desperately trying to keep entertained with a handbag full of tricks. 

A moody teenager sits hunched over his phone refusing to meet anyone’s eye while his chatty mother makes friends with the other despairing parents. Then there is a young man, reading a book with the ferocious concentration of a university professor.

And lastly, there’s me, hunched over an overheated laptop on 8% battery, trying to squeeze in some work in between waiting rooms with an eight-hour wait time looming overhead. 

Accident and emergency is the cornerstone of our public health system. The doors welcome everyone with patience and understanding, albeit tinged with frustration as understaffing and underfunding take their toll on each 24-hour cycle of care. 

Having first developed a chronic illness aged 7, and possessing zero spatial awareness, I have spent countless hours camped out in A&E departments all over the country with various ailments and injuries. My experiences are varied–some good, a few frustrating, others traumatizing–but I’ve always found them to be fascinating places. A&Es are the epicentre of a community. Through emergency visits and referrals, they accidentally create a polling group that perfectly reflects a cross-section of society in one average-sized room. 

Emotions in A&E ebb and flow with swells of anger, irritation, understanding and empathy. That’s the nature of hospitals, and especially A&E departments, the tension is constantly threatening to overspill into miniature explosions of righteous anger or joyous relief. 

But this time felt different. I sat in four different waiting areas for nine hours and it was a new world. I have not visited A&E since the pandemic began, so the impact of years of understaffing, managing a pandemic’s fallout and a weakened economy felt stronger than ever. 

The anger was palpable in a way that I’d never experienced. Every person in the waiting room was bubbling with it. Patients who arrived calm and braced for a wait unravelled into bursts of rage, parents fearful for their children’s health became aggressive and even I–an A&E veteran–felt my irritation evolve into resentment as each hour passed without a glimpse of healthcare. 

Despite the variances in how people’s anger exploded into the room, or the many consultancy rooms spiralling off the central waiting area, there was one common sentiment: those in power are to blame. 

The NHS has been contending with funding shortages for almost a decade and, even though the Conservative government pledged to add an additional £20bn in funding over five years in 2018, there just isn’t enough money to match the rising demand for its services. Paired with a crisis in staff recruitment and nearly half of the staff acknowledging that underfunding prevents them from doing their job effectively, the NHS is hanging on by the fingertips of its dedicated workforce. 

The impact on the average person visiting A&E is significant but the effects on disabled and chronically ill communities are being vastly underrepresented. Disabled people have been left on endless waiting lists for care during the pandemic and dismissed as “acceptable losses”.

Additionally, vulnerable people are avoiding A&E treatment in fear of catching coronavirus or being stuck in waiting rooms for entire days.

I lost an entire day’s work and a lot of money–sick pay is a luxury most freelancers do not have–and it took days to recover from the physical and mental stress of the full day excursion in pursuit of emergency healthcare. Looking around a room filled to the brim with infuriated people from all classes, races, gender identities, sexual orientations and disabilities, all I could think was: we’re finished. 

The NHS isn’t “on its knees” anymore, it’s face down in the ocean using a straw as a snorkel, begging for help as it drowns amongst all the patients in need pulling the institution beneath the surface–and disabled people are going to be the first to sink. 

Our country’s proudest institution is dying a slow and painful death. If you don’t believe me, take notes next time you visit A&E. There you will find some of the hardest working people alive, treating patients with expert knowledge, patience and kindness, all while being crushed under the pressure of a failing system.

Alongside them, you will find people struggling to secure the care they desperately need and losing faith in an institution designed to protect our wellbeing. 

Like many other countries in the world, the UK has been plagued by division in recent years–thanks to Brexit, Trump, Boris and so much more–but A&E is our truest equaliser.

Anyone unable to pay for private healthcare relies on the NHS for treatment, particularly emergent care, but few are getting the quality of care they deserve.

Instead of being a micro-community of mutual understanding, this ultimate equaliser is revealing equality of rage and despair. 

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