By Hadley Stewart - @wordsbyhadley

Key workers have always been there, but the coronavirus pandemic has brought them to the forefront of our minds. Their faces have become the new models on the cover of glossy magazines, their daily struggle has united the nation in weekly applause, and their deaths reminded us all that even these modern-day heroes aren’t immune from this virus. During this time of hardship, LGBTQ+ people have played their role in keeping their country going. Speaking to FS magazine, they told us about how the pandemic has impacted on their work, life, and the public’s perception of their professions.

Balancing personal fears and patient care

Shoaib witnessed the onset of the pandemic from his hospital’s front door. As a doctor in Accident and Emergency (A&E), he treated patients with the coronavirus, many of which were critically unwell. “As a result, the emotional and physical labour of my role as a doctor has intensified substantially,” says Shoaib. “While the pandemic reduced the volume of patients coming to A&E seeking medical attention, the patients we are seeing are much sicker and often critically ill.” Although A&E has always been a stressful environment to work in, the pandemic has put the emotional resilience of healthcare professionals to the test. “It’s been difficult looking after extremely unwell patients, while often feeling quite helpless in the face of this global health crisis,” admits Shoaib. “And knowing that so many of them will not survive despite our best efforts.”

Wearing protective personal equipment (PPE) meant that communicating with his patients and their relatives was more challenging. “Speaking to patient and family members through marks, visors and video calls has felt incredibly impersonal and dehumanising, especially given the seriousness of the conversations we are having,” he says. But despite using PPE, Shoaib says he has been battling his own fears of becoming unwell. “With limited PPE and limited access to testing, many frontline staff including myself feel extremely vulnerable to becoming sick,” he says. “All the while, we’re having to put on a brave face in-front of our patients and continue to provide the best care possible.” And it’s not just his own health that concerns him, Shoaib says he is also anxious about inadvertently passing on the virus to fellow colleagues, patients, and his flatmates.

Outside of the hospital, there hasn’t always been the possibility to unwind. “It has been difficult coping with lockdown restrictions,” says Shoaib, who usually sees his family and friends to overcome the stress from work. “I also spend a lot of my free time visiting art galleries and going to the theatre,” he adds. “Therefore, as a result of lockdown, most my coping mechanisms are no longer possible.” He is now looking at finding new outlets and hobbies, but admits that it hasn’t always been easy to find coping mechanisms.
Although Shoaib feels that the public appreciation for NHS staff has made him feel more valued, he is divided when it comes to ‘clap for carers’. “While I appreciate the new-found public support, the fact is all key workers, not just carers, have always worked hard to provide the essential services that we rely on so heavily, with very little appreciation or compensation,” he argues, viewing the gesture as “rather tokenistic.” How does he think we should be spending our time then? “Be critical of and hold accountable, those individuals and organisations that have and continue to under pay and undervalue hard working people, and systematically underfund and understaff essential services like the NHS.”

Blurring the boundaries between work and home

The criminal justice system is also going through a period of change due to the pandemic. Probation officer Gary says that technology is allowing him and his colleagues to continue working whilst the courts are closed. “My role has also embraced technology, so I am interviewing people by Skype and WhatsApp,” he explains. And it’s not just clients that he is unable to see. “I rarely see my colleagues, although we talk via Skype and Teams. It’s been amazing to see how quickly technology has been adapted and adopted by everyone.”
Whilst Gary has been able to use technology to bridge the physical divide between his home and work, this new way of working has also come with some challenges. “It’s easy to forget how many professional discussions take place informally, and how much you pick up from hearing other people’s discussions,” he explains. “I now pick up the phone and call a colleague. It’s not quite the same, but it is good enough.”

There have also been emotional challenges due to the nature of his work. “It’s important to keep that separation between work and home, and that boundary is really blurred at this time,” he explains. “Some of the reports that I have written have been about very serious and unpleasant offences. I don’t like doing the thinking and writing about such offences in my home.” Without the physical separation between work and home, Gary has had to be somewhat creative with marking out his own boundaries. “I have therefore had to be very strict about how I work,” he continues. “If I’m sat at my work laptop, I am in my work bubble. If I get up from my laptop, I’m at home. So I won’t go and sit on the sofa and think about work.”

Having recently moved to Manchester, Gary is also missing the opportunity to explore his new neighbourhood. Despite putting aside plans with family and friends, he does think that the public protection of those working in the public sector has changed. “Although how long that will last I don’t know,” he adds.

Learning under lockdown

Last year, Sarah embarked on a new adventure across the Atlantic, landing in New York City. But just months into her new teaching job, the city would find itself as the new epicentre for the coronavirus pandemic, with an alarming number of people dying from the virus. Sarah’s school closed ahead of the official lockdown, with all lessons being taught online. “It’s something which I've never done before, as a teacher or a student, so I feel like I'm not really able to do my best,” she admits. As a physics teacher, Sarah has an added challenge of trying to teach a practical subject over Zoom. “I feel like my kids aren't getting the same education I am normally able to give them.”

But it’s not just delivering a practical subject that’s made Sarah frustrated with online communication. “I'm known for being inpatient and it's really hard for me to have to move all my communications to being online,” she explains. “Normally I can walk into the next classroom and have a 30 second conversation, and my problem is resolved or my question answered.” Being out of the classroom has also been difficult. “Live feedback is essential in teaching and the larger the group is, the more difficult it is to gauge how everyone is doing. Kids are frustrated, but keeping it to themselves, which in turn frustrates me!”

Away from work, Sarah has also been navigating the highs and lows of moving to a new city and looking for love. “I've been on a few dates with a few women since I got here, but I haven't met anyone special yet,” she shares. Sarah had matched with someone on Tinder and the pair had been speaking for 2 months until they finally met. “I didn't feel any romantic connection which was really disappointing, because I feel like I'd invested quite a lot of time,” says Sarah. Dating might be on hold for a while until lockdown restrictions are eased. In the meantime, she’s also experiencing cabin fever in her flat. “I live with two roommates and love them very dearly, but our apartment is pretty small,” says Sarah. “Overall we're doing ok together, but there have been a few close calls and an argument or two.”

Sarah thinks that the lockdown has shown the public how important teachers are and just how much they do, but haven’t always received the praise they deserve. “Teachers have been treated really badly in the press and by some people online,” she remarks. “While others have been super grateful of support they've received for their kids and teachers who have no experience of trying to work online but are trying their best.” She hopes that the perception of teachers will shift positively by the time the next academic year starts.

Moreover, her experiences of teaching in both the private and state sector have made her more conscious of social inequalities during this time of uncertainty. “We have lots of student support in place to mind their mental health,” she says of her current school. “In state schools, leaders and teachers scrambled to make sure children relying on free school meals didn't go hungry.” Sarah also worries for students without access to laptops or the internet during lockdown. Only time will tell how much of a long-term impact this has had on their academic achievements.

But has the public’s praise for key workers already evaporated? At the time of writing this article, the ‘clap for carers’ on a Thursday evening has been phased out. Teachers and their unions are also finding themselves under fire from certain newspapers for their resistance to returning to classroom teaching, over safety concerns. What’s more, confusion continues to overshadow the government’s plans to ease lockdown restrictions. Irrespective of these external forces, LGBTQ+ key workers will continue to join the thousands of others working through the day and night to keep their country going.

This article was first published in FS magazine, Issue 178. Download this issue here.