Life

Coronavirus heroes: meet the awe-inspiring women fighting Covid-19

A viral outbreak has changed life as we know it, but what about the people bravely dedicating their lives and risking their health in the fightback? Here, a doctor, scientist and aid worker tell all.

As the world grapples with the escalating coronavirus pandemic, we all have our part to play in the fight against the virus. While many of us adjust to this new normal of self-isolation and social distancing, there are thousands of people working day in, day out to save lives and help those most in need. They’re the everyday heroes who deserve every ounce of our gratitude, admiration and recognition. So Stylist spoke to three women working on the frontline of the Covid-19 response, to get a glimpse into their vital work and the unique challenges they’re stepping up to. And we salute every single one of them.

The NHS doctor

Dr Jessica Potter

Dr Jessica Potter is a respiratory specialist working at University College Hospital in London

“I work in the intensive care unit as a lung specialist. People admitted to hospital with Covid-19 suffer with breathlessness and hypoxia, a lack of oxygen. Many may need intubating – which means putting a tube into their lungs and using a ventilator to help them breathe.

We don’t have any targeted therapies for Covid-19 yet, so the treatment is mainly supportive. With pneumonia, for example, you can treat it with antibiotics. But this is a virus and we haven’t got a vaccine yet. So our goal with these very unwell patients is to support the body getting itself better.

We’re starting to see increasing numbers of patients with Covid-19 but, at the time of writing, nothing we haven’t been able to handle. Certainly, the case load is ramping up, which is what we would expect. All hospitals have pandemic flu policies, and that’s what we’re enacting. Of course, we need to update them rapidly as new information arrives. We’re trying to learn as quickly as we can, sifting out what is valid evidence and using trusted sources.

The NHS has been working close to capacity for years now, and every day is a battle of whether or not we’ve got a bed for someone who needs it. This is particularly true in intensive care. It worries me. Right now, we are stopping elective surgery and non-emergency work and that will free up bed spaces. And we are making ventilators available from other departments, which will massively increase our capacity.

I am working about 50 hours a week. When I get home I try to turn my phone off; it’s all too easy to keep looking at the numbers coming in. I’ve been so distracted with everything that’s going on in the news that my husband has started dropping silly words into sentences just to check that I’m listening. Although coming home to my family has been keeping me going through this, I worry that I may have to isolate myself from them. One of my best friends is a doctor and we have discussed swapping houses: both of us doctors live in one house, husbands and children live in the other.

Corona government alert

As well as working in the hospital, I campaign with a group called EveryDoctor for the working rights of doctors. We run a large Facebook forum with about 25,000 members. There are huge concerns from doctors across the country about a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) – visors, masks and gowns – which we need to protect us from contracting the virus. I heard from one doctor that the store room in their A&E department was kicked in and all of their personal protective equipment was stolen. I’m hearing from other hospitals that they are running out of PPE stock very quickly. However, we are assured by the government that stocks are on their way.

It is absolutely vital that we protect our workforce and they’re given the kit they need to be able to protect their patients, protect themselves, and protect their families who they’re coming home to at the end of each shift. I’ve worked as a doctor for 13 years now, and I’ve never encountered better people: doctors and nurses do an incredible, difficult job. Everyone is pulling together – and I think those bonds will carry us through. The NHS is one of the best healthcare systems in the world. We should look after it at all costs, and that means looking after the staff who are the backbone of it.”

The vaccine scientist

Dr Teresa

Dr Teresa Lambe is an associate professor at the Jenner Institute for vaccine research at Oxford University

“I remember the exact date that Covid-19 took over my working life: Friday 10 January. I develop vaccines for emerging pathogens, such as Ebola and MERS, so I had been following the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan – but at that stage most of my information was from Twitter.

Late that Friday night, the first genetic sequence of the virus was made available and a colleague sent the information to me and my team. We studied the genetic sequence all weekend and by the Monday we had decided on what we thought was the best strategy to create a vaccine. As we had already worked on other coronaviruses, we had previous knowledge we could build on. We decided to focus on a particular protein on the surface of the Covid-19 virus. We then took that specific part of the genetic sequence and stuck it into our existing ‘vaccine platform’.

Once you create a vaccine in a laboratory, there is still a long process of extensive testing to make sure it is completely safe to use on the population – only then is it approved by the regulatory bodies.

Right now, we are getting ready to start clinical trials on humans. We are working flat out. What started as a small team of six is now 30-strong, and that will scale up to about 150 once the clinical trials start. I have never been involved in such a phenomenal team effort in my professional career. It’s unprecedented. I am astounded by the number of people who are willing to pull out the stops and help us.

Coronavirus on the tube

We have received funding from UK Research and Innovation, a conglomerate of research charities and other funding bodies, and from the global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. But the speed with which we want to move means that we are looking for more investment. We are not the only institute working on a vaccine and I am very hopeful that there will be a working vaccine within the next year to 18 months. There are a number of different approaches and there are a lot of clever people working on it.

I am proud that as a community of vaccine developers we are working together, helping each other by sharing our data and findings. I am collaborating closely with other institutes working on their own vaccines. It’s not a competition; we need to get a vaccine and we need to get it quickly and safely.

I do feel the pressure, though, because we know we have to get this done and to a scale that will have a real impact. But that is why we’re in this. This is why we chose this career.”

The Red Cross responder

Emmanuelle

Emmanuelle Pennarun is a senior emergency response officer with the British Red Cross

“My job is to help people in crisis. Whenever there is a serious incident, the Red Cross offers practical aid, such as food parcels and clothing, and emotional support for anyone who is affected. I was involved in coordinating the local response to the Grenfell Tower fire in London and the Manchester Arena bombing.

When the first British citizens were evacuated from Wuhan and quarantined at Arrowe Park Hospital in The Wirral, I helped coordinate the nearby support centre for relatives. There were 94 people, including children, in isolation. Their families had travelled from all over the country to be near them and it was an extremely worrying time. We worked closely with the council and hospital, holding daily meetings to keep everyone updated. There were so many donations from the local community: toys for the children, cakes and bottles of wine to keep people’s spirits up. From the start of this outbreak, there has been such a positive attitude from the public.

The day the quarantined people were released and reunited with their families was quite emotional for me. Since then, I’ve coordinated first aid deliveries to another isolation unit near Heathrow, and we are extending our work to support the NHS. We help many hospitals with ‘assisted discharge’, transporting patients and helping them settle back into their home. It’s important this service continues as hospital bed space becomes more pressured.

Our top priority during the outbreak is identifying vulnerable people who are isolated, so we can help them. It might be phone support, delivering food or getting medication to people. The key is finding a way to do it on a national scale, so a big focus of my work right now is looking at how we utilise our community reserve volunteers and best deploy them to support these vulnerable people.

Empty supermarkets

Community reserve volunteers are a national network of ordinary people ready to help when they are needed. Anyone can sign up online in a few minutes, as long as they are over 18 and have a mobile phone. The Covid-19 pandemic is a unique situation. We know it’s going to be a long-term issue – but we don’t know exactly how the next six months or so will unfold, so the more volunteers we have signed up, the better.

Two weeks ago, we partnered with the National Emergencies Trust (NET) to launch a fundraising appeal for all the amazing local community groups that have sprung up. The NET appeal will help distribute funds efficiently to where they’re needed most. It’s been heartwarming to see how kind people are being to each other. Time and time again, with every incident I respond to, I see how brilliant humanity can be. It never fails. It goes back to the most basic human nature: wanting to help others.”

Seven More Women Making A Difference Right Now

BECKY WASS, THE #VIRALKINDNESS POSTCARD

Wass, a lecturer from Cornwall, was looking for a way to feel less helpless when she designed a popular postcard offering help to neighbours who are self-isolating. You might have had one through your letterbox, or posted one yourself. The printable postcard has gone global and is being used in communities around the world. 

RUTH CHALONER, THE HELP HUB

Offering free, remote sessions with a qualified therapist, Chaloner – a psychotherapist from Oxfordshire – launched The Help Hub to connect counsellors around the UK with individuals struggling with anxiety and loneliness during self-isolation. 

SALI HUGHES & JO JONES, BEAUTY BANKS

Like a food bank but for essential toiletries, Beauty Banks has raised more than £90,000 with its #helpinghands fundraiser to create emergency hygiene parcels – including soap and hand sanitiser – to protect those at higher risk of infection. Founded by beauty journalist Hughes and PR consultant Jones, the pair are helping homeless shelters, women’s refuges, NHS trusts and refugee centres across the UK. 

DR ROSHANA MEHDIAN-STAFFELL, HEROES

As one of the co-founders of HEROES – a new fund providing small grants to NHS staff who need help right now paying for childcare, transport and accommodation – Dr Mehdian-Staffell has helped raise more than £40,000 for frontline workers. 

ANNA VICKERSTAFF, COVID-19 MUTUAL AID NETWORK

What started as a small, local effort between Vickerstaff and a few friends in London has become a national network of hundreds of local Covid-19 Mutual Aid groups, uniting volunteers across the country to help vulnerable people with shopping, dog walking and picking up prescriptions. 

CLAIRE BARNETT, EVERYDAY ALLYSHIP PLATFORM

As executive director of UN Women UK, Barnett has helped launch an online platform dedicated to helping women affected by domestic violence, which is being exacerbated by social isolation. It combines advice on how to support vulnerable women and information about accessing critical services for those in danger. 

Images: Getty Images