Covid-19 is the nightmare that has spread to every facet of our lives, making even the simplest human interaction feel like a rolling of the dice. Yet for the majority of the population this is largely an invisible terror. We exist cheek by jowl with the consequences of the pandemic. But we do not see it going about its grisly business first hand.
So it’s important that television such as RTÉ Investigates : Inside Ireland’s Covid Battle (RTÉ One, Monday) is made and that it is watched. This frontline report from a Covid-19 intensive care ward at St James’ Hospital in Dublin bears witness, in a dignified and sensation-free manner, to the lives lost and to the sacrifices of medical staff (part two, to follow on Tuesday, will focus on infection control and patient recovery).
This is a tough watch – you’ll possibly already be fighting tears before the first ad break. But it isn’t exploitative and is respectful of those who have survived Covid-19 and of the 79 St James’ patients who passed away from the virus by end of May.
It’s distinctly dystopian in places, too. “The zipping up of a body bag is an awful thing to hear,” says senior staff nurse Melissa O’Brien of the grim task of preparing a Covid casualty for burial (they are wrapped twice over – a shroud within a shroud) “It’s the last thing you hear when you close your eyes at night.”
“Human interest” is a trivialising expression in the context. However, the RTÉ film crew make what was on balance probably the correct decision and flesh out the stories of several patients.
There is Betty Donnellan, who goes on a ventilator and so cannot communicate with her daughter, who is at home and on tenterhooks about her mother.
And we meet Joe Smith, initially over the worst only for his condition to decline rapidly (he contracted the virus in hospital after being admitted with a kidney complaint). As with Betty Donnellan he pulls through in the end. But the fear and confusion on his face as he is informed he will have to be ventilated is not something to be forgotten quickly.
These are the “good news” stories. There are tragic ones also.
Patrick Commins, a previously spry 97-year-old, fights an ultimately futile battle against coronavirus. With his sister an ocean away in Canada, his comfort in his final days is provided by carer Lisa Connolly. She holds his hand and plays him his favourite trad song. As he is about to die she brings his suit and a treasured pocket watch.
“We hear about numbers constantly. They aren’t numbers,” says nurse Gavin Connors, his voice thick with emotion. “These are people – people who have loved ones. It’s heartbreaking. Even during normal times it gets to you. These aren’t normal times.”
Part two of RTÉ Investigates : Inside Ireland’s Covid Battle is on RTÉ One at 9.35pm on Tuesday