'A virus is nothing': elderly WW2 survivors refuse to submit to panic
Over-70s asked to self-isolate compare coronavirus crisis to wartime childhood memories
Guardian 2020/mar/23 Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent
Maureen Childs, 80, at her balcony, on the seventh floor of a tower block near Tower Bridge. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian
Maureen Childs, 80, isn’t scared of coronavirus. She is careful not to catch the bug as she self-isolates in her seventh-floor flat in east London, but like many of the millions of elderly people now being told to severely limit their activities, she has lived through a far greater catastrophe: the second world war.
“I can remember the sounds of the doodlebugs going over,” she said as she contemplated her second week in almost complete lockdown, one of 7.8 million people in the UK aged 70 or older who, regardless of medical conditions, are being told by the government to self-isolate.
German motorised bombs flew over London as she and her family listened to the radio and “as soon as the sound stopped we were all sitting there petrified because you didn’t know if you were underneath it.” One day, they were and the device blew out the doors and the windows of her home. “A virus is nothing compared to that,” she said.
Comparisons between the current public health crisis and wartime are much-discussed among the generation most vulnerable to Covid-19. But as Public Health England instructs them to avoid non-essential use of public transport, avoid gatherings in public or with friends and family and only use telephones or go online to contact GPs, different problems are emerging.
“It’s the lack of exercise that worries me,” she said. “When I did go out [to the shop and to the bank], the walking got to me. I lost the use of my legs. I need to be more disciplined and do exercise at home, but I feel such a ninny.”
Childs thinks she is part of a rump of the elderly who she fears are being overlooked – millions of over-70s who would normally fend for themselves, but who are made vulnerable by the latest isolation orders. They are not necessarily among the 1.2 million of the most vulnerable who the NHS is now instructing to stay at home at all times and avoid any face-to-face contact for a period of at least 12 weeks.
“The frail are well looked after,” said Childs, who had an active life as a national organiser for the Green party and committee member for the British Computer Society. “It’s the ones who aren’t very frail who have fallen through the cracks because we are left to look after ourselves, which we’re proud to be able to do. But we don’t get much advice or help.”
Paul Goulden, director of The Silver Line, a helpline for the elderly that has been inundated with callers concerned about coronavirus, urges “everyone to pick up the phone and check on your older family, friends and neighbours and see how you can help”.
Patricia Shooter, 84, hunkering down with her husband, Bill, 94, at their home in Leicester, has also been comparing the coronavirus crisis to her wartime childhood in Sheffield.
“I do feel scared, but I was also scared when the bombers were going over,” she said. “Our house was bombed. The planes came down over the moor. I remember being in the garden [where they were sheltering] and wondering, ‘Where’s the house?’ I don’t want to be ill and I don’t want to die. But I don’t want to start panicking about coronavirus.”
Shooter was also active and used to swim five times a week. Last week she only swam once (she felt safe as there were only five other people in the pool). She has been shopping in Aldi, wearing gloves and wrapping a scarf over her mouth.
“I have always been independent and I am not being silly,” she said. “I am cleaning every day with disinfectant wipes, cleaning all the doorhandles.”
Both Shooter and Childs struggle with the idea of volunteers doing their shopping. “I like to pick what I like to pick,” said Shooter. “They won’t like it,” said Childs. “Old people are very proud. We are a grumpy old bunch, but we have reason to be grumpy. People treat us like children.”
For now, the elderly and their families are taking it one day at a time. The charity Age UK is encouraging families to “connect and reassure older people in this uncertain time” not just by phone, text and video calls, but by sending letters, postcards and pictures from grandchildren too.
“Picking up shopping, prescriptions or running errands could help to alleviate any worries and concerns they may have about how they’re going to cope,” said Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK.
“Doing what we can to encourage older people to stay physically active at home and ensuring they remain connected and included will be essential. This could mean making sure people have what they need to keep going with their hobbies and interests, like wool if they are knitters.”
Childs has been trying to reach out and help her friends by sending web links to online courses that they might find diverting. Many are in computer programming, but there’s also a six-week course on 19th-century opera, a four-week course on Sikhism, three weeks on Beethoven’s ninth symphony, and an eight-week course on the fundamentals of neuroscience.
However, at least one of the courses might be postponed to a more appropriate time: a four-week module entitled “Lessons from Ebola: preventing the next pandemic”.