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18 March 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 11:34am

I may never know if I’ve had coronavirus

Vagueness will not only cause the virus to spread, it will result in unnecessary loneliness and cause social structures to crumble.

By Emily Bootle

It was early in March a month I tend to associate with hope  a persistent sense of gloom was lingering. I was exhausted. I had PMS. When I left the office an hour or so early to recuperate, I did not realise that I wouldn’t be returning for weeks.

As I began to feel more and more ill  with fever, cough and tightness in the chest the coronavirus crisis escalated. I stayed home as the UK geared up for shutdown. On my first day of feeling ill (5 March) there were 115 reported cases of coronavirus in the country. At the time of writing, there are 1950 confirmed, and an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 more. The number of confirmed cases is essentially meaningless: thousands of people with symptoms are not being tested and do not know if they have the virus or not. Thousands more will not exhibit symptoms.

As of 16 March the UK government has advised against all non-essential social contact and travel, and the country is shutting down. I am recovered save for an irritating, mild cough  from an illness that seemed remarkably similar to coronavirus and came on at the beginning of a very steep upward curve in the UK. I have no idea if it really was coronavirus  or, like anyone else, what to do next.

For a day, I parked any thoughts about the illness: I had a temperature and was starting to develop a dry cough, but I am an anxious person. I’m experienced with what-ifs. It seemed so unlikely I could have contracted it, with so few confirmed cases here, that I put my best anxiety techniques into practice and simply hoped I would feel better the next day.

When I didn’t cough worsening, chest tightening and still feeling unable to do much more than lie down and watch TV  I called 111. I’d done the NHS online test that asked me if I’d been to Asia or Italy recently, a tool that even after two weeks appears alarmingly vintage, and been informed I wasn’t at risk. I wasn’t even anxious, but my symptoms felt bizarre. I wanted to speak to someone. I explained my symptoms, of which the most troubling was a tightening sensation in the chest akin to going for a run outside in the cold.

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I didn’t fit the bill for coronavirus testing, she said I hadn’t been to an affected area, or been in contact with a confirmed case. But I did need to speak to a primary care provider. So I called my GP. The message was the same. I didn’t fit the bill for coronavirus testing. She could prescribe me an inhaler and I could call Public Health England to demand a test (she acknowledged the possibility, given that the virus was definitely in London, and was apologetic she couldn’t do more). I didn’t feel I needed the inhaler. I called PHE and, you guessed it, I didn’t fit the bill for testing.

When, two days later, my cough had not abated and my fever returned, I called 111 again and was advised to go to urgent care at King’s College Hospital in south London within six hours. Despite worrying that I was about to walk into a hospital displaying all the symptoms of a highly contagious disease, I followed their instructions. I didn’t know what else to do.

I was guided through routine tests: blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, blood tests, auscultation, lung x-ray. The doctor treating me agreed that, as the symptoms aligned, we might as well test for coronavirus. But his manager said it was “against Trust policy” I hadn’t been to an affected country or in contact with a confirmed case  so I was sent home with a diagnosis of “viral upper respiratory tract infection” and told to rest and take paracetamol.

By Thursday, after a week of feeling unwell, I felt better and began to work from home, as businesses globally prepared themselves for widespread remote working. The day before that, the WHO had declared a pandemic; the number of confirmed cases in the UK had quadrupled. In the days that followed, as the number of UK cases ramped up and community transmission was rendered inevitable, the UK government announced new measures to tackle the spread of the virus: first the controversial “herd immunity” strategy, then, a few days later, a “social distancing” strategy that already feels almost normal.

On 11 March, the day before I felt fully recovered and the same day a pandemic was declared, NHS England announced that coronavirus testing would be increased almost tenfold, from 1500 to 10,000 tests per day. I missed the window and because I am young and healthy, may not qualify for a test now anyway. I will probably never know if I had coronavirus.

But if I knew I had had it, I would be safe to help other people. I could see my parents, who are approaching 70; people who are pregnant; one of my best friends, who has chronic asthma. As it stands, I cannot say for sure that that would be safe. In fact, I could be one of the only people it is safe for them to see. My grandmother is 93 in April and lives in a care home in north-east London. The current social distancing guidelines have no end point and may continue in some capacity until there is a vaccine for coronavirus, which is estimated to be 18 months. It would not be melodramatic to consider the possibility I might never see her again.

If I have had coronavirus, I consider myself fortunate in getting it out of the way and recovering without complications. If I haven’t, I’m in the same position as everyone else. But there are thousands of people in my position and worse: in closer proximity to more people in vulnerable groups, unable to work from home, in worse overall health.

Are we now immune? Are we still dangerous, or can we help people? As an anxious person, I am well-versed in the practice of tolerating uncertainty. I have learned to live with the unanswerable questions that hang over my head. But this is not unanswerable. Vagueness will not only cause the virus to spread, but will result in unnecessary loneliness and cause social structures to crumble. The weather is warming up. March is beginning to cast its customary rays of hope. But there is a heavy fog hanging over us: one of not knowing.

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