Covid Considerations: Life and death in the midst of Covid-19

| Cat Duncan-Rees

In the space of a few short weeks, the coronavirus has turned the world inside out. We know that times of crisis can also be fertile breeding ground for radical change, but what happens next will be determined by the stories and the truths we choose to tell. A door has opened, and there is a chance to reimagine how we relate to one another. This blog series will explore what those opportunities for change might be, told from the personal perspectives of people working alongside communities, no holds barred. 

The first blog in this series is written by Cat Duncan-Rees. Cat is a co-production expert with over 20 years’ experience of challenging thinking, causing good trouble often, and becoming a proficient professional rule breaker. As well as being an associate of the Ideas Alliance, Cat is also Coproduction Advisor for the national Think Local Act Personal partnership.

I have been reflecting a lot over the last week. Who hasn’t? Some of us have had far more time on our hands than we are comfortable with. Some of us have had to wade in knee deep and work against time to respond to the Covid-19 crisis.

In the midst of this global pandemic, my world has undergone a huge paradigm shift. Last week we said a final goodbye to my Dad, husband of 53 years, father to three daughters, grandfather to five grandchildren. I’ve watched my Mum having to process losing him, the love of her life, just days after getting the news his esophageal cancer had been successfully treated and there was no need for major surgery, to suddenly seeing him gasp his final breaths as a result of severe pulmonary fibrosis, a side effect of the cancer treatment, before leaving her. Forever. In the most surreal of times.

The cause of death for my Dad was not coronavirus, however the stark impact of Covid-19 has been evident throughout the whole of the last four weeks for my family and I. From watching the nurses and doctors in Dad’s ward get their heads around the most appropriate use of what personal protective equipment they had been given on the High Dependency Unit, to the ever-decreasing numbers of people able to come to Dad’s funeral.

The final nail, so to speak, was being informed less than 24 hours before the funeral that we would have to drive ourselves to the crematorium because the funeral home had been told they couldn’t bring passenger cars due to coronavirus protection measures. Only a couple of hours earlier had he confirmed that they would bring two passenger cars to allow space for people to safely distance. The pain in the eyes of the Funeral Director as he arrived and spoke to my Mum through the window of my sister’s car, explaining that in all his years doing the job, he never anticipated anything like this happening. Ever.

It was the most surreal funeral experience for those who did attend. The awkwardness of not knowing how close to sit to one another, or how close to get to the grieving family and how long to ‘linger’ once the service ended knowing that there was to be no celebration of life afterwards.

My Dad – had he been there to witness this – would have taken it all in his stride, accepted it for what it was and encouraged those around that they were doing the best they could in very difficult circumstances. His response would have been rooted in compassion for all of us dealing with this pandemic.

This is our reality. Right now. And not just mine or my family’s. It is OUR reality. Yours, mine, your neighbours, colleagues, friends and relatives. This is not about particular groups or US and THEM – this is about all of US. We have all been affected in one way or another by Covid-19, we all have a story to tell. The funeral director, the celebrant, the nurses, neighbors, family and friends shared our grief and pain in so many ways. They felt the impact of not being able to do the things they would do under normal circumstances, not being able to demonstrate their compassion in the ways that were most familiar to them. The experience of losing Dad in such surreal circumstances has highlighted how interdependent we are on each other, and the support and services that we ALL need to get us through this life.

We all have a story like this, a story of hope or hopelessness. It doesn’t matter how much experience we have, how many qualifications, what our ‘expertise’ is, how many toolkits we have produced, strategies we have written or business cases we have spent time and energy on. It is ultimately all meaningless in the face of OUR realities.

My biggest hope is that when we return to a place of ‘normality’ that those of us who work in ‘the system’ will have the courage to continue telling their personal story from the inside because in the last few weeks health and care systems across the UK have been completely re-designed to be ‘good enough’ in a way never thought possible before. In the West Midlands Dudley Council’s Director of Social Services Matt Bowsher has praised his ‘amazing team’ who have re-designed ‘all of social care inside five days’. And in North Manchester’s General Hospital’s Emergency Department they have remodeled pathways, the whole environment and their equipment in response to the crisis. The vulnerability we are all experiencing right now is transforming our lives, our systems and processes and it has given us permission to focus on what really matters.

There are many other stories of hope being shared by people who are as dazed and confused as I am right now, away from the safety of the ‘system’ that we have spent years working in. One story that is very close to home for me is Organising Marple. A response to the crisis from people in my home town. People who like myself work hard day in day out to support change nationally and regionally and understand what it means for people and communities to have much more control of what that change looks and feels like.

This and the stories above are all the evidence I need to know that there is hope for a new way of being in the future. A way of being that is rooted in OUR interdependency. A future eloquently described by Deena in this poem daring us to think about possibilities. It describes a future in which we can do what matters to people, in the best way we can.

There is no magic formula, there is no system or process, or policy, strategy, business case or programme management approach that can deliver the human to human connection, relationships, kindness and compassion that we are currently experiencing all around us. We are all trying to process the sense of grief we feel right now and my Dad would have responded with the same compassion and pragmatism that WILL see us through.


Cat has worked with a wide variety of people and organisations including Be More Pirate, BBC Sport, Health, social care, community groups and organisations and independent businesses. Cat doesn’t shy away from the ‘difficult conversations’. Her ability to fuse traditional methods of facilitation with a range of creative methods, mentoring and coaching has influenced national, regional and local changes in policy, strategy, organisational structure and culture, recruitment processes, community development and much more. The aim is always to encourage more holistic and human centred change. Follow her Twitter @CatDRees 

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński

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