Running on Empty

Title: Running on Empty
Year: 2021
Medium: Oil paint on Canvas
Size: 1m x 1.2m

Description: ‘Running on Empty’ is a tribute to every single keyworker that has worked throughout the pandemic, been affected by covid, caught covid, and in those tragic cases, died of covid. Before describing the content and meaning of the painting I’d like to explain the motivation for painting this.

I qualified as a Registered Nurse and have worked in an acute admissions unit since 2018.

By February 2020 it was clear that the UK was going to experience covid-19 and that we were in the grips of the start of a pandemic.

That month I put in a call to the bed manager for FFP3 grade masks as there were none available on my unit. When the bed manager brought them down and said how they were in short supply I said that we needed to be looking at what was happening in Italy, and Spain, and France at the time, because in the coming weeks, that would be us. That we needed to take this seriously, and that some of our colleagues are going to die. It could be any of us.

There were systemic failures by the Conservative government, led by Boris Johnson to put controls in place to mitigate and/or halt the virus at our borders (being an island, it’s not a huge deal to lock us down, especially when we had just completed Brexit which was ironically voted for on the basis of “taking back control of our borders”). Compounding this was the decade of austerity and health service cuts that would lead to a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), something that Minister for Health Matt Hancock would claim never happened in early 2021. As if the irony wagon wasn’t already overflowing, during 2020 ex-Conservative minister Jeremy Hunt took the government to task over the PPE shortages despite having been the one whose cuts while Minister for Health had precipitated the shortages.

By March 2020 the country was locked down. Despite the mounting death toll, there were (and still are) some people who believe(d) the virus to be a hoax, or a conspiracy to control the masses. My personal experience, and those of my colleagues is that Covid19 is not a hoax.

During the first wave a nurse that trained with me was on a ventilator due to covid-19. Thankfully, they recovered, but their spouse had died while they were sedated. Another nurse who helped train me, a long serving dedicated and experienced professional died. A healthcare and her husband died. A domestic from my unit died – one of the nicest, most positive people you could meet. This was just from my hospital. This is just the people that I knew of. There were more. Close relatives of colleagues succumbed. Members of the BAME community were particularly affected.

Some of my colleagues were seconded to staff the covid wards. I stayed where I was in the admissions unit but the message coming from my colleagues was clear: it was grim. A large percentage of the staff sent to the covid ward contracted the virus. Thankfully they all survived with (as far as we know) no long term effects.

The first wave dissipated and despite the warnings from history and science we let our guard down for a second time and larger peak enveloped the country. This is where my experience with covid begins. At the beginning of October 2020 I was seconded to the covid ward. By November I had contracted covid. I maintain that our infection control protocols were not adequate, but they adhered to national guidelines. The figures speak for themselves. The UK (at time of writing) has the highest per capita death toll in the world. Over 130,000 people are dead.

I was lucky. Other than one night of rigors (that uncomfortable shivery feeling accompanied by a high fever) and fatigue for a number of weeks I fully recovered (as far as I know). My week in isolation comprised of me sitting in the bedroom, furious. It was during this time my idea for ‘Running on Empty’ came about.

During the first lockdown there was a big deal made about the NHS, the heroes, the angels, “fighting” this “war” against an invisible foe. There were numerous tokens of appreciation from the clapping on a Thursday evening, to the millions of ┬ús raised by Captain Sir Tom Moore. Gifts for staff, and supplies for patients were sent to hospitals literally by the truck load. During all this there was another army of workers, mostly forgotten: the care home staff, the refuse workers, those in retail, in logistics and transport, teachers, the police, firefighters, in hospitality, other ancillary service and every other worker that supports us.

Each and every one of us was told that we were key workers, but before 2020 many of these suddenly essential workers were classed as unskilled. The reality is that those roles aren’t unskilled, they were, and are undervalued. Prior to becoming a nurse, I’d done most of those “unskilled” jobs so it was bittersweet for those roles to get at least the fleeting recognition they deserve. All the people sharing likes, and shares, and putting rainbows in their windows.

The painting depicts a crucified keyworker (they are wearing scrubs, but it is representative of all the people who have worked throughout the pandemic, whatever their role). The crucifixion reflects the sacrifice made by those who have not survived the pandemic, and as in historic crucifixions, it’s not usually a voluntary decision. The figure is gaunt, drawn, their face almost skeletal to illustrate the emotional labour, physical and psychological impact working through covid has had. The cross in marked with the Roman numerals MMXX – MMXXI and a key to indicate the years of the pandemic and the keyworkers involved. The wards of the key are shaped as the Greek letter Omega to reflect that without keyworkers it would be the end.

The keyworker is secured to the cross not with nails, but by green oxygen extension tubing that is common in the health board I work for. Hanging from the oxygen tubes wrapped around the wrists are simple oxygen masks which have, in many cases, saved peoples lives, but also been the last thing we’ve removed from patients shortly before they have died of covid. The oxygen tubes snake down to piles of empty oxygen cylinders that litter the foreground.

Surrounding the crucifix on the floor are discarded emojis: hearts, smiley faces, likes. These emojis have been showering the keyworker and are still falling from the sky, but do not actually help. This is why they are coming from a poop emoji that sits at the centre of crudely rendered rainbow. At this point I should state that gestures of support are greatly appreciated by us all. However, if you really want to support keyworkers, if you really want to make a difference to keyworkers and the NHS then you need to be working to get this Conservative government gone.

The piles of oxygen cylinders and discarded emojis lead to a vista of skulls that represent the 130,000+ who have died of covid (and the thousands more who have died indirectly due to covid), the skulls leading to a sea of blood illustrating the long term, unknown complications of covid.

If you care about the NHS, if you care about keyworkers, the single most effective thing you can do to show your support is to not vote Conservative.

‘Running on Empty’ is dedicated to the memory of every keyworker who died due to covid.

(The crucifixion image is based on ‘The Crucifixion’ by Leon Bonnat)

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