Dianna Djokey interviews Jolene, a Black NHS worker, about her experiences of shielding, lockdown and the pandemic, and the challenges facing people of colour in the UK. Jolene’s name has been changed at her request.
Dianna Djokey: How has Covid impacted upon you?
Jolene: Covid has had a negative impact on me. [In 2018] I was diagnosed with an illness where I was off for a year. When I came back to my job [ending of 2019], I struggled with the new way of working so I had to give [it] up. I was off for a couple of months and then I got a job in January as a clinical specialist for Lloyds Pharmacy. I did that for two months and then Covid [happened]. Because of that, I didn’t finish my probation so wasn’t entitled to any of the benefits I would’ve normally been entitled to if I had stayed working for the NHS. So, in terms of finance, Covid has affected me.
Did it affect you mentally?
Yes. For me, most of my family is back home in Ghana. I’ve got a sister in London but not being able to see her, not being able to communicate with my family like I would normally, that affected me. Also, because I had been ill for some time, I think it all added up, not going out, not seeing your family, and being socially isolated.
How has it been looking for work during the Covid outbreak?
It’s been very hard. I recently got a job as a Clinical Manager in one of the discharge facilities set up in Hampshire. Initially I said that I [didn’t] want to be looking after patients with Covid because I was high risk. I did that for two days and then my manager [told] me it [was] impossible for the facility not to accept patients with Covid. I [had] to think about whether I stay or whether I go. I [thought], ‘Okay, now we know Covid is going to be here, I need to find a way to get back to what I’ve done before I was sick.’
[I thought] the PPE that [would] be given [to] me might be different [e.g. offering higher protection, because of my health], but the PPE was what had been advised by Public Health England. There was nothing more they could do [to provide me additional protection]. I had to leave because the PPE that they had given me wasn’t adequate.
I’ve been able to find another [job]. I’m just waiting for the [DBS checks] to go through and I’ve made it quite clear to the manager that I’ve had these problems in the past. I’m going to require they do a risk assessment and then provide me with what I need to do the job, which they will be able to supply.
Have you been able to access any advice and guidance in Portsmouth?
Quite recently I was speaking to [a former] colleague in London and I realized I could have had support while shielding. She told me one of our friends in Portsmouth had problems and they were given support, but I wasn’t aware of that service.
What support would you have liked to see at that time?
The people that sent me the information to shield because I was classified as vulnerable could have sent more information with it, [such as the services] or numbers you can get in touch with for more information. [Instead, I was just told] ‘You have to shield because you have been classified as vulnerable’ and that was it.
Initially I wasn’t aware [of any support available] but I think halfway through shielding, I realized that there was something like that available. But at that time, because I hadn’t got my family here – just me and my children and my partner – I had been going out with my face mask and doing the bare minimum to go out and get essentials. So because I had already started doing it, I just felt it was a little bit late [to ask for help]. Had I been aware of that service right from the start, I probably wouldn’t have put myself at risk. I would have been at home and getting those essentials brought to me.
How have your children been affected by Covid?
My oldest was in year six, going into secondary school [when the pandemic happened], so they had a transition period where they were to attend the school, [then] that was cancelled. My youngest was in year five so they were home-schooling.
If you’re not used to it, it’s really hard to get your head around. Even though I attended secondary school here years ago, there was a lot that I was sent through [by the schools] where I did my best, but not everything I was sent through I understood. The school was really good in helping me with that. You could email them that you didn’t understand something and you need further guidance and they always got back to you.
I think it would have been very hard had I not been to secondary school in the UK. I know a couple of people who have not been schooled here who struggled because the homework the schools were sending us was in English. If that’s not your first language and you’re not familiar with it, you are going to have problems teaching your kids at home.
How did your children adjust to home-schooling?
It was really hard. I just had to [tell] them: it is what it is. There is nothing we can do, we need to be at home in order to protect ourselves and therefore we’ll just have to get on with it.
I think my Christian faith helped me because sometimes, some things you have to pray about and I believe through prayer some of your questions are answered. I think that really helped us as a family get through this very difficult period. I don’t know how anyone could go through this without depending on God. It was obvious nobody knew what was going on. But for my household and me, we had nobody else but God to depend on and pray to for clarity.
You said you were able to navigate homeschooling with your children because you’ve been to secondary school in the UK, so you understood the system. What do you think schools can do to help people whose first language isn’t English and who haven’t experienced the UK’s education system before?
I think schools need to, right from the start, identify people who are going to be disadvantaged in terms of their language barrier and the UK schooling system. They need to identify any problems and give extra support.
Maybe they can also do that by looking at the quality of the work that their children are bringing into school. Schools need to identify what the reason is [for any problems with children’s schoolwork].
Is it because their parents don’t speak English as their first language? Is it because they don’t have the systems in place for them to do their work? Because let’s face it, some children don’t have computers at home or laptops at home to do their homework.
A lot of migrants and people of colour are cleaners [and frontline key workers] and their monthly income is not the same as somebody who has got a good job. I think the school needs to identify right from the start who these children are, through either seeing the parents coming in when they are going for opening evenings or through the work that the children are bringing in.
What do you think Portsmouth City Council can do to further support migrants and people of colour?
I wasn’t aware of some of these services [to support people through the pandemic]. I was affected by it and I had been advised to be at home because I was vulnerable, yet I wasn’t aware of the services that were available to support me in order to stay at home safely. I think they need to have a plan [to improve] communications.
I had a weekly or daily update from the NHS that I was seeing on my phone [when I was shielding]. I think some of [the local] information can go by that medium and that would enable people to see it.
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