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Real Life: Frontline doctor shares her Covid story

Ahead of her appearance at Cambridge Literary Festival to discuss her Covid memoir, Everything is True, Roopa Farooki talks to Velvet’s Lisa Millard

Despite being the author of six novels and a mother to four children, Roopa Farooki fulfilled a childhood ambition to become a doctor, taking to the wards as Covid-19 took over the world. Her latest book, a riveting, relentless and real-time account of working as a junior doctor during the first 40 days of lockdown – and shortly after losing her sister to breast cancer – is unflinching. Ahead of her appearance at the Cambridge Literary Festival to discuss Everything is True, and between 13-hour shifts on the hospital wards, Roopa talks love and loss to Velvet’s Lisa Millard.

You have written since a child – what does it bring you?

When I was younger, I used to get lost in imaginary worlds, like those created by Tolkien, or mythology, like the Iliad and Odyssey. And then I wasn't satisfied with

reading, and wanted to try and weave my own worlds. Writing was a pleasure for me, but more urgently, it was and is something of a need. I guess like many writers, I write because I must. I hope that it brings me a sense of empathy, when I walk in other people's shoes as a writer, and a sense of identity, when I introduce my world to others.

Everything is True is an unflinching account of love and loss –both yours and others. Do you feel less loss in your present life, or is loss something that becomes a part of us?

I write about loss, and grief, especially the loss of my sister at the start of the pandemic. Yes, I still feel her loss. I say in the book, that grief is the long shadow cast by love. I think that the greater the love you feel, the greater the grief. Which means that there isn't a specific time to stop grieving, it hurts just as much it should. I think both love and loss do change us, so in a way, they are wrapped into our journey, and shape who we are.

What do you feel, looking back to those first 40 days of lockdown to where we are now? Does rage still surface?

I do feel angry, looking back, especially as so little has changed, with regard to our lives being defined by reckless politicians who do not respect the laws they made for the rest of us. I wrote this account for a future self, so that I wouldn't forget, or disbelieve my memory of how strange and dangerous it was. I didn't think that we'd still be in this situation, I had hoped we would have learned and reflected more from that terrible time, but it feels that the same mistakes are being made again, and again.

Has this experience, including the loss of your sister, shaped how you see the future?

My future remains in medicine, and perhaps still in writing, although I am unsure I am resilient enough to continue to chronicle what is happening. I do feel a lot of fear for the future, especially for my children, and my family, as I am unsure how we will be able to protect each other and ourselves. I have seen so much death and loss, it is sometimes hard to remain optimistic that our best work will be ahead of us.

You mention in this book that you did not consider yourself political. Would you still say that about yourself?

I don't think that I'm political, in fact, I've been criticised for that in the past. But the pandemic is political, and the mismanagement of the pandemic is political. It is impossible for us to avoid the dangerous decisions made by those in the corridors of power. We've all been affected, and so we've all become politically engaged in some respect.

Are you now back on the wards? Has the pandemic changed them, and those who work there?

I have never left the wards and A&E, in fact, I have worked full-time and front-line throughout the pandemic. The wards changed in the way I described in the book, there's been increasing pressure of critically unwell patients, increasing challenges of appropriate PPE and changing rules, and the challenge of missing staff who are unwell or isolating. We still can never be sure what we'll find when we start our shift. We've got used to the uncertainty and the pressure, but it is challenging, especially if we feel we can't do the best for our patients.

What brings you joy?

My family, my friends, my writing, and my work in the hospital, caring for my patients. Although it has been a struggle during the pandemic, there is still nothing else that I would rather do.

Roopa Farooki will discuss her book Everything is True on Saturday 23 April, 12-1pm, at the University Arms.

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