Getting a vaccination for the coronavirus went reasonably smoothly – then the virus bit back.
As I walk along Tottenham Court Rd on Wednesday, my mobile rings – it's my doctor. Could I go to a medical centre at 10.20am on Friday for the first of two Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccinations. I stop in the street, stunned, then wave my arms in the air and say, "I love you", causing masked passers-by to look wary, even though they must be used to such events these days: another mad old lady in Tottenham Court Rd during a pandemic.
A text confirms the booking, asking me to be there promptly but to not get there early.
I have to take the Tube, which I now hardly ever do, and have to force myself not to shout at a young man sitting near me who has removed his mask to use his bloody phone. Because I'm not familiar with the medical centre where the vaccination is to take place, I turn the corner into the right street, using my battered A-Z, seven minutes before 10.20am, intending to loiter somewhere near until 10.20. No need to look for the Health Centre, because I see at once a long crowd of grey and white heads and winter coats snaking around several corners. I go uncertainly to the end of the queue of masked old people: "Could you tell me what time your vaccination is?"
"10.45am, but they haven't even started yet, apparently."
I keep trying to find a person in the queue nearer the front who has an appointment time near mine. I finally come upon one woman who also has 10.20 as her time and another three people who are 10.25. I merge with them in a very narrow street with cars parked in it, where a National Health Service workman is unloading long fluorescent lights and trying to pass us, so we are merged together even more.
A wind is blowing, which is pleasant – it isn't really cold. Everyone is wearing masks, but there's no way we can distantly isolate ourselves as we look anxiously towards the front entrance. We chat. A large woman pushes past us all muttering angrily. Otherwise, no one complains.
Time passes. A young woman without a coat brings out a big tin of Quality Street chocolates, which she hands around, apologising for the long wait: "So sorry, it's our first day."
A very old woman – we later find out she is 97 – totters uncertainly; a chair is found for her. Eating chocolates, everyone is now talking to one another animatedly – about where they live, what their daughter says about vaccination, birdsong, the scary new coronavirus strain, Strictly Come Dancing, trips to Jamaica and Canada, wine.
At last the doors open, and people in front of us disappear. We cluster nearer and nearer to the front; someone makes sure the 97-year-old has her chair moved along in the queue with her. My turn: a young woman checks my name, my appointment time and then my temperature via my forehead. We are now crowded together again, but I have an anxious feeling in my stomach – one I have become very used to. But as soon as we get into the Health Centre reception space, everything is well organised. We enter in fives and are waved separately into five almost completely bare rooms containing one small wooden table, two wooden chairs and a pile of tiny bottles in a box on a shelf. And something under the table. Nothing else.
I understand the injectors are pharmacists and health workers from surrounding GP centres and chemist shops. I am glad to hear this, as someone outside had heard they were training hospitality workers. A pleasant, earnest young Pakistani man apologises for the wait – my instinct tells me he's nervous – and asks me a few basic health questions. He goes to the box under the table and disinfects his hands, I take off my coat and a few jerseys and sit on a chair, still masked.
The vaccine bottle he picks up is so tiny and he looks at it suspiciously. "We have to handle them very, very carefully," he says. "We're just learning." Some sort of long needle. I always look away at this point in injections. He says to me kindly: "Go to your calm space." I'm not sure I have a calm space.
I am aware that millions of people are waiting for this and I'm lucky enough to be one of the first. It feels surreal after the months and months of half-living. I feel the needle go in – slightly further than with a flu injection – and then it's over. He sits next to me and explains that this is only the beginning and I am not yet protected, but I am on my way. "Back in three weeks," he says, signing and handing me a little pink card.
"Have you had a vaccination?" I ask.
"We're not in the early tier," he says to me, shrugging slightly. How mad that sounds as the queues of elderly people wait for him outside. "But if some people don't come and there is some left from today's portion tonight, that will be for us, for the staff."
I put on my jerseys, wish him a vaccination tonight and thank him. Outside, a woman is waiting to take me to one of several small waiting rooms. Here, we are timed and let out when 15 minutes is up. People laugh, almost relieved, joking, ringing family to pick them up. I'm the last to leave, and just as it is time, the world whirls. "Are you okay?" says the woman timing us.
"I don't – know."
"Stand up and see." I stand up and pull myself together. "I'm fine," I say, and leave the building. Of course, I know what it is that makes me dizzy. Like many others, I have lived a weird and sometimes devastating life for such a long time. I have not only been lucky enough to have a first vaccination against Covid-19, but also never been crowded together with as many people as I have been this morning – well, not since I was at a booked-out Amanda Palmer concert in March at the Hollywood Avondale in Auckland.
Since my pre-Christmas jab, the following things have happened:
The Covid pandemic in the UK, with more than one mutating variant appearing more infectious but not necessarily more deadly, has numbers rising so fast and so sharply that the situation is considered totally out of control.
A second, British vaccine, the Oxford/AstraZeneca, has been approved with great patriotic delight, particularly as it is cheaper and can be stored more easily, so can be used all over the world. Its roll-out has begun: two doses three weeks apart, like the Pfizer/ BioNTech one.
The Government quickly decided that vaccinating many more people with just one jab at first would be a popular move and instructed doctors and health centres accordingly. There was an outcry from Pfizer, the British Medical Association, many doctors, and certain scientists and specialists: a 12-week gap instead of a three-week gap was not tested or approved, and therefore could not be guaranteed to work. Government science spokesmen spoke: of course, one dose of either vaccine would give immunity for three months, as that's what vaccinations do. Figures from 0% immunity to 41% and 91% have been bandied about, with no one really knowing the answer. It has also been suggested that the two vaccines – made by entirely different scientific methods – could be mixed at 12 weeks if necessary.
There are mumbles about a lack of supply arrangements for both vaccines. Some doctors and health centres are quietly taking matters into their own hands concerning the second dose for at-risk people – including the medical workers, who are more at risk than most of us – who were given the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccination before Christmas.
As this goes to press, the UK, mid-winter, goes into a third lockdown and my own particular puny fate, in a country of 66.65 million people, is unclear.
Think of me as one of the canaries down a coalmine.
New Zealander Barbara Ewing is a UK-based actress, playwright and novelist.