What happened when the clapping stopped?

Louis Staples is a Scottish journalist based in London. He writes regularly for Vice, Vogue, The Guardian, New York Magazine and more.  He is also a columnist at British GQ.

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In the spring of 2020, social media was full of pictures of people in quarantine, making sourdough and binge-watching Netflix to cope with all the uncertainty.

For millions of people, Zoom became a part of their everyday working lives (as did the phrase “you’re on mute!”).

This isn’t the story of everyone’s pandemic. Key workers were on the frontlines: in the UK, they were found to be more at risk of being infected with COVID-19.

Healthcare workers in particular were seven times as likely to be severely ill with the virus. We might all have been weathering the same storm, but we weren’t in the same boat.

Countries across the world, from the US to Spain and France, applauded their essential workers. In the UK, “Clap for Carers” became a weekly ritual at 8pm every Thursday. Frontline workers of all varieties were described as “heroes” on TV, social media and in parliament.

At this time, Adam* was working as a support worker for adults with autism and additional needs. He tells me he was “working minimum wage and working 60 hours a week” at the peak of the crisis, so found it difficult to care for gestures like clapping. “I found it quite false,” he says.

All this talk of thanking ‘carers’ was just so hollow. It was a way for politicians to play the game without any actual change.”

Intensive care nurse John* had similar misgivings. “It was a bit unnecessary,” he says “I was going to work to do my job and I didn’t need people to clap for me just doing what I was trained to do.

Like Adam, John felt like the clapping was a “diversion for how badly the crisis was handled by politicians in the first place.”

These frontline workers aren’t alone in their scepticism of the “we’re all in this together” attitude at the start of the pandemic. Words like “hero” became particularly divisive as the pandemic passed the “first wave” and the clapping eventually stopped. 

So what happened next? At work, John says his team was initially brought much closer because everything was so new and unexpected.

We had each other to rely on and to try and make it through the really awful times. But after the first surge everyone was exhausted and depressed,” he remembers.

Morale was extremely low and the second surge was even worse: lots of staff sickness and mental health issues.”

These aren’t isolated stories. When surveyed in late 2020 by the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), half of all key workers in the UK felt it was likely they would face “burnout” over the winter.

This rose to 63% of NHS staff and 58% of social carers. Social care workers found it particularly difficult to take time off if they were unwell, with 29% saying they would struggle to take sick leave.

John says there was also a clear dip in public support as people began to become frustrated with restrictions: “I think people thought that the pandemic was over, so nurses went back to being nothing.”

Adam also remembers a change in attitudes towards frontline workers, which affected the atmosphere at work.

There was a clear change in how the media portrayed key workers, particularly health workers and teachers, as the pandemic went on.”

He recalls reading articles that criticised key workers for posting videos dancing together on social media.

It felt like viral videos of people trying to raise morale in that way were weaponized really quickly,” he says.

Rachel*, a primary school teacher, tells me that it felt like teachers were consistently “demonized” throughout the crisis.

We were working in almost impossible conditions and putting ourselves at enormous risk, but almost every day I’ve seen people calling us ‘lazy’ and suggesting we didn’t want to do our jobs,” she says. “Teachers became a scapegoat.”

Rachel tested positive for COVID-19 twice during the pandemic. Thankfully, she had a family to rely on when it came to arranging childcare, but she knows plenty of people who didn’t.

I think the pandemic has exposed that the burden of difficult times falls harder on women,” she says. 

In a survey published by UNISON in February 2021, women frontline workers said they were losing sleep, spending more on household bills and worrying about the pandemic’s impact on their children’s education and mental health.

The Women’s Budget Group – a leading independent organisation in the UK that analyses the impact of policy on women’s lives – told the London School of Economics that working-class women were most at risk during the pandemic.

Whether because they work in caring, people-facing jobs or because their hours have been cut, working-class women are far less likely to have been able to work from home during the pandemic. This is a class and gender issue,” they argued.

It’s also a race issue. In the UK and US, Black people were found to be twice as likely to catch the virus. Asian people were 1.5 times more likely to catch COVID compared to white people.

There is considerable evidence to suggest ethnic minorities were much more likely to end up in hospital, representing 34% of critically ill COVID patients.

In the UK, this directly correlates with the fact that people of colour are more likely to be frontline workers. In London, which was the coronavirus capital of the UK at several points, ethnic minority workers were found to be particularly over-represented in health, social care and food production.

Andrew is a London-based train conductor. In the depths of lockdown, he and his colleagues had the added responsibility of making sure the other frontline workers – including health workers and police officers – were able to get to and from work safely.

Andrew says that solidarity between frontline staff lasted much longer than from the wider public.

“We would wake them up so they wouldn’t miss their stops, sometimes after working for 24-hour shifts,” he says. “We would chat to them so they could decompress and just tried to be the best humans we could be to them.”

Now that trains are busy again, Andrew says that the abuse of railway staff is “way worse” than it was before. Train staff are seemingly an easy target for taking out frustrations of the daily grind.

Quite often when someone is shouting at me over something I have no control over, I ask them if they clapped on their doorsteps for us and that usually shuts them up with shame,” he says. 

The rise in passenger numbers means that Andrew is encountering vulnerable people a lot more now too.

Abuse I can deal with. You learn to not take that home when your shift is over. But the hardest part is the encounters with suicidal persons, which there are more of now,” he says.

We’re given training on how to manage and protect them, as well as ourselves, but a little bit of each case stays with you. It’s much harder to deal with after the year we’ve had, where it feels like we’re running on empty.”

As the pandemic has progressed, it feels like the scepticism some key workers felt towards gestures such as clapping and being described as “heroes” was justified.

When they were seen as an inconvenience, many feel like they were either ignored or straight-up blamed. Now, with winter ahead and the cost of living rising in the US, UK and Europe, there isn’t a huge amount of optimism on the ground. 

“People seem to be desperate to go ‘back to normal’, but normal didn’t actually work for a lot of people,” John says. “It’s easy to clap, but much more difficult to actually learn from your mistakes.”

*Names have been changed.