By Rachel Sumner
Several people have asked me over the last few months why we started CV19 Heroes. Why, given all that was going on, did we think we should get to work? If you had asked me this question in March 2020 my answer would be exactly the same as it is today: because we felt the need to do something. The project has changed a great deal over the pandemic (along with everything else!), but our conviction to doing our part – whatever that may be – has never changed.
Back in March 2020 when the world was turning upside down, I was desperately trying to adapt to teaching online – wrapping my head around new online systems I’d never heard of, trying to update activities in my classes to be more appropriate to online delivery, and generally trying not to implode at the thought of what was going on around me. I was lucky enough to meet Elaine several years prior when I was working at the University of Limerick. Her area of expertise, heroism, was always so fascinating to me, and whilst I had always wanted to work with her on something, I never thought we would get the chance. Our work was always worlds apart. Elaine researched concepts and ideas that were inspirational and focused on the improvement of wellbeing; I researched all things dark and gloomy – looking at how and why social situations harm our health. Until all of a sudden it wasn’t worlds apart, and CV19 Heroes was created.
I’m not sure if I ever seriously thought that two years down the line that we would still be doing this project, nor that we would still be in the pandemic for that matter. I certainly never thought we would have managed to do the work we’ve done so far. Prior to the pandemic both Elaine and I were already very busy academics. We had courses to run, students to supervise, projects to manage, postgraduate students to mentor, and a whole heap of academic admin to deal with. If you had asked me to take on another project at that point, I probably would have fallen over laughing. As for Elaine, she was busy on maternity leave not long after giving birth to her second beautiful son. She had more than enough on her plate. Yet something just clicked for both of us, and we got to work very quickly to get things started.
I come from an NHS family and have had a strong sense of social responsibility drummed into me throughout my life. My family are very useful people, all serving roles of benefit to society, and I have for a long time been a bit of an outlier. As an academic I do share my knowledge with others through teaching, but for the most part my academic trail has been blazed in a very introverted and quiet path of wanting and needing to solve problems or accrue knowledge. My research has always been about health, but up until now it had mostly centred on working out why things go wrong, and what happens when they do. I was always fascinated with the mechanics of life, and whilst I was always very geared towards wanting to do something that would help, my work felt very distant from any tangible benefit to actual people. There was something about the pandemic that flicked a switch in me, however, to starting to feel a burning need to do something, to contribute, to play my part in whatever way I could. I finally found that I could be useful – if not directly then at least in a way that would make some quiet backstage contribution to the monumental effort going on around me. I think a lot of other people felt the same too, which is why we saw the beautiful beginnings of solidarity groups, community help and support groups, and rainbows in windows. This sudden jolt from the norm made us all stand to attention for a time, and we all had to do what we could to get through it.
It hasn’t always been easy to work on the project. There have been times where I have had too many competing or simply crazy deadlines, times where analysing the data has hit me like a hammer to the chest, and times where I have felt my heart break for those we are working with and for. I have cried at my laptop countless times, and will likely do so countless times again as we continue our work on this project. As a psychologist you are trained from a very early point to understand your professional boundaries, to work within your remit but also to be sensitive to the needs of others. That is a very fine line to walk when you also have your own emotions thrown in there too, which of course you do at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic when you are worried for the health and wellbeing of those near and dear. I have had a very repetitive battle within me to remain as objective as possible whilst also allowing the work to guide me forward with what to do next. We have also engaged in activities I have never myself done before. If you had told me two years ago that I would have discussed research live on Facebook, or presented evidence to parliament, I would have told you that was never EVER going to happen. Yet here we are. I should say at this point we have always been scared when it has come to these presentations, and it has never been easy, but we have done it regardless because we do it for our participants.
It has also been hard for us because we have been fighting so hard to make space to be heard. We set the project off with no funding and no real support. It was two people, one of whom was on maternity leave, setting up what would turn out to be a colossal project that would span several years. We have been very lucky indeed to have support from students along the way, and we have also been lucky to get awarded some small pots of money from our institutions to help us at key points as well, but despite trying (very hard!) we have never received the funding that other projects working in this space have. We are not household names in research in this space, so we have had to fight tooth and nail to get our findings out there so someone will hear them. That has also been exhausting and emotionally draining. Why won’t people listen? Why don’t they want to know? Why are other people’s opinions valued more than our data? All of these questions come up again and again. It has been frustrating and discouraging to say the least, but I find whenever I get frustrated, I just have to think back to why we’re doing this (or rather who we are doing this for) and that keeps me grounded.
I would love to say that my part in the project has been purely altruistic all of the time. Part of me does think that is the case, but there is also a part of me that knows were it not for this project I would have really suffered through the worry, isolation, and turmoil of the pandemic. Whether I consider the early days of checking the Covid dashboard daily and updating/monitoring survey spreadsheets, to the later days of preparing for presentations to give evidence on our findings, I have been kept very busy by this project, and it has saved me more than I probably know right now. The opportunity to be in some way useful during a time when I could have remained helpless and passive is something that I will always hold very close. I couldn’t treat the sick or keep society going, but I could do something to honour the sacrifices of those that were, and to help tell their stories, which is what Elaine and I have focused on throughout the pandemic, and what drives us forward still today.
Surviving the pandemic for me has also been in a large part down to the support, friendship, and commitment of my excellent research partner, Elaine, whose strength and determination is a constant inspiration to me. The drive also comes from the wonderful feedback from our participants, cheering us on along the way and letting us know that what we were doing was worth it. If I were to have my time again, I know I would do exactly the same thing because I can’t imagine ever not choosing to do it.