‘It’s more than a pandemic. It’s a plague that’s taking hold of people’s lives’
Heartbreaking stories run through RTÉ Investigates: Covid-19 – The Third Wave (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 9.35pm). A husband hospitalised with the virus tries to keep the worrying truth from his wife, receiving treatment for Covid in the same building.
The cameras maintain a discreet distance at the funeral of an elderly couple, both claimed by coronavirus within the same week. A doctor calls the family member of a patient to reveal their condition has deteriorated badly. He puts down the phone and tries not to sob.
RTÉ has reported previously from the Covid frontline. But this latest dispatch, from Tallaght University Hospital, is perhaps the most unsettling yet. Filmed through January it soberly and respectfully – but chillingly, too – shows us the reality of the post-Christmas surge that has led to fears of the health service becoming swamped.
“In many ways, hospitals have been overrun in recent weeks,” Prof Paul Ridgway, the lead clinical director of Tallaght University Hospital, says. “If we were to have a wave that continues and continues to increase … then, yes, our bed base in the country would be overrun.”
“We’re unfortunately in a situation where not every patient that requires ICU may be able to avail of ICU care,” adds Dr Jean O’Sullivan. “It’s not a situation any doctor wants to be in.”
Though the documentary is at pains not to lean into melodrama,the picture painted is grim. One patient is rushed to hospital with breathing difficulties only to be told they must wait in an ambulance until space is found at the hospital. Judith Connolly, a consultant anaesthetist, describes how “long Covid” has left her with shortness of breath. She hopes to recover. But she cannot say with certainty that she will.
We learn that many of the critically ill are in their 30s and 40s. “I kept myself to myself and I just got it,” says Gary Goldsmith, hospitalised after his entire family contracted the virus. “We’d been so careful. It just happened.”
There is a glimmer of hope at the very end as we see staff from Tallaght receive their coronavirus vaccinations
There are haunting images of patients wrapped in plastic as they are moved between wards. It looks inhuman – but, with five out of 22 junior doctors at Tallaght absent with Covid-19 at one point – there is no other option.
With documentaries such as this, the film-maker must follow the medical example and maintain a clinical detachment. Otherwise there is a risk of exploiting people’s misery. Carefully walking this line, the RTÉ crew convey the terrible reality of Covid without manipulating the audience or wallowing in the suffering. Sitting through it is unnerving yet also slightly numbing.
There is a glimmer of hope at the very end as we see staff from Tallaght University Hospital receive their coronavirus vaccinations. But it is just a twinkle of light. It will be months before the wider effects of the vaccination roll-out is felt, and the tunnel taking us there is long and dark.
“It’s more than a pandemic,” is how Fr John Kelly, a hospital chaplain at Tallaght, distills his experience of the third wave shortly before the end credits. “It’s a plague that’s taking hold of people’s lives.”