We are delighted to share with you the article that appeared in the Independent newspaper.
The text of the article is attached and if you wish to access the other photos then you can click on the link. Please be aware that we do not claim any credit for this article and this is sent to you with recognition and credit to the authors of the Independent newspaper.
This article is being sent to you as it relates to the local focus of our city and how the wonderful people of our city have shown such courage and strength to meet such difficult and trying circumstances.
It is also a credit to all of our volunteers at MBCOL and in particular Adam Sabat who have demonstrated tremendous resilience and determination. This is also a real credible example of how we in the city can achieve so much if we all work together for the common good.
Being recognised in a national publication is a wonderful recognition for all of us working at all levels both within in the public sector, voluntary sector and all other statutory agencies. We should draw strength and pride from what we have achieved together. We achieve extraordinary when we work as one.
We at MBCOL would like to recognise and thank all the volunteers and our supporters in meeting not only the challenges immediately facing us but also future challenges in the years ahead.
The text of the attached article is attached and if you wish to access the other photos then you can click on the link. Please be aware that we do not claim any credit for this article and after this is sent to you with recognition and credit to the authors of the independent newspaper.
What we’ve lost
(Courtesy of The Independent Newspaper)
Thursday 23rd December 2021
As the rise of Omicron fuels Covid cases, Britain faces another spike of the virus and, with it, tighter restrictions once again. But what was the true toll of the first waves of the pandemic? In Leicester, a city kept in lockdown longer than the rest of the UK, families tell Samuel Lovett their stories of grief, loss and second chances
Pressure on the NHS, calls for lockdown and ever-tighter restrictions, uncertainty over Christmas – the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant is accelerating a new wave of Covid-19 across the UK and, with it, many of the same conversations and concerns that dominated 2020.
While we look to brace for another spike in coronavirus, many are still coming to terms with the impact of the last round of lockdowns. We know the statistics that define Covid-19 in Britain – more than 11.6 million confirmed cases, over 170,000 deaths. But behind each of those numbers lies a human story. There are, too, the knock-on effects: jobs lost and businesses closed, delayed or cancelled treatment.
In Leicester, a city that suffered harsh restrictions longer for than anywhere else with an extended local lockdown through summer 2020 because of the high number of cases, the scars from Covid remain. Across the city, families tell us how their pandemic unfolded from March 2020 as a deadly virus tore across the globe, changing lives in a way many are still coming to terms with
It is March 2020. Adam Sabat sits at a desk by the window of his front room. He has been forced to shield, staying at home because the treatment for his arthritis suppresses his immune system. But still he must keep working.
Adam works for the Muslim Burial Council of Leicester, arranging the final resting places for the deceased of all religions in the city. To confirm a burial, he must see a death certificate in person. So this is his solution – a seat by the window looking out on to Evington Lane, so grieving families can approach and show him their documents through the glass.
There are nights when they come to him in the rain. He will diligently fill out the paperwork, unable to provide any comfort to the bereaved on the other side of the window pane as they stand silently under dark clouds.
The stream of people arriving at his window will grow and grow as Covid-19 takes hold. Later Adam will confirm the burials of a son, mother and father in the same week. One of his own friends will fall to the virus, followed by the man’s wife two days later. Adam will lay them to rest in the same grave, side by side.
It is a time defined by loss – lost lives, lost time, lost chances. And Adam watches it all, day by day, at his front window.
Leicester’s vibrancy is rooted in the east of the city. Across Highfields, Spinney Hills and North Evington – three of the most prominent, diverse districts – the lines between cultures are blurred.
Nestled between terraced houses are the marble mosques, minarets raised high above the tiled roofs. Around the corner, incense hangs in the air outside a gurdwara. Nearby, an Evangelical church with ornate windows stands squat on Melbourne Road.
The foundations of communities are in the colourful textile shops, the old-fashioned cash and carry stores, the bazaars, the Bollywood-themed Piccadilly Cinema, the halal butchers, the super sweet marts.
This is the beating heart of Leicester, but it is fertile ground for contagion. When Covid moves through the city – first as a stream, later as a tidal wave – there is nowhere to hide. It rips through households and entire families. It infects tightly packed congregations. It seeps into the Victorian-built garment factories and corner shops. Very quickly, the virus is everywhere.
It starts as a cough. Even as the horrors from Bergamo, in northern Italy, dominate the headlines, Ify Klu doesn’t consider that it could be Covid. “It was far away from us,” she says later. “The reality hadn’t sunk in yet.”
On 16 March, her family calls 111 as her breath becomes shorter, her temperature higher. On the night of the 22nd, she collapses while walking to the bathroom at her home on Avebury Avenue. She screams out into the night, but her children lie asleep in bed.
For two hours she remains on the floor, calling out into the silence, unable to move her legs. It is only when one of her sons rises at 4am to use the bathroom that Ify is rescued. Later that day an ambulance is called but it is gone midnight by the time paramedics arrive. “We waited hours,” says Ify. “People were dropping dead all over Leicester.”
That evening, 23 March, a solemn Boris Johnson announces the first lockdown. “The coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades,” he tells the nation. “You must stay at home.”
As Ify lies in the intensive care unit of Glenfield Hospital in the northwest of Leicester, surrounded by other Covid victims, her doctors have little hope she will pull through. The vessels in her legs are covered in clots. Her lungs are ravaged by the virus, reducing function by 50 per cent.
At 56 years old, her body is shutting down. Her oxygen treatment isn’t working. Neither are the antibiotics. For five days Ify is lost in a world of twisted wires and beeping machines, oblivious to what was going on around her. But then she opens eyes. “I could see these 10 doctors around me,” she says. “I could see them all, they were surprised. They didn’t think I’d make it.”
What she sees next will never leave her.
“For three or four hours, before they moved me to the general ward, I was awake in ICU,” she says later. “Oh my god, how many dead people passed in front of me. It was horrible. They were just constantly moving them off beds and away. It was terrifying.”
Ify watches nurses bursting into tears, overwhelmed as one patient after another dies on their watch. The pandemic is reaching its first peak, and those on the frontline are unprepared for the rising infections across Britain. There is little knowledge of Covid-19 and how to treat it. In some hospitals, nurses must wear bin bags instead of PPE. Thousands are kept out of work due to exposure to the virus and the need to self-isolate. Dedicated Covid wards are opened in an attempt to deal with the surging admission rates. Elderly and frail patients are denied life-saving care. Families are prevented from saying goodbye.
“It was pandemonium,” says one ICU nurse at Glenfield Hospital. “I’ve never seen anything like it. And I hope to never experience anything like it again.”
Ify is alone and unable to see her family, all of whom had been receiving updates through the hospital’s doctors. Her husband William, stuck in Ghana with their son, is sick with worry every time his phone rings.
She is eventually discharged on 30 March, wearing nothing but a flimsy hospital gown. All her possessions have been lost. She has no clothes, no mobile phone. But she doesn’t care as her daughter Sena greets her in the Glenfield car park. “I was so, so happy to go home,” she says.
March turns to April. The lockdown has been in place for more than a week now. Twenty-four deaths in Leicester have been attributed to Covid, but the true figure is thought to be far higher. The streets are quiet but for the distant howl of sirens. Schools are shut. So too are churches, mosques and temples. Many have moved their services online, believers huddling around home computers.
Others cannot abandon their work. Some are driven by a sense of civic duty; they have buses to drive, hospitals to clean, shelves to stack. Some need the money. The government’s furlough scheme for workers does not apply to them, so they will continue to shuttle passengers in taxis, to prepare and deliver takeaways, to weave garments in Leicester’s hidden sweatshops.
Then there are those looking after others – the patients who have fallen sick with this mysterious disease; the terminally ill; the mentally ill; the old and frail. The dead, too.
‘I’ve got to go’
Urmila Aggarwal is arguing with her son, Raj, urging him not to go to work. He owns a thriving convenience store on Queens Drive, to the south of the city centre, alongside younger brother Simon. Covid has made his customers even more reliant on the business.
“I’ve got to do it,” he tells his mother. “I’ve got to go.”
The Aggarwals, a Hindu family of six, including two elderly grandparents, are fearful of what is to come as they sit in their red-brick home on the edge of the city.
“I’ve got to go,” Raj repeats. Just the week before, as the shadow of Covid crept across England, he was at Glenfield Hospital handing out tea and biscuits to staff. He is loved by his friends, his customers, those in the retail sector who he has inconspicuously helped over the years.
But Raj does not see himself as at-risk. He is young, just 51. He’s giving more consideration to what to wear that day; he takes pride in how he looks, his suits, his colourful ties. Things might be a little tight around the waist, but that won’t stop his customers from complimenting him.
“I’ve got to go.” Like his mother, Raj is a stubborn, headstrong, laborious, obsessive perfectionist. And so he leaves.
The Aggarwals celebrate Kishan’s 80th birthday, with Raj, far right, and mother Urmila, front left, next to Raj’s wife Sunita
The symptoms start a week later. Raj is the type to always bounce back after falling ill, or falling over – something he has a comical knack for. To be safe, he locks himself away in the main bedroom, forcing wife Sunita to sleep downstairs. He hates the monotony. He texts his friends, telling them he feels suffocated.
But the isolation doesn’t stop the virus. Kishan, Raj’s 82-year-old father, is next. He already suffers from an essential tremor and receives 24-7 care. His bed is moved downstairs, into the front room. He has been struggling for years now, so it’s no surprise to see him deteriorate.
Urmila is the last to follow. She’s hit hard by a raging fever, and takes refuge in one of the spare rooms on the first floor. She won’t let anyone in. Varun, her grandson, stands in the garden beneath her window and throws a thermometer up so she can check her temperature.
She has rarely spent any time apart from her husband of 53 years. After marrying in India in the late 60s, Urmila and Kishan started their life together in a small terraced house in the narrow streets of Spinney Hills, where generations of families have little room to breathe. They both worked at the Walkers crisp factory nearby, and later founded a Hindu temple for Punjabi families in the city. They never left one another’s side.
Kishan, in particular, is not coping well with the separation. He loses his appetite and grows weaker. Sunita often wheels him into the garden, so he can wave up to his wife. He perks up and eats his food. But these moments are fleeting.
Urmila, meanwhile, is becoming delusional. The virus has crept into her mind, warping her grasp on reality. On the evening that Raj falls in the bath, she is unaware of the commotion in the next room. Despite the screams of Sunita, who is forced to lift her husband alongside her two children, Urmila remains oblivious.
The family is still hopeful Raj will get better. He has to get better. But Raj does not improve. By the first Friday of April, his breathing has become shallow and laboured. Sunita calls 999 and, not long after, two paramedics in white hazmat suits walk into her house. “My god, what has he got?” she thinks.
They treat Raj with oxygen, check his vital signs but aren’t convinced he needs to go to hospital. Sunita signs the paperwork and, just as the men go to leave, they check Raj’s tongue for dehydration. It doesn’t look right. At the last minute, the decision is made to admit him.
Raj will never return. He dies six days later in the intensive care unit of Glenfield Hospital. Only Sunita and Varun are allowed with him in his final moments. The rest of the family are forced to look on through their phones. “I love you,” Sunita tells her motionless husband. He is conscious, the nurses say. But they are to be among the last words he hears.
The next day, Kishan passes too. Whether it is from Covid, the family does not know. Kishan dies in the arms of his younger son Simon, his eyes searching the front room for his wife as he slips away. But she has already been hospitalised, taken away by the paramedics hours earlier.
Urmila will be the only one of the three to survive. To this day, she remembers little of her time in hospital: bright lights, searing stomach pains, the warm embrace of morphine, broken and hysterical phone calls with her family.
When she returns home, she finds Covid has now taken her husband, as well as her son.
Tariq Master deals with the deceased every day. Before the pandemic, he ran an escape room in the city centre. After the business shut, he wanted to give back to his community. Now, as Leicester’s epidemic intensifies, he helps wash and shroud Muslims at the Jame Mosque.
The elders who would usually carry out these rituals have been asked to step back to protect themselves. Instead, Tariq, aged 34, and 250 youngsters from the community have come forward to carry the burden, ensuring the deceased are prepared for burial as quickly as possible, as dictated by Islamic law.
It is demanding work, carried out on two metal tables under the harsh white lights of a small mortuary. There is still little known about this virus, including whether the dead can infect the living. Experts at Leicester University have assured volunteers they can proceed. They spend 30 minutes before each ceremony putting on a hazmat suit, three layers of gloves, an N95 mask and an apron. But Tariq still worries.
First, he must avoid damaging or disturbing the body – kept masked at all times – while removing objects such as pipes and cannulas left behind by the hospital.
Next the deceased will be washed with scented water before the body is wrapped three times in white cloth, with prayers said.
The PPE made it difficult to begin with, but Tariq has become more comfortable. Even so, he still feels the weight of responsibility each time he is confronted with another life lost to Covid. In Islam, it is the religious duty of the community to wash and shroud a Muslim body, not the family’s. Tariq knows this. He cannot let them down.
The days grow more intense. Deeper and deeper, Covid spreads into the community. In the shadow of Maxfield House, a colossus of concrete walls and opaque windows, a mother of two young children mourns the loss of her father and mother. Streets away, back from an uncharacteristically quiet Melbourne Road, the owner of a spice and medicines shop has begun to feel unwell. Ten doors up, an old Somali man has become feverish after a night of restlessness and paranoia.
Centre of the stormTariq Masters, back left, and his team in their small mortuary at Jame Mosque
The dead come in masses. Bodies are piled in the mosque’s refrigerators, though the majority are left at hospital mortuaries. There is talk among faith leaders of portable refrigerated vehicles to deal with the rising deluge of death, and a shortage of land at Saffron Hill Cemetery, where many of Leicester’s Muslims are laid to rest.
Families have to wait for up to three days at a time to bury their loved ones, but all Tariq and his team can do is carry on with the job at hand. On the bad days, they will wash and shroud up to five bodies, one after another, from first light to dusk. But it’s not enough. It’s never enough. They are swimming against the tide.
A city shut down
Summer 2020. The whole country breathes a sigh of relief as restrictions are eased. Covid is on the retreat. Promises are made of a return to normality. There is talk – and hope – that the vaccines are going to be effective. Time to get life back on track.
But in Leicester, infections persist. The city cannot escape the virus, which has buried itself deep into the communities of the east. There are pockets of destitution and cramped living conditions here, factories that pack workers in, side by side.
Even so, officials cannot point to a concrete explanation for the area’s high caseload. “I don’t think at the moment we’re seeing a single cause or a single smoking gun on this,” Dr Ivan Browne, the city’s public health director, says at the end of June.
As the rest of England unlocks, Leicester keeps its restrictions. Restaurants, hairdressers and retailers that had geared up for a grand reopening are told to remain shut. Lines are drawn around the city, demarcating between those still in lockdown – and those out of it.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” says Lorraine Rust, a resident who lives on Bowhill Grove, a 500-yard stretch of road out on the periphery of Leicester that has been split in two by the lockdown boundary. “You can’t just do one side and not the other.” Here, life on the line has taken a very literal meaning.
The measures do work, though. The city’s infection rate, the highest in the country at one stage, drops from 135 cases per 100,000 to 55 by the start of August. It’s enough to briefly reopen some businesses, but not enough to allow the mixing of households.
And by the time summer closes, ushering in the colder autumn months and a resurgence in Covid cases, the city is once again heading towards catastrophe.
Searching for answers
Once dismissed and mocked because of his disability, Ian Bradwell has established himself as a lively presence in the community. He has run three times to become Leicester West’s MP as a Liberal Democrat, and worked with the council to improve local accessibility. He’s also a deacon at a nearby church.
In his house in Braunstone, where he’s lived since 1974, posters and paraphernalia from old horror films plaster the walls, box sets of every imaginable sci-fi series on the shelves. It is from here that Ian, who is severely visually impaired, would set out into Leicester to shop or visit the old Haymarket Theatre with the help of his guide dog Gemini, or Iona before her, or Reedy before that.
Cellulitis forces Ian into hospital in October 2020. Until then, he is convinced he has avoided the virus. But at Leicester’s Royal Infirmary, Ian’s luck runs out. Tested every other day, by 9 November, he’s told he has Covid.
By 16 November, Ian is desperately ill, despite showing few symptoms initially. His memory becomes faded and blurred. “I started going in and out of consciousness,” he says. Wires hang from his body, an oxygen mask covers his mouth and nose, forcing air into his lungs. The doctor tells him they will know within 48 hours whether the treatment will work.
“After that, if you’ve not responded, your low oxygen levels will starve your body and you’ll go into unconsciousness and then finally slip away.”
Ian is petrified. The walls close in, a claustrophobia he cannot escape. “You can’t run away,” he later says. “There’s no fight or flight. I had to sit there and accept my fate.” It’s at this point that Ian agrees to release Gemini so she can be rehomed.
Then, just like that, the nightmare is over. His blood oxygen levels climb. His breathing stabilises. The face mask is replaced by two tubes up his nose, before those too are
removed. He is able to go to the toilet by himself, to shower by himself, to walk by himself. The light at the end of the tunnel comes into view.
After more than a month in hospital, Ian is finally discharged on 3 December, into the biting cold of a dark, winter night. He is met by his sister, driven straight home to continue his recovery. “It was magical,” he says. “I’d never felt more alive at that moment.”
“What is this virus? My body has been damaged and I don’t know why. And why has it been allowed to spread?Ian Bradwell, who caught Covid in hospital, at his home in BraunstoneWhat is this virus? My body has been damaged and I don’t know why. And why has it been allowed to spread so openly and kill people?
But in the aftermath, the fear of death and being reinfected consume Ian. The dread sometimes descends at 2am, panic attacks stirring him from his half-sleep. The smallest prompt is enough, even the smell of food he ate in hospital. Despite a PTSD diagnosis, he is still waiting for therapy months later.
He struggles, too, with the loss of his guide dog, Gemini. He knows where she has been rehoused, which “makes it so much worse”, but he’s not allowed to visit her. “For her sake, I can’t have any contact with her otherwise it’ll destroy all the new training as she’ll want to come back to me,” he says. “She’s got a new family and apparently having a good life.”
For every life lost to this virus, there are many more like Ian who are still struggling with the fallout from their infection, physically and psychologically, searching for answers that remain out of reach.
Ian has not left his home in months. Not properly at least. He may potter into his garden, or attempt a short walk, but most of his mobility has been lost. His cellulitis has flared up again. Both legs have swollen to the size of small logs, forcing Ian to wear orthopedic shoes that are clumpy and cumbersome.
“I keep asking the nurses who visit me if I’m going to get better,” says Ian. “They reply, ‘How long is a piece of string?’” He pauses for thought. “What is this virus that sucks oxygen out of your blood and knackers your body up? My body has been damaged and I don’t know why. And why has it been allowed to spread so openly and kill people? Why hasn’t anybody been brought to book?”
Like many others, Ian has been left in a void carved out by Covid, one that is absent of possibility, spontaneity or the familiarities of life before the pandemic. Instead, Ian simply exists. Old memories rich with love, joy and warmth may sustain him – as do those around him – but there are times when this is not enough, when the well runs dry, when the hazed lethargy of day bleeds into the restlessness of night, over and over again.
On 16 December, Boris Johnson tells the nation restrictions will be paused for five days over Christmas, allowing three households to meet indoors.
For Richard Florence, the announcement is welcome respite. He has been unable to see his son, two daughters and their children properly for months on end, shut away in his home in Wigston, in the suburbs, caring for his 98-year-old mother Freda. Before Covid, his youngest girl Vicky would come round every Friday with her two sons. Tom, his son, would always visit the next day with his own daughter.
“Those conversations and connections with us each Friday were essential for him,” says Vicky from her garden in Sileby, a small town to the north of Leicester.
The news that Richard will finally be reunited with his family lifts his mood, which has grown darker and more sombre. He has always been a doer: a good cross-country runner and horse rider as a young boy, a mechanic by trade later in life. He is used to being outside, not cooped up at home.
Freda takes the pandemic better. She lived through the Second World War, overseeing an officers’ mess for the army. Her husband was a prisoner of war in Germany and reported dead, only to return home years later. Covid will come and go, she knows that.
Although the government changes its guidance 48 hours later, dictating that families outside of Tier 4 areas could meet only on Christmas Day itself, by then the message has been lost. Vicky, her husband and two sons held their Christmas on Boxing Day. Other relatives, including Vicky’s brother and sister-in-law, also visit but stagger their arrivals.
Fatal mixed messages
“We don’t know how it got in or who brought it in,” says Vicky. “It could have been from us, or one of the nurses. Everybody had been so careful.”
It is Vicky, with an autoimmune condition, who struggles initially. Within five days of the Boxing Day meeting, the paramedics are in her home recommending that she goes to hospital.
Her symptoms start as a pain in her neck, like whiplash. Before long she is incapacitated by hot and cold sweats, struggling to breathe. Despite this, she wants to stay home, promising the paramedic she will check her own oxygen levels regularly.
On 3 January, Freda is confirmed as having Covid. She is admitted to the Leicester Royal Infirmary after falling out of bed and tested as a matter of course. Soon after, the family is told to isolate by the NHS app.
Richard, a diabetic, is tested from home but does not display any symptoms. Useless with his phone, he may never have even seen his results.
For 25 years he has looked after his widowed mother in their home, having moved back in 1995 when his wife left him. As Freda grew frailer, Richard was always there to ensure the house remained spotless, just as she liked it. “She’d keep him busy,” says Vicky, “but he loved caring for her.”
With Freda in hospital, Richard wants to get the house cleaned up for her return, but he too has started to feel ill. On 6 January, Vicky has a vision of her father lying on his bed, legs flailing in the air, with an empty bottle of lemonade on the floor alongside his phone. As a medium who often receives intuitive messages, she knows she needs to act.
She calls sister Helen, who lives closer to their father, and is able get to the house on Baldwin Street by 5.30pm. The scene she encounters is exactly as Vicky described. “He was twitching due to his diabetes, he was in hypo,” says Helen. “It was horrible.” An ambulance is called and he too goes to hospital.
Upon arrival at the infirmary, Richard tells the nurses he’s fine. But his oxygen readout tells a different story. He is fitted with a mask in the hope of raising his blood oxygen levels, but it covers his entire face, smothering him. He hates every minute of it.
Richard Florence with daughters Vicky, right, and Helen
While Richard grows increasingly distressed, kept alive by the ventilation alone, Freda is completely at ease – despite the nurses’ repeated insistence she is close to death. She even sits up in bed, drinking cups of tea.
It is classic Freda, says Vicky. She’s more concerned by the fact her nail polish has been removed. “Grandma was always pristine. She’ll have wanted to make sure she looked good. Luckily she’d had a perm recently. Apparently people were telling her on the ward that she looked beautiful.”
Freda dies first, 12 hours before her son, on Tuesday 12 January. Her passing is swift and painless. The last and oldest of three siblings, she has been asking when it would be her turn for years. But her son is far from ready to go, dying with morphine running through his blood, barely 60 minutes after removing his mask.
Vicky speaks to him in that final hour over the phone, still sick and trapped in her bedroom. “My brother and mum were there holding his hand but I couldn’t go,” she says. “He couldn’t talk, you could just hear the machines and the noise. His breathing was awful. I told him we loved him.”
Shafiun Nahar Wahid’s voice is hushed and rasped. “La ilaha illallah,” she says. “There is no god but Allah.” Her son, Ahmed, watches on by her side. “There is no god but Allah,” they say together. His mother’s death draws closer with each breath. He knows this time is precious. He knows she will soon pass.
The prayer is simple but deeply important. It is a declaration of faith. All Muslims will utter these words in their final moments to ensure that they die in a state of devotion, with Allah in their heart and mind as they slip away.
“La ilaha illallah,” whispers Shafiun Nahar. She has struggled to speak for days now, bound to a single bed in the front room of her home, but this prayer is discernible. For the weak and frail especially, the prayer is easy to say – it can be recited just through the rolling of the tongue. “There is no god but Allah.”
The 70-year-old has lymphoma, a rare type of blood cancer that was detected at the end of 2020 after scans revealed a lump in her lower abdomen. She first complained of stomach pains earlier in the summer but was reluctant, because of Covid, to act. It was only as the pain intensified that the family realised something was not right and took her to hospital on 16 December.
It was there, in Leicester General, where Shafiun Nahar was infected. Weeks passed, during which she was repeatedly discharged and admitted. But on 27 January, the doctors declared there was nothing more they could do. Shafiun Nahar had originally pulled through her fight with Covid but the virus continued to linger in her cancer-stricken body.
It was Ahmed who accompanied her in the back of the ambulance during the five-minute ride to Roundhill Road in North Evington. “Don’t go yet,” he told his mother, as she drifted in and out of consciousness. “We’re going home.”
Faith through tragedyThey were married for 52 years but hopefully are now together for eternity“Shafiun Nahar Wahid and her husband AbdulThey were married for 52 years but hopefully are now together for eternity. I hope to join them one day
Shafiun Nahar made Leicester her home in 1975, eight years after marrying Abdul and emigrating from Bangladesh as a teenager. It had been Abdul who had first made the journey to the UK, first by boat to Iraq, then by begging for money in the streets to complete his trip. Years later, he returned to the same alleyways and emptied his pockets for the poor who had taken his place.
His wife joined him later, and together the two established one of the first Bengali families in Leicester, at a time when thousands of South Asians were also migrating.
Some days would pass without a sighting of Abdul, who would up be up early buying produce at the local markets before managing his restaurant beyond midnight. So it fell to Shafiun Nahar to set the rhythm and rhyme of everyday life for the Wahids, raising their five children.
She was loving but firm, dedicated entirely to both her family and Allah, a first-generation mother who was unafraid to discipline her children – should they step out of line – but whose love was unconditional. When Ahmed began running his own restaurant on Evington Road, Shafiun Nahar would call each night at 11pm to check in on him and see how business was going. On those occasions when he was unable to pick up, the perturbed mother would often leave a voicemail, scorning her son for failing to answer.
It is these memories now running through Ahmed’s mind as he sits by her side. Four days have passed since the journey back from Leicester General – each one seen by the Wahids as a blessing.
The pandemic still rages. The UK is deep into its winter wave, driven by the more infectious Alpha variant. The official records show more than 100,000 dead, but there are thought to be tens of thousands more.
For Leicester, cases rates are among the highest in the country, especially in Oadby and Wigston – a borough which has become the city’s epicentre. Hospital admissions exceed the levels seen during the first wave. In January alone, 578 people were ushered into Leicester’s overwhelmed Covid wards.
Yet the five Wahid children have been able to spend time with their mother, to hold her hand, to exchange prayers alongside her. So too has Abdul, though due to his old age and fraility, he has to wear PPE and not linger. These are rare moments of humanity in a pandemic that has industrialised and sanitised the passing of life. So many others in Leicester have been denied the opportunity to say goodbye. The Wahids know they are fortunate.
For every hour of the day, a loved one is present: from the warm glow of sunrise to the darkness of midnight. But Monday evening draws with a sense that her final hours are approaching. Ahmed has come home to be with his own wife and family, but, at 8.30pm, on 1 February, returns to Roundhill Road. He sets out a mattress outside his mother’s room, joined by his younger brother, Mohammed, and they split the night into two shifts.
Ahmed lasts until 2am, his eyes and body heavy with sleep. When he’s woken by his brother three hours later, Shafiun Nahar has finally gone.
Ahmed and his brother Mohammed pray by their parents’ grave at Saffron Hill cemetery
“For surety we come from god, and to god we must all return.” Over and over the two brothers say the prayer. It is the first utterance made after a Muslim has passed. They are soon joined by the rest of the family in the house. Together, as Shafiun Nahar lays in state next door, as the early morning light dissipates the darkness of night, they perform the Fajr prayer – the first of the day.
Once done, it becomes a matter of urgency to arrange the burial. Ahmed needs a medical professional to certify the death, so rings his GP. This can be done remotely, the doctor says. “Are you strong enough for this?” Yes, whatever needs to be done, I will do, Ahmed tells him.
Guided over video call, the grieving son places his head on his mother’s chest to check for any breathing and signs of movement. Nothing. Next, he lifts his mother’s eyelids to check the eyes. Within five minutes, the death is confirmed. The certificate is signed, with lymphoma as the primary cause of death and Covid secondary.
The funeral is held the next day, at 9.30am at Saffron Hill Cemetery. Ahmed has slept little. He is haunted by the thought of his mother caught in limbo, deceased but not yet laid to rest.
He’s joined by his brothers and immediate family at the cemetery. They line up in rows, 30 of them, behind the imam, all facing the direction of Mecca, with Shafiun Nahar’s coffin in front of them.
Family members who could not attend, including Abdul, watch through FaceTime. A space next to his wife has been left for his own grave. He will join her in a matter of weeks, at 88 years of age – the victim of a bleed on the brain and a broken heart.
In each corner of Leicester – and the UK – there are stories like these, sparked by Covid.
Unimaginable grief and loss, tragedy upon tragedy. Another wave of the virus means more stories like these, as illness spreads once again and hospital wards fill with coronavirus patients.
Sunita dreads the thought of condolences, words and embraces that should have been exchanged long ago when Raj passed. They come unexpectedly, taking her back to the 72 hours of trauma.
But she smiles, too, at the memories she has. At the legacies her husband and father-in-law left, at the love and anger she shared with them.
Ahmed, too, thinks of his mother. He misses her love, her kindness and her devotion. But he is reassured that they will meet again, in eternal paradise. “They were married for 52 years but are now hopefully together for eternity,” he says. “I hope to join them one day.”
Freda was laid to rest and, after some deliberation, the family decided to scatter Richard’s ashes on the rolling hills of Great Easton, in eastern Leicestershire, where he used to ride his horses and drive Vicky around in his clapped-out, one-seater tractor as she sat in his lap. “Dad always said he’d like to be free somewhere, in the open,” she says.
For those who survived, too, uncertainty lingers in every corner of life. For Ian, it is not clear when his PTSD will subside – or if he can have treatment. He sits in the chair of his front room, faded and greyed by time, with the spot still empty where his guide dog once sat, keeping him company.
But there is also hope. Ify’s road to recovery from those dark days of March 2020 has been long. Her energy levels are still not what they used to be.
But with time, her strength returned. She headed back to work after five months. Her medication, prescribed to clear the clots from her body, was brought to an end last month.
“The fact I’m here is more than enough,” she says. “It opens up your mind. It reminds you life is too short. Here today, gone tomorrow.”
The pandemic has taken so much, but Ify, at least, feels like she has gained something too – a second chance.