I’m writing a book about literature, Covid, race and colonialism. During my research, I was deeply moved by Roopa Farooki’s medical memoir Everything is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic. It’s an important work of non-fiction, and beautifully written.

In light of the past few years, it should come as no surprise that medicine in books is having a moment. Adam Kay’s darkly humorous This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor — about his experience in Britain’s National Health Service — became popular after its 2017 publication. Then it went stratospheric, when the BBC broadcast a television adaptation in 2022.

In his front-cover blurb, Kay calls fellow junior doctor Farooki’s book a “powerful and evocative account of working through the pandemic.” This is a good summary

of Everything is True. I’d add that, compared to her high-profile endorser, Farooki is less focused on jokes and more compassionate and alert to the suffering of women and Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people.

Farooki constructs a doctor’s and a writer’s diary on the first 40 days of the 2020 lockdown. This timescale is significant; she notes that the English word ‘quarantine’ comes from the Italian ‘quaranta’: “a period of 40 … days of isolation to prevent the spread of contagious disease.”

Telling the story in an unusual second-person mode — the narrator addresses herself as “you” as she provides dispatches from the inside of a fraught, overworked hospital — Farooki expertly shows readers her initial shock at the plague’s severity and reach.

This shock is exacerbated by the fog of grief she is in as a result of her sister Kiron’s death from cancer, pre-coronavirus. Throughout the book, she braids the political with the personal, especially when it comes to this bereavement.

In an interview, she shared some thoughts with me about families, public health and mortality. She started writing the book — later dedicated to Kiron — as a diary before she was fully aware of the pandemic. Even in January 2020, as she struggled with deep grief and demanding work, what was happening in China, and even Italy, felt far away.

By the project’s end, she was “writing the account for everyone else who had lost someone.” She told me: “My individual grief was submerged in the flood of tragedy, for every patient I lost and every family member I consoled.”

From this initial phase of disbelief, she steers us through her rage at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic, and the swift normalisation of mass deaths that followed. It is clear from early on that the book is sceptical of reckless optimism and the glibness of literary happy endings.

Farooki’s book is centrally concerned with healthcare, inequality and social justice. I asked her about Covid-19’s impact on these three intertwined issues.

She responded that, although we were all subject to the same lockdown rules and weathering the same pandemic, we were evidently not all experiencing the same risk.

Angrily, she listed those most at risk: “Healthcare workers, frontline workers, the people who kept essential services going, taught our children, looked after our loved ones, and stocked and sold us our groceries, had a disproportionate risk, increased still further if BAME.”

The wealthy were able to shelter from the pandemic in comfort. Indeed, as we are learning from ‘Partygate’, Britain’s politicians often ended their lockdown work with unlawful socialising and merriment.

Meanwhile, others were out on what became known as the ‘frontline’, unprotected and unsupported.

I then asked Farooki about George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement’s resurgence. She writes powerfully in the book about Floyd’s murder and resultant protests.

This global movement, she observed in our interview, served to highlight the risk of being Black in the Western world. More than that, it drew attention to the systematic prejudice and gaslighting of those who pointed it out.

“My hospital, like many UK hospitals, has a clinician profile far more diverse than the population we serve, and we were at greater risk by looking after our patients, [a risk] which took some time to be recognised. The first three clinician deaths in the UK from looking after patients with Covid were BAME, and one was from Pakistan, like me.”

Although in our conversation we both used the term ‘frontline’, Everything is True challenges and bends the battlefield imagery commonly used in relation to coronavirus and other illnesses.

More than once, Farooki recalls the heavy irony of Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ — a Latin phrase meaning “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Like Owen before her, Farooki shows the true horrors of the frontline, delineating how health workers, BAME people and the poor were used as “cannon fodder.”

What is more, like Susan Sontag in her ground-breaking work Illness as Metaphor, Farooki repudiates the language of war. For example, she probes hackneyed ideas of a person’s brave ‘battle’ with a virus. When Boris Johnson was hospitalised with Covid-19 in April 2020, his deputy called him a fighter who would heroically pull through.

Farooki finds this insulting, writing acidly that it is “as though the 7,000 dead weren’t fighters themselves, but weak and complicit.”

In Everything is True, Farooki discusses viral online content and epidemiological viruses together. Social media has interested her for quite some time, as she tweets well and is no stranger to virality in the digital world. We discussed the internet and her using it as a platform for writing.

She replied that this was a piece written in real time and “for many of us during lockdown, social media was our window on the wider world, while the birds flew free outside.” The internet felt like the only way to be informed, and sometimes to vent or reach out.

“Like many others, I was guilty of doom-scrolling into the night, with disbelief at what was happening. I’m not sure if my writing was particularly shaped by tech. Social media spilled into the storytelling, as it would have been a deliberate and disingenuous exclusion otherwise.”

This book forensically details the true crime committed in plain sight during Covid time. Read it and weep — as I did.

The columnist is professor of Global Literature at the University of York and author of three books

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 12th, 2022

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