By Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu

Accustomed to a busy London lifestyle and speaking at events across the country, life under lockdown is a big adjustment for 72-year-old Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu. As well as being an Emeritus Professor of Nursing at the University of West London, she is an author, lecturer, public speaker and a patron of two charities. Here she shares her experience of the highs and lows of self-isolating during Coronavirus, from missing her independence to a deeper appreciation of her balcony.

How has the Coronavirus pandemic impacted your daily life?

The most immediate impact of the Coronavirus was the instruction that all people over 70 should self-isolate and avoid face-to-face contact. This was about a week or so before most of the population was required to also stay at home.

It is now 12 years since I retired from fulltime academic work, but I have been kept very busy since then, as amongst other activities, I am a Patron of the Sickle Cell Society and Life Patron of the Mary Seacole Trust. And ever since my memoirs, Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union, were published in 2016, an unexpected but pleasant outcome is that I’ve received constant invitations from all over the UK to give motivational talks about how I overcame obstacles experienced in my early and difficult start in life. Understandably, when the self-isolation guidance was announced, advance bookings to speak up and down the country were cancelled.

Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu speaking at Royal College of Nursing

Me speaking at the launch of my book in October 2016 at the Royal College of Nursing
Photo: David Gee

For the first few days, I had a great sense of unease and anxiety which caused unexpected difficulties in sleeping.

But gradually a daily pattern of activities developed, and I have settled into a more peaceful, less emotionally draining existence and sleep well most nights.

Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu in self-isolation

Me in self-isolation in my flat in London

The other big change is having to depend on neighbours to help with shopping, particularly when it has been virtually impossible to book regular online shopping delivery slots. I cannot thank them enough for their kindness. I really miss going for a walk in the local park and meeting up with so many friends for coffee or lunch. And also, at the back of my mind, is the worry that I might fall ill at home and be unable to call for help.

How has self-isolation affected your relationships with friends and family?

It is natural to be worried about members of my family, but all seem to be coping well. My daughter is an actor and part-time support worker and I am in touch with her and my granddaughter regularly courtesy of FaceTime, phone calls and texts. We have noticed that in fact, we are now in daily contact, which wasn’t always the case prior to the Coronavirus outbreak.

Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu and her family

My daughter Azuka, me (Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu), and my granddaughter Rhianne at Pride of Britain Awards in October 2019 where I was given the Lifetime Achievement Award

I’m also staying in touch with friends by phone, text, and FaceTime, and through social media such as Twitter and, less frequently, Facebook. My only challenge was when my mobile was faulty for around three days and this did create a sense of panic and isolation.

Are you able to get regular exercise and look after your emotional health?

Fortunately, our block of flats has a communal garden and I faithfully go out for a daily 30-minute walk, come rain or shine! The cherry blossom is absolutely beautiful at the moment and cheers me up immensely.

Enjoying my daily walk in the communal garden

My weekly Pilates class has just gone online as our teacher has recently recovered from COVID-19. It was a joy to reconnect with the class! I also have a balcony and often go on it to just stand and gaze as it provides me with a sense of connection to the outside world.

The cherry blossom tree in our communal garden

Reading, listening to music, dancing around to favourite tunes, recording and watching lots of television programmes and Netflix are helping my emotional well-being enormously!

How do you think the challenges caused by the outbreak are greater for women who are already marginalised?

I am constantly thinking of the challenges faced by those women who are poor, sick, in overcrowded accommodation with children and/or in an abusive relationship. Also, of those who will lose pay if they take time off work to look after sick children. As well as those who are putting their lives at risk in jobs where they are on the COVID-19 frontline but are not being provided with adequate personal protective equipment. As a former nurse, it is alarming that health staff could be left exposed to this extremely contagious and dangerous virus. It makes me feel so angry.

Me back when I was a Staff Nurse at Paddington General Hospital in 1968

Finally, I'm thinking of those who do not speak English fluently and are having to navigate the Benefits system and also healthcare institutions, should they sadly fall ill with COVID-19 or any other illness. It is frightening to consider the higher impact that COVID-19 seems to have had on Black and Minority Ethnic communities and the burden and emotional toll that it will leave. I am very concerned about this, not only because I am a Black woman, but as a former NHS specialist nurse for sickle cell and thalassaemia disorders, conditions that mainly affect Black & Minority individuals. 

Me in front of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue, St Thomas’ Hospital, London, when unveiled in June 2016. I was Vice-Chairperson of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal - and am now a Life Patron of the Mary Seacole Trust.

What hopes do you have for the future, after this is all over?

That we will always remember how much was taken for granted until it was taken away from us. That my many friends who work as nurses, midwives, doctors or in social care will come through this safely and that they will be more valued than they were before this crisis hit so cruelly.

What message would you like to give readers?

Keep in touch with family members, friends and neighbours and use relevant helplines should that be necessary. Take good care of yourself. Think of the time when it will all be over.

Banner photo: David Gee