Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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The C-List celebs (that’s C for Covid)


DOES anybody else have the sneaking suspicion that one reason so many people want to keep Covid going is that it has become the celebrity disease of our time?

As Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty announces that we won’t be back to normal until at least next spring – the date for ‘normal’ keeps being put back and back – it could be that Covid has acquired such cult status that we might be lost without it.  Where would our ‘heroic’ doctors and nurses be if they had to treat just ordinary, prosaic diseases such as flu and pneumonia again?

Every now and again, a disease acquires a kind of glamour that is seen as carrying off the brightest and the best, the talented, sensitive souls who are cut off in their prime. In the 1980s it was Aids, talked up as the plague of our time, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was tuberculosis, whose literary and romantic associations continued until the invention of antibiotics.

We remember the immortal line of Keats: ‘Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies’, and John Keats himself became the poster boy of tuberculosis, dying from the disease at the age of 25. Much literature was inspired by tuberculosis and Charlotte Bronte, whose two sisters died from it, wrote: ‘Consumption, I am aware, is a flattering malady.’

And so is Covid. As with TB, going down with symptoms puts sufferers in a more flattering light, conferring both bravery and tragedy on them. If they were ordinary people before, they become special once they test positive for Covid.

It’s almost as if we need to have an illness or infection in our midst which is a badge of honour, and which conveys instant sainthood on both the sufferers and those who look after them. Princess Diana is remembered for many things, chief of which perhaps was her embracing of emaciated Aids patients when others kept their distance. And since last year, most of us have vivid pictures in our minds of front-line medical staff, all masked up and in scrubs, courageously putting their own health on the line to treat the victims of this new and apparently life-threatening respiratory complaint. 

It did not take long, once Covid-19 was identified last year, for it to become a celebrity’s condition. The first such, as I recall, to test positive was former Page Three girl Linda Lusardi. Aged 62 and practically forgotten, the diagnosis of Covid brought her right back into the public eye. Pictures from her glory days were plastered all over the media and her recovery was closely monitored in the tabloids where she first sprang to topless fame.  

The Prime Minister’s admission to hospital turned Covid into a superstar illness, as doctors fought bravely to save his life. After that, sports stars, television personalities and others in the public eye began announcing that they had tested positive. Famous names such as Esther Rantzen stated that they were self-isolating. Would they have made these announcements if they had gone down with winter flu or a bad cold? Of course not. But Covid added a kind of lustre to their reputation. Even the most glamorous, the most feted, were not immune. 

As if Covid itself was not enough, we soon had ‘long Covid’, which turned sufferers even more rapidly into saints and martyrs. The latest victim of long Covid to hit the public prints was Martha Hancock, estranged wife of former health secretary Matt.  A huge outpouring of sympathy was extended to her as she was pictured walking her dog, looking brave and resilient as she coped valiantly with the double whammy of being dumped by her husband and battling long Covid. 

Thanks to Covid, she has now become a celebrity in her own right and you can bet that she has been offered huge sums to tell her story, with special emphasis on the Covid she apparently caught from the very husband who betrayed her. Not to be outdone, TV presenter Andrew Marr stated that he had gone down with Covid even after two vaccinations.

One doesn’t like to be too cynical, but when television presenter Kate Garraway’s husband Derek Draper went down with Covid (very serious in his case) Kate did not stay away from the limelight but appeared as a cover girl on just about every magazine and was treated to photoshoots in designer outfits as she described in tearful detail her husband’s fight with the condition. One can only say that her celebrity status was magnificently heightened thereby.  

The doctors who developed the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine also became instant celebrities. Backroom girls Professor Sarah Gilbert and Professor Catherine Green were hailed as ‘The women who saved the world’ in a cover article for the Times magazine (though the adulatory headline was toned down online). Professor Gilbert (by now Dame Sarah) was also accorded a seat in the Royal Box at Wimbledon where crowds cheered Andy Murray saying that doctors and nurses should be given a big pay rise. Murray himself earned considerable brownie points for being so caring. 

Once Covid took a firm grip, could the books, plays and poems be far behind? 

No. As with Aids and tuberculosis before it, the infection has already acted as inspiration to writers and no doubt before long there will be musicals and paintings about the disease. The books are already coming thick and fast, written by survivors, doctors and others. 

Earlier this year 81-year-old Ray Connolly, who was in hospital for six months with Covid, quickly wrote a play about the condition called Devoted which was performed on radio. Since his recovery Connolly has become a kind of lockdown spokesman, and says he will be  ‘disappointed’ if compulsory mask-wearing ends on July 19. His celebrity status has also been greatly increased by his near-death brush. Once an elderly writer somewhat past his prime, he is now right back in the public eye. Michael Rosen, who spent 48 days in intensive care, has written Many Different Kinds of Love, a poetic book about the illness that he says, completely changed him. 

None of this is to deny that Covid can be a serious illness as, indeed, were Aids and TB. But is it too much to wonder if it has become a branch of showbiz with ever more people jumping on to the bandwagon? 

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Liz Hodgkinson
Liz Hodgkinson
Liz Hodgkinson is an author and journalist.

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