The Guardian view on recovery: an underrated process

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Recovery from ill-health and injury is underrated. In the UK, and many other parts of the world, getting back to work as quickly as possible after sickness is what the neoliberal culture tells everyone to do (and workers indeed may have little choice in the matter in the world of the gig economy and zero-hours contracts). There is little societal value placed on convalescence – itself a tellingly old-fashioned word.

Despite the efforts of the medical profession, there are occasions when patients, once their immediate problems have been patched up, feel themselves set loose to recover as best they can on their own. Most of us know how difficult this process can be – even the recovery from trivial complaints can be a trial, let alone that from serious disorders. Sometimes, indeed, a full recovery may not be possible, and the goal may be to regain a measure of dignity and autonomy while living with pain or disease. The large number of people suffering from long Covid is now forcing societies to try to understand, and have compassion for, recoveries that are especially long and fraught, with no clear outcomes.

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Recovery is not only a physiological matter but, like disease and illness, is shaped by culture and ideas and expectations of the body, as Gavin Francis points out in his new book, Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence. It is also a matter for the mind. “We fall ill in ways that are profoundly influenced by our past experiences and expectations, and the same can be said of our paths to recovery,” adds Dr Francis, who works as a GP in Edinburgh. As a society, we are not, he argues, giving recuperation proper consideration: it is something that requires space and active attention to be fully effective. “I often remind patients that it’s worth giving adequate time, energy and respect to the process of healing,” he writes.

As for individuals, so with the nation. England’s Covid-19 restrictions will be over at the end of March, and there is a faint glimmer of hope that the end of the acute phase of the pandemic could be in sight. But the UK’s recovery will take much, much longer. Even as the dangers of the Omicron variant are on the wane, the country is teetering on the brink of a cost-of-living crisis and is in the midst of others.

And that is just the start. There can be no notion of the country simply snapping back to full health. There are psychological wounds – borne heavily by the very young and the very old – that run deep and will take time to heal, and indeed, may have far-reaching and unpredictable consequences. There will be economic, cultural – and, yes, political – recoveries to attend to. The nation may one day be nursed back to health. This sort of long-term recovery will require not just hope and a prayer, but care and a communitarian spirit. “Give time, space and respect to convalescence if you can,” writes Dr Francis. “It’s an act that we need to engage in, giving of ourselves; a work of effort and endurance, and to a certain extent, of grace.”

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