‘I felt completely lost’: the actors navigating an arts crisis and long Covid


Three performers – among the one million people suffering from long Covid – explain the painful process of getting back on stage

Matilda Martin

In 2019, the actor and director Helen Oakleigh was hired to stage a number of shows in China that would be playing throughout 2020. They flew from London to Wuhan on 1 January last year and then on to Chengdu but, soon after arriving, began to feel unwell with a virus that would later be diagnosed as Covid-19. Although able to return to work soon afterwards, they struggled to concentrate and experienced sensory overload. Today, Oakleigh is “unrecognisable” from her former self and, along with many others working in the stage industry, is dealing with both the effects of the pandemic on the arts as well as long Covid.

Oakleigh is one of around a million people in the UK with long Covid. After working all around the world on stage and screen projects, from Harry Potter to Shakespeare, the actor is now also an advocate for helping fellow sufferers. Oakleigh never felt 100% better but by July 2020 was getting there and, thinking she was just “deconditioned”, began to push slowly back to previous fitness levels and enjoy hockey, netball and cycling again. “I was doing a lot and also working. I was really proud that I had got to that level.”

Helen Oakleigh used to enjoy hockey, netball and cycling. Photograph: Courtesy: Helen Oakleigh

But Oakleigh was causing damage to her body that couldn’t be seen. In August 2020, they relapsed. Like many others who suffer from long Covid, relapse can cause an even more severe illness than the initial infection. Oakleigh says their cardiologist has seen a lot of young sporty people with long Covid. After the relapse, Oakleigh couldn’t sit up for more than 10 minutes a day. Having been in hospital multiple times with heart irregularities, struggling with speaking, suffering blindness at moments and experiencing hair loss, she has not gone for a walk for over a year.

Now, Oakleigh wants to help others by sharing such experiences. Playing the piano and writing songs has helped to restore her concentration and speech, while regular online meditation and breathing sessions have helped with heart strength due to the breathing increasing oxygen supply. “All I want is a cure. By the time everyone else has gone through this process and they’ve collated that information and they’ve shared it, that’s a hell of a long time to wait.”

While studies surrounding long Covid are still in their early stages, it is currently understood to affect the respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological and gastrointestinal systems. Karen Swan, who works as an actor, clown, writer and singer, relapsed from Covid around five months after their initial infection. Swan has been left with long-term effects of the virus they caught in March 2020. After their relapse, Swan was left so exhausted they couldn’t get up at all. “I felt completely lost,” Swan says. “It felt like my identity had been chopped away.”

While Swan is improving, they still struggle; a 40-minute set on stage which they could previously do with ease recently left them in bed for days after. For Swan, the most frustrating thing was the lack of control over their symptoms. Strategies to help recover from other illnesses didn’t work with long Covid. Swan has not been able to work this year and has been on universal credit; they are not considered ill enough to receive benefits.

Karen Swan … “It felt like my identity had been chopped away.’ Photograph: Tom Longdon

In July, the Department of Health and Social Care announced government funding for 15 new studies around the UK investigating long Covid. Among other aims, the studies will seek to identify “effective treatments, such as drugs, rehabilitation and recovery, to treat people suffering from chronic symptoms”. Imperial College is among those undertaking research with volunteers from the community who are experiencing persistent long Covid symptoms.

Some people who suffer from long Covid do improve. Actor and photographer Charlie Russell, who spoke to the Guardian last autumn, suffered a number of relapses and experienced fatigue, breathlessness and migraines. He found that meditation and yoga not only helped in his physical recovery but also boosted his mental health. Russell had been suffering acute anxiety due to his terror of getting Covid again. The turning point, he says, was when he got the vaccine – he describes the changes as “remarkable”.

Russell says that, during the pandemic, he and his partner used all the savings they had managed to acquire. He has mostly moved away from stage now. Although he finally feels as if he is on the mend, he still doesn’t think he would be able to manage a full rehearsal process. Oakleigh is determined to get better: “I want to get back to work as an actor. I was so much more ill with the relapse, I physically couldn’t do any more despite having work lined up.” She can’t wait to return to performance. “It is such a big part of my life and I miss it.”













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