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Cats of Instagram Provide Purrfect Support through Long Covid

The Rooftop News, 2 July 2023

Shauna Laurel Jones is a London-based writer on art and human–animal relationships. When her partner became housebound with long Covid, community became more important than ever for their family. As Shauna explains, now she is also drawing from an unlikely source of support: cats on Instagram.

My partner Helen woke up one morning in April 2022 to find her legs had turned to jelly. This sensation was as frightening as it was familiar, for she remembered it from when she had ME, or chronic fatigue syndrome. Although she had made a full recovery and remained healthy for years, her only option that April morning – and for months on end – was to lie back down.

This long Covid awakening was not Helen’s alone. As of March 2023, 1.9 million people in the UK report persistent symptoms of Covid-19, and coping with the condition is a central preoccupation in many of their households. But I had no time to process the shock of my partner’s sudden disability. Overnight, I was alone in caring for our daughter, Elly; shared domestic chores now fell solely on me. Since our breadwinner could hardly leave her bed, I worked longer hours, pushing myself to the limits.

Amidst all this, my Instagram notifications increased. Animal reels had become Helen’s means of escape, one she wanted to share with me. I was far too busy. However, that winter, colleagues and I began planning an exhibition honouring the artist Carolee Schneemann and the cats who buttressed her career. In this context, I began pondering Helen’s gesture of sending me reels, especially cat ones.

Helen wants her life back. She pursues every reasonable medical and lifestyle intervention, diligently following the research on post-viral fatigue. Despite concerted effort, recovery comes at a glacial pace; she can sit up now, but she is far from returning to work, nor can she actively parent as before. Through these frustrations and limitations, at least she can reach out with a good cat reel, lightening the mood and showing she cares for us, too.

Over a year after our long Covid awakening, we take stock of what sustains us. Our struggles can feel isolating, but we are not alone. Helen’s mum visits regularly to cook and keep Helen company while I work. Other parents help with school runs, even driving us to hospital appointments. Community services and charities have given us parenting support, youth mentoring, and carers counselling. Certain friends have become closer, and new friends have been found, from another Covid long-hauler in Glasgow to a neighbour and her dog who visit every Friday. We have so many connections to be grateful for.

Help, love, and hope sometimes come from unexpected sources; resilience means finding ways of being that source for others. While Helen eagerly shares her knowledge and experience with other long Covid sufferers, I am using her cat reels – uploaded and remixed by countless Instagrammers – as the basis of illustrated poetry exploring a relationship impacted by chronic illness. Through crowdfunding, I intend to produce Ping, Purr as an artist’s book and draw attention to post-viral fatigue as a public concern, with hope the project resonates within the long Covid community and beyond. For art can work to shape and spread silver linings – and, in this case, to give cats of Instagram another means to shine.

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