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  • Writer's pictureSophie Sheinwald

Behind the Mask - Sexual Health during Covid-19 with Aissa Rawat

As the daffodils bloom with the promise of spring, we feature flowers in our behind the mask portrait for the 2020 Vision Project. Aissa Rawat is a healthcare support worker at Alleast, Barts Sexual Health Services, in their Stratford centre, in London. We reveal how she managed during the height of the pandemic and how things are today.

Aissa was photographed by personal branding photographer Martyna, of Shot by Martyna. who said “Aissa was the first person I photographed after almost a 4 month's break and I was nervous!”. Martyna chose flowers for each of the 5 healthcare workers she photographed. (which should be in our online exhibition in March). "I love flowers, I believe them to symbolise gentleness, kindness, and care, as well as both the fragile and resilient nature of the human spirit. All qualities so present in the work of the people on the frontlines who, just like the rest of us, were thrown into this pandemic without a word of warning, and had to show up.”

Aissa recalls when the pandemic struck, "For me, it felt like I was stepping into the unknown. One minute we were calling patients to cancel appointments and offer telephone ones instead – next minute, we were drafted out like troops to give help where needed. The team was separated and it felt like you were on your own.

I was sent to The Ambrose Clinic in Whitechapel (London) to do admin work. The early morning bus trips felt like nothing I had ever experienced before. No one was walking on the pavement, barely any cars on the road. The silence in the streets was overwhelming. "

"I started to look out for rainbows on windows on my journeys. The few people on the bus were key workers and you could feel the smiles behind their masks as if they were saying 'I know how you feel'."

“I don't think I will ever forget the amount of ambulance sirens I would hear throughout my shift. They didn't seem to end and made my heart miss a beat each time, wondering if that patient occupying the ambulance was struggling to breathe due to Covid-19.

I felt a lot of anxiety during that period , not knowing anyone, no one to speak to and feeling a sense of loneliness, as I did my duties. There was a lovely lady who sat at the desk next to me and offered me smiles and 'good mornings'. I think without her reassuring smiles and small gestures to see if I was okay, I would have crumbled under the pressure.

I feel that even NHS staff who were not physically on the frontline, in the wards, still had to face many hard situations as a result of Covid-19. We were all forced into situations that were beyond our control and after coming back to Stratford, to my base and catching up with other colleagues and sharing our experiences,"

"we all came to the same conclusion. We would do it all again for the NHS, to help our patients and to save lives.”

Stuck in Poland in a Pandemic

When the UK lockdown started, Martyna was visiting her parents in Poland, so she was unable to return to her home in London. "Everything changed in a matter of hours.", said Martyna.

"While looking for things to do, and ways to offer help, I came across this wonderful project, I instantly knew that I had to take part. It gave me a sense of purpose, not only in relation to returning to the UK as soon as possible, but it was a goal to have for once I was back, "a job" at hand. I loved the idea of being a part of something bigger than myself, and connecting with a group of like-minded and passionate people."

How have you managed to survive lockdown?

"I normally live alone in London (with flatmates), so this accidental stay in my home country was a blessing in disguise – and the reason why I managed to then spend the second half of 2020 on my own, sane and strong, without seeing family. You could say that I managed lockdown with a lot of hugs with my parents, late night chats and laughter, online yoga and full moon circles and other online community meetings, and also having my dog as a roommate waking me up with her wet nose."

What were your challenges being part of the project?

"The biggest challenge was to make these sessions as safe as possible for my subjects. I am a very tactile person, a hugger. I usually hug my clients after a shoot, to congratulate us both on nailing it. The energy was so high on all of my shoots as I was excited to shoot again!

The challenge overall was that while I signed up to take part in the project back in March (2020), I couldn't get back into the UK till July. I had very little time to find and secure my subjects, but very quickly had 5 fab humans wanting to be photographed and run with my idea of them holding flowers.

"I loved being a part of the project so far. The community spirit and efforts have shined through with the in-person exhibition, and I really hope we get to show these images to more people, in their full glory, when the time is right."

Sexual Health Update

Sexual health may be taken for granted until needed, but this pandemic has certainly transformed dating and sexual relationships. We asked Aissa to give us an update on how things are now for sexual health services in the midsts our third lockdown.

"Sexual Health Services have not ceased in demand since the very first lockdown. People are still trying to access the service for their sexual health needs and contraception. Perhaps it has become a new concept of booking online and having telephone appointments whereas before, patients would just be able to walk in for all their needs.

Patients are still able to pick up condoms and a sexual health test kit, if they are unable to order one online. What we have come to understand is that our patients are just as vulnerable as they were before the lockdown. They have the same worries and concerns as us. They are having to adapt to a new way of living as we do. And their sexual health needs remain just as important. We are not currently able to offer routine appointments and only seeing emergency cases face to face. However, just being able to speak to a clinician over the phone is proving essential to our patients. We are not an emergency service, but to our patients we are like a lifeline to them."

Stay safe folks and we shall see you for the following healthcare workers feature.

The 2020 Vision Project

The 2020 Vision Project is a collective of talented UK portrait photographers and visual storytellers. Each share their creative vision towards a visual commemoration of healthcare workers nationwide.

The ‘behind the mask’ 2020 Vision Project portraits, reflect our healthcare workers’ dedication, resilience, courage and teamwork throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. We share the human story and over the coming weeks we will be highlighting stories, as we work towards more exhibitions of these beautiful validating portraits.

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