Often the first port of call for worried patients, pharmacies have quietly been the unsung heroes of the high street. And during Covid-19, our local chemists are stepping up to take on an additional role caring for our community, advising worried patients and even selling protective equipment to NHS workers.
‘BJ’ Bindesh Patel and his wife Jaymini have been running Sinclairs Pharmacy on Roman Road for 34 years, since the 1980s. Their pharmacy is situated at the heart of Roman Road Market, opposite Cafè Creme. Normally they are surrounded by the hustle and bustle of traders, but now, they are a rare sight – a still-operating business amidst a stretch of closed shutters.
It was in the tail end of February, before the lockdown, that Patel and his team noticed an uptick in customers. At the time, there were about 20 known coronavirus cases in the whole of the UK.
As the disease spread, GPs became harder to access for minor ailments – both due to the lockdown and worry that the disease would overwhelm the NHS. With their usual medical routes blocked off for many patients, soon that uptick of customers at Sinclairs turned into an overnight rush.
‘The workload increased overnight,’ says Patel. ‘Initially, we saw a surge of patients worrying about getting their regular medicines due to the uncertainty of the current situation. This increased number of prescription requests caused a large amount of pressure for our team.’
On top of exhaustive working hours, their product supply lines could not keep up with the sudden increased demand for basic products like hand washing products and paracetamol.
‘We’ve had to limit the number of sales of these popular products. I could have never imagined struggling to supply essentials like paracetamol and hand wash.’
Meanwhile, further down Roman Road at Globe Town, Tina Patel and her team at Massingham Chemist took a selfie together on their first day of having to wear protective equipment to protect themselves from coronavirus.
‘It was such a new experience for us at the time. We thought it was going to be a short term thing, and we never could have imagined that it would last this long.’
Patel and her team also experienced the same issue of struggling to cope with a demand for product.
‘People are coming to us for these products instead of queuing at the supermarkets. Suppliers are still struggling to keep up because they are having to get permissions from authorities to relax usual regulations.’
Meanwhile shortages of not just medicine but medical equipment across the country means that they have seen NHS workers coming in to buy masks and handwashing solutions at their pharmacy.
‘We normally stock some masks and gloves, but now we’ve started ordering them in bulk supply’, says Patel.
Filling prescriptions and ordering enough products is a battle on one front for the teams at Sinclairs and Massingham Chemist. Deliveries present another challenge. Although most pharmacies usually offer a delivery service for elderly and vulnerable customers, the increase in people self-isolating meant the demand for prescription deliveries has also exploded.
‘At this time, demand for delivery has dramatically increased as many of our patients are considered vulnerable and have had to isolate,’ says Bindesh Patel from Sinclairs Pharmacy.
‘Our regular delivery staff member Joshua, is joined by a local volunteer, Neil. They’re doing an amazing job getting medication to everyone. We’ve also had members of the public offering to deliver medicine to vulnerable community members, and we would like to thank them.’
Working longer and harder in a pandemic can take its toll, but pharmacies are fully embracing their role to serve and advise their patients, while using their medical knowledge to best protect themselves from infection.
‘Our staff are working on the front line, tirelessly serving the community knowing they may be at risk of infection.’ says Bindesh Patel. Like most shops, they have stepped up safety measures, wearing protective equipment like gloves, and installing transparent safety screens.
Keeping up with demands is truly a team effort. In addition to the delivery staff, Patel and his wife are also assisted by their longest serving staff members Audrey and Sarah, who have been with them for 18 and 26 years respectively.
‘My team has gone above and beyond. They are ending the day totally exhausted and showing up the next day with a smile on their faces.’
Despite stepping up and continuing to serve the local public, there is still an understandable sense of underlying fear.
‘It is worrying,’ he says, ‘to know that some asymptomatic workers might be coming into the pharmacy and unknowingly spreading the disease.’
It is a rational fear; although more data is needed for a conclusive estimate, we know that coronavirus can be present in asymptomatic people.
Tina Patel says that taking all precautions possible is key to keeping them and frontline workers safe. They come in earlier to clean, and they all wear protective equipment, including professional-grade masks, and gloves.
Still, this is a pandemic, and her staff soldier on through their anxiety.
‘One of our receptionists said “I’m really scared”, but we just have to put on our equipment and continue to treat our community members. I think that frontline workers at the NHS do it, so we can do it too and do our part.’
As the death toll in the pandemic continues to hit tragic new highs at home and around the globe, pharmacies are finding that they have also taken on not just a medical role, but an advisory one, assuaging the worries of an understandably worried public.
‘We’ve had a couple of people who’ve been really worried. One person was in a really bad state about the whole situation and we had to calm her. But the irony is that because of all these precautions and social distancing, we can’t properly talk to our patients like we used to.’Tina Patel from Massingham Chemist
Bindesh Patel explains that pharmacies have always been more than just a medical dispensary, even in normal times: ‘We spend most of our time giving advice to our patients and providing a comprehensive service.
‘And we know many of our patients so we can provide a personal service, so they trust us and our advice with their healthcare needs.’
But he also explains the tragic downside of being a close-knit, community pharmacy during a pandemic.
‘It hits very close to home when we hear of patients we have known and served for many years, some for decades, who have sadly lost their lives during this pandemic.’
But still, they will continue to look after their customers.
‘Until things go back to normal, we are always happy to serve the Bow community,’ he says.
Just as the NHS is stepping up to the task, so too are our local pharmacies. Long overlooked in favour of glossier national chemist chains, these local pharmacies are finally being recognised for the unsung high street heroes they really are. With our health in their hands, they have met their duties head-first during this crisis, continuing to provide the care and advice to customers they have known for years despite the risks to their own safety.
Sometimes it takes a national or even global emergency for us to appreciate what truly matters within our community.
Roman Road is home to many other pharmacies, including Bell Pharmacy Bow, Parnell Chemists and Day Lewis Pharmacy.
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