Poverty and years of neglect are at the root of the reason why Rhondda Cynon Taf is the most Covid-deadly place in Britain.
That is the belief of Labour’s Rhondda MP Chris Bryant.
“Look at towns like Ferndale, Maerdy and Tylorstown which have the highest levels of deprivation and have had the highest levels of death,” he told The Mirror.
“I’m absolutely certain that the two are linked because with deprivation comes poor health – heart disease, diabetes, pulmonary disease – historically from the mines or from smoking – obesity, poor diet. All those things.”
In Rhondda Cynon Taf, home to almost a quarter of a million people, the coronavirus death rate of 283 per 100,000 people is twice the national average.
Every person knows someone who has caught coronavirus, and all too many have lost loved ones.
Aberdare lost two of the town’s most popular pub landlords only this month.
John Evill, who ran the Conway Inn with wife Gail, was admitted to hospital just a week before Christmas after his oxygen levels dropped to dangerous levels.
Just days later, Gail had to ring 999 for herself and was taken to hospital after she struggled to catch her breath.
She was at her 62 year old husband’s bedside when he died on January 2. In an emotional post on Facebook, she wrote: “I am absolutely devastated. Please stay safe and look after each other.”
After spending days organising his funera l, Gail also died with coronavirus, aged 53, on January 15.
Mum-of-five Debbie Mountjoy, 42, lost three members of her family in the space of just five days.
Her mother, Gladys Lewis, 74, fell ill on October 18. at her home in Treorchy.
“I held her hand as she passed away in hospital two days later,” says Debbie.
The next day – still reeling from the shock of losing Gladys – Debbie answered a frantic knock at her door to find her nephews screaming for help.
Debbie’s older brother Dean, 44, lived in the flat above her.
“He had Covid and had been coughing so hard it caused a heart attack. I gave him CPR but he had another attack in the ambulance and died.”
The same day, Dean’s younger brother Darren, 42, who had Down Syndrome was admitted to the Royal Glamorgan Hospital with Covid, and later died.
Debbie says: “By this time I’d tested positive myself so couldn’t even go and visit him. When the end came I had to say goodbye via a video link. I just have to hope he could hear me.”
At Lindy Lou’s tearoom on Ferndale High Street, 27-year-old waitress Emily Kriescher says: “Everyone knows someone who’s been ill. I don’t think there’s many left who haven’t had it.”
Her boss Becky Davies, 40, is one of them.
Miraculously she escaped the virus – despite ‘super fit’ husband Robert coming down with it just before Christmas.
“He’s still not right,” says Becky.
“But the reality for lots of people around here is that there are bills to pay and they simply can’t afford not to work.”
Across the road, the high street florist shop posts funeral notices in the window.
Passers-by stop to see who among the familiar faces they’ve grown up alongside has been claimed by Covid this week.
Nicola Ward, 31, is helping out at the shop.
She says: “Before the pandemic there would be maybe one or two notices in the window at a time.
“The other week we had 13. Luckily I’ve been OK, but I know people who’ve lost multiple family members in the space of a couple of weeks.”
Martine Harris at the hardware store on Ferndale High Street says she has lost five friends and acquaintances since the pandemic began.
“We’ve been hit hard because it’s a close community,” she says.
“There’s a lot of elderly around here too so everyone is trying to look for each other.
“We have to because people living in the valleys have always fallen through the gaps.
It’s always been the been the case that you look after your own and your neighbour – no one else is going to do it for you.
“It means that people are in and out of each other’s houses trying to care for the people close to them.
“I know five people who’ve died, people who’ve been around since I was little. They had years ahead of them.
“We can’t attend the funerals because they’re restricted, so we all tend to go out in the street when a hearse goes past just so the family knows they are in our thoughts.”
Dorothy Lewis has been running her tiny grocery store in Tylorstown for 53 years.
While she has escaped falling ill, she spent Christmas in isolation with 80-year-old husband Clive after he caught Covid while attending hospital in neighbouring Merthyr Tydfil, which has the second highest death rate in the UK.
“He tested negative when he went in, but was positive by the time he came out,” says Dorothy, 79.
“My son, Jeremy, works as an NHS accountant. He was visiting the hospital to talk to doctors and drop off clothes for his dad, and he caught it, too.
“From there, it went right through the whole family. My daughter-in-law and both my granddaughters were sick.
“Luckily none of the family has had any lasting effects, but it shows how quickly it can spread.
“It’s like dandelion seeds floating in the air. Wherever they land, you’re likely to catch it.”
Chris Bryant says the county’s ageing population, coupled with high levels of public service or public facing employment have also contributed to Rhondda Cynon Taff’s grim accolade.
“When you put it all together we are basically a snapshot of the people who get ill and die in Britain,” he says.
“One of the things I’ve felt angriest with Rishi Sunak about from the very beginning is that if you have lots of people in jobs on zero hours or minimum wage, paid on a daily or hourly basis, they simply cannot afford to self-isolate.
“I think that’s often meant that people have chosen not even to test because they’re frightened of being told to stay at home for a fortnight and not being able to put food on the table for their kids.”