Sunday, June 25, 2006

Waiting in the Zero Tolerance Zone

My fella was ill last night so we ended up going to the local Accident and Emergency Department. The waiting room was a scary place - lots of people who had that wasted, desperate drug-addict look. People were coming in, but nobody was getting seen and we wondered whether there were any doctors back there. The receptionist sat behind a glass screen and appeared to be deaf. She made everyone repeat all their information so loudly that you got to hear about everyone's symptoms along with their name, address and telephone number.

The room was hot and people started to get impatient and then angry. A woman began swearing loudly, "we've been fucking here for fucking hours. My husband's going fucking blind!". She went up to the front desk to complain. A girl came in and told the receptionist, "My drink was spiked on Thursday night and since then I haven't had any feeling in my left arm. I'm 16." An old man with his arm in a sling kept getting up to say he hadn't eaten since 11 am. As it got later, drunks who'd been involved in accidents or fights started to come in. The use of the word "fuck" increased to the point where a nurse told someone to watch his language (which he did for about 5 seconds). People started watching each other jealously. The man with the sling got up again to leave. At that point, a nurse called his name. "Finally!" said the woman with the blind husband. "Well done mate!" She then apologised to the room for her swearing. Nobody looked at her.

I noticed that there was a sign on the wall that said "We are a zero tolerance zone! We will not accept intimidating behaviour towards our staff!" and words to that effect. I've started to see this sign in other places too, particularly on public transport. It makes me sad - the fact that they have to have a sign like this kind of suggests that as a society we are getting badly behaved. I'd hate to have to work for British Rail or the National Health Service or anything that involves "the Great British Public".

But I also suspect that these signs tend to occur in institutions where the service is actually poor or under-funded - so people are more likely to get angry with the poor, hapless staff (who have no control over policy) because they have to wait longer or pay more for something that isn't very good. Train tickets, for example, are hideously expensive in the UK (I paid £50 for a single from London to Bristol last week and had to stand in a bit of over-heated corridor, squashed in with 11 other people for more than half the journey as there were no seats). So I'm not very impressed with zero-tolerance signs any more. It seems to be an admission "Yeah, we're crap, but you no longer have a right to complain, except by writing a letter or filling in a form, which we won't read".

With that said, the A+E waiting room made me a bit depressed about the way that British society is changing. It was really grim. I know people are not at their best when they're ill and hot and have to wait for hours, but there was something that felt very wrong about it all, in a way I've never felt before when I've been in that situation. Perhaps "fuck" no longer means the same thing to people as it did 10 or 20 years ago. For me, it is a very strong word, which I use sparingly and never in public spaces because I view it as intended to be offensive. So when people say it constantly, it must be either that they simply want to cause offence, or they can't view the word in the same way that I do. Watch Big Brother, for example and almost everyone uses "fuck" constantly. The Tourette's Syndrome contestant, Pete, probably swears less on average than the others. Maybe it just means I'm getting old and I am turning into one of those people who've got left behind and will now always be harking back to a "golden age" when things were better. I know that's not true though. On one level, our society is a nicer place to be - it's much easier to be gay now, than it is 20 years ago. Racism and to a lesser extent, sexism, on a casual and instutitution level are now tabooed. But we seem to be a coarser society than we were 20 years ago. I realised in that waiting room that I didn't know how to talk to most of those people.

After a while, I went out to get a newspaper, where I read this article, which seemed horribly illustrative as I live in Clifton, the place it talks about. I'm sure that a few of the 8,000 "problematic addicts" of Bristol were in the waiting room with us. I often fool myself that Bristol is a lovely place to live, but it's only because in reality, Bristol for me is a relatively small area of incredibly expensive houses and chi-chi boutiques, restaurants and coffee-shops which I never need to venture out of.

We waited 2 hours and then we were sent away with some paracetamol. My fella is still ill today. I guess we'll just have to hope it gets better by itself.


matty said...

I hope he is OK! Do you guys have a doctor you can see without dealing with emergency ward?

Sending many positive vibes to you both! Hang in there and tell him to feel better!

Scary stuff.

Lubin said...

Matt, our "free hospital" is small beans compared to some of the stories you tell on your site - in fact, I debated with myself whether or not to write about Saturday night, as it pales in comparison with what some people go through with the health service...