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The New Normal: Linda Ervine on her battle with post-Covid symptoms

Irish language campaigner Linda Ervine was floored by coronavirus in March and is still feeling the effects of the disease months on. She tells Claire Simpson how keeping engaged with other Irish speakers has helped her ongoing recovery.

Irish language campaigner and teacher Linda Ervine. Picture from Ivan@tinmanphotography

At this time of year Linda Ervine would normally be in the Donegal Gaeltacht, speaking her beloved Irish.

Instead, she’s at home, still battling with post-coronavirus symptoms which have left her frequently exhausted and, at one point, led to an emergency dash to A&E.

“I have done nothing but run about for eight years with this job,” she said.

“I was never in the house, just working days, nights, weekends and all of a sudden - bang - everything stopped.”

READ MORE: The New Normal: Pastor Mark McClurg on his return to Sunday services after battling coronavirus

The 58-year-old, from east Belfast, has done more than any other campaigner to encourage Irish language learning amongst Protestant and loyalist communities who traditionally had little access to the language.

Although she has enjoyed having extra time to garden, take part in online family quizzes and continue her Irish studies, lockdown has been made more difficult by her frequent bouts of illness.

She launched a new St Patrick's pilgrimage walk in Downpatrick, Co Down, last month but was not well enough to complete the route herself.

“I was ill off and on for eight weeks and I am still unfortunately having what the doctor calls post-Covid symptoms, which it seems is very common,” she said.

Mrs Ervine first fell ill on Tuesday, March 24, the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a full lockdown.

She was never tested for coronavirus because only key workers were being tested at that time. However, her doctor confirmed that her symptoms were consistent with the disease.

Irish language campaigner and teacher Linda Ervine. Picture from Ivan@tinmanphotography

Her cousin, a key worker who she had seen only a few days previously, did test positive and later had to be given oxygen in hospital.

“Brenda (Mrs Ervine’s cousin) told me that every single one in her office had tested positive,” she said.

“She said a lot of the symptoms I had were matching with the things that they had. She told me to ring the doctor and the doctor had confirmed that yes, that’s what they were hearing."

Ms Ervine’s symptoms included dizziness, diarrhoea, nausea, headaches and swollen glands. She later experienced pain in her lungs, overall soreness and a rash.

“I had this continuous nausea,” she said.

“I took a pilates class online and I would have to stop after 20 minutes because of the waves of nausea. I’d take a walk around the block and get waves of nausea.”

She said the symptoms often came and went without warning.

“You could wake up in the morning and be hardly able to lift your head off the bed and then by the afternoon you were perfectly fine, and then that night you were sick again,” she said.

“You’re starting to think you’re imagining things. Talking to other people, they have had exactly the same experience.”

Four weeks after she fell ill with coronavirus, she was diagnosed with pleurisy - an inflammation of the tissue between the lungs and the chest wall.

Irish language campaigner Linda Ervine 

After suffering seven weeks of Covid symptoms, including a particularly difficult night when she struggled to breathe, her doctor encouraged her to visit the emergency department at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald.

“I was so worn down I cried,” she said.

Her husband Brian Ervine - the brother of former Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader David - was tested for coronavirus three times after he suffered from a cough, breathlessness and sweating. All three tests came back negative.

Several months on, Mrs Ervine is still suffering from post-Covid symptoms and is taking antibiotics for her lung condition.

“I haven’t had my lung function tested but I just have this feeling that there’s something sitting on my lungs,” she said.

“If I run up the stairs I’m out of breath. I’ve obviously had the mild form of it (coronavirus). The mild form of it is not pleasant either."

A strong advocate for adult learning, Mrs Ervine has just finished the first year of an Irish language degree at Queen’s University Belfast - twenty years after she attended the university as a mature student of English.

Although lockdown allowed her to finish her university assignments, she also had to juggle studying with her work as a teacher for Irish language project Turas in east Belfast.

Irish language activist Linda Ervine (centre) launched a new St Patrick's walk in Downpatrick earlier this month. She is pictured with pilgrim guides Martina Purdy left and Elaine Kelly. Picture by Hugh Russell

Her Turas classes were moved online and she created sound files, worksheets and other resources for older learners who were not comfortable with technology.

“I put something online asking if anyone else wanted to join in and I ended up with over 300 people,” she said.

“We had started Turas with 264 people registered for classes this year and just over 200 of them stayed on. We ended up with over 500 people online.”

One Turas teacher created YouTube videos for her students every week, one sent out quizzes, while another put on extra Zoom classes after one of his students mentioned she was on her own and felt very isolated in lockdown.

“The teachers had to very quickly learn new skills and the classes worked very, very well," Mrs Ervine said.

She added: “Sometimes I couldn’t do the classes because I felt too sick but the times I was able to I so enjoyed the company and it was great just feeling like you were among people.”

Although Turas aims to resume some face-to-face classes in September, most teachers will have to continue to work with students on Zoom until at least Christmas.

“Our biggest classroom, we’re only allowed 10 people, and our smallest classroom, we’re only allowed six people and that includes the teacher, so that’s not really going to work for us,” she said.

“Our big beginner classes would have over thirty people.”

She said the centre has applied for funding to buy technology which will allow teachers to livestream classes and is also considering buying separate, user-friendly software used by schools to record classes.

The centre has never charged for classes and has only ever asked for small donations. However, Mrs Ervine said students will now have to pay.

“Unfortunately for our own survival we’re going to have to, we still have to pay teachers and we still have to pay the rent for classrooms, even if we’re not using them,” she said.

Over the summer, Turas will hold an Irish language festival, including grammar clinics, online classes and a storytelling night.

“One of the things we’re thinking about, if the weather picks up, is to have small conversation classes in the park,” she said.

Mrs Ervine said despite her health challenges, she is taking each day as it comes.

“I am worried about September when I’ll be working properly,” she said.

“Is it going to be alright? It’s just the energy levels and trying to fit everything in.”

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