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The Covid survivors – Cover Story News

Calling on their Inner Strength

I would cough so much that my throat and chest would literally burn,” recalls Naresh Bhati, who owns a medicine business in Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh. On April 30, after his wife, Asha, the BJP’s Ghaziabad municipal councillor, tested Covid-positive, Naresh was asked to get tested too. “My wife had fever for a few days but I had no symptoms initially. So I was surprised to find I too had Covid,” he says. Asha says she most likely contrac­ted Covid when she stepped out for work.

Having reported chronic cough and fever, the Bhatis were taken to ESIC Hospital in Ghaziabad’s Rajendra Nagar and were there for 12 days. The couple had to leave behind their 14-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son, both of whom tested negative. “You cannot imagine the guilt I felt. They had no one to look after them. They had to manage food on their own for the first time,” says Naresh.

To pass time in the hospital, the couple read books, were on their phones but, mostly, they slept. The disease, they say, weakened their bodies considerably. “We were fortunate our lungs were not infected. But our battle with the cough was exhausting. However, suddenly, we began to feel better and our strength returned,” says Naresh, who had seen several patients go into the ICU and was determined not to meet a similar fate. “We fought against the cough with our minds, listened to the doctors and were cured in under two weeks.” His advice to those currently infected: “Prepare for a tough battle and don’t give up.”

By Sonali Acharjee

To hell and back

Moving on: Priyal Jain wants to put the Covid ordeal behind heras just a bad dream.

A family get-together turned into a nightmare for the Jain family in Indore, after three members tested Covid-positive in April and were admitted in a Covid ward.

Priyal Jain, a software engineer with Decathlon in Bengaluru, had come to her hometown Indore in December 2019 to be with her parents while expecting her first child. On February 29, her son Aanav was born. The celebrations in Priyal and her husband Atit’s families went on all of March.

In early April, Priyal’s father Sunil got high fever and flu-like symptoms. He was admitted to a hospital, tested for Covid and found positive on April 7. He was soon shifted to the Aurobindo Hospital, a dedicated Covid facility. The next day, the whole family, Priyal, son Aanav, mother Sukesha, younger brother Anupam, elder sister Paryul and her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Kianshi, was tested, as primary contacts of the patient. On April 10, Priyal and her sister Paryul tested positive.

Priyal had almost no symptoms initially. They were all in the same Covid ward, and would spend time chatting, and counting the days when they would get home, especially as Sunil had recovered from the fever.

Then, on April 22, Priyal was taken for an X-ray. It showed white patches on her lungs. The doctors shifted her to the ward for serious Covid patients and put her on oxygen support. “I somehow couldn’t reconcile with what the doctors were saying since I felt completely alright. I thought they may have mixed up my X-ray with someone else’s,” recounts Priyal.

The situation in the serious patients ward was very different. “There was always someone who was sinking and frantic attempts to save them. This went on all the time, so much so that I thought I’d be next. I was forever thinking about my son, how he was faring with my mother and how life could be so cruel as to give me barely 40 days with him.”

On April 24, Priyal was told she’d be given plasma therapy. “Plasma-based treatment was in a trial stage and I was scared,” she recalls. “I consulted our family doctor who convinced me to go for it.”

The first good news for the family came on April 26, when Sunil was discharged. On April 29, both Priyal and Paryul tested negative and were discharged after their CT scans were found clear. Now reunited with her family and son Aarav, all Priyal wants to do is put the whole ordeal behind her as just one bad dream.

By Rahul Noronha

A fate worse than Covid

Photo by: Somnath Sen

Sanjay Kumar Bhunia won his battle against COVID-19 on May 9, but when Ranchi’s Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) discharged him, the landlord barred his entry to the home he had rented for 14 years. Since then, Bhunia has been living in his pathology lab that’s now out of business.

The 250 sq. ft lab has no bed or other furniture, nor a kitchen, and reeks of chemicals and disinfectants. All by himself, Bhunia spends time thinking about his family, watching Bhojpuri films and listening to Rabindranath Tagore’s Ekla cholo re (If none heeds your call, go it alone). “This song has kept me going, as have my daughter’s video calls,” says Bhunia, on the phone.

A “middle-class strugg­ler”, as he describes himself, Bhunia had set up the lab in 2006 with his younger brother Arun. His wife Savita is a lab technician with a Patna hospital. Their daughter, 10-year-old Sukirti, studies in Class 5 in a Ranchi school and has been with Savita after the school declared vacations in March.

Bhunia was confirmed Covid-positive on April 25 following a test. “My ordeal began as soon as I tested positive. I was in my lab when a police vehicle and an ambulance arrived. The policemen shouted my name out. I was made to sit on the road, like a criminal, then bundled off to RIMS, where I was put up in an isolation ward with 14 Covid patients,” he says.

Bhunia narrates how the disease devastates its patients psychologically. “They [patients at RIMS] were so scared and worried. I’m a Bengali, but to cheer them up, I’d laugh and joke in Bhojpuri. I’d reassure them that we would conquer the virus,” he says.

Discharged by RIMS only after two tests confirmed him negative, Bhunia considered volunteering as a plasma donor. But he soon realised that the world outside the hospital was not ready to accept Covid survivors.

Confined to his lab even a fortnight into his recovery, Bhunia says neighbours keep away from him and the local shopkeeper refuses supplies. Arun brings home-cooked food, but is not allowed to enter the lab, which has not seen clients since the last week of April.

Bhunia believes time will heal everything. He has asked his wife not to come to Ranchi till he finds a new house to shift to. It’s been a futile search so far. “Except for my daughter, wife and brother, everyone else views me as a contagion, not a Covid survivor.”

By Amitabh Srivastava

Delivering hope

Mother courage: Nageena with her newborn Arman

Grief and shock over-whelmed 30-year-old Nageena when doctors at the JLN District

Hospital in Nagaur, Rajasthan, informed her on April 14 that her newborn baby, Arman, was, like her, Covid positive. From her bed in the isolation ward, Nageena’s eyes searched for her family: her in-laws, nine-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, who suffers from cerebral palsy. They were all in the vicinity, on separate beds, battling COVID-19. Nageena’s husband, Mohammed Javed, was far away in Jaipur, in the Covid ward of SMS Hospital. The 34-year-old had returned from Mumbai, where he worked at a tea stall, on March 24 and developed fever subsequently. He tested positive on April 12.

At one go, Covid had knocked out this family of seven from Basni, a village of 30,000 people near Nagaur that has seen 249 Covid cases so far. Dr Shadab Ali, in-charge of the health centre in Basni, recalls: “Their situation was so desperate that it was left to the Covid health workers who arrived on April 13 to escort Nageena to the hospital to pack her belongings and lock the house.” Nageena’s three-year-old daughter, who was not positive, had to be kept in an isolation ward as there was no one to take care of her at home.

JLN Hospital staff did their best to comfort Nageena. “Do not worry, all of you will be fine,” Dr Moola Ram, a paediatrician, told her. Since both mother and child were infected, the doctors let them stay on the same bed. They saw to it that Nageena wore an N95 mask and sanitised her hands before breastfeeding the newborn. Arman showed minor health problems but recovered from Covid within a week. Though Nageena took two more weeks to get well, Arman was allowed to stay right next to her. “On May 8, we discharged all members of the family,” says Dr Rajendra Bera, the nodal officer for Covid at JLN Hospital, who hasn’t had a day off in the past three months. “Protocol demanded that we send them to a quarantine centre for another 14 days, but considering that the entire family had been affected, we permitted home quarantine.”

When Nageena’s family tested positive, neighbours and relatives were too scared to interact with them. But as more and more residents of Basni began to get infected, the family’s successful recovery, through prompt hospitalisation and adherence to Covid protocols, set an example for others to follow. “When we returned home, people welcomed us with garlands,” recalls Nageena. The social acceptance, she adds, helped her overcome the agony of the preceding few weeks.

Nageena’s husband, though, is still rattled by the entire Covid episode and the vilification of his family at the start. “I still cannot fathom what the panic about being isolated is all about. I had fever, but it was never serious. Also, nobody in my family developed any of the Covid symptoms,” he says.

Nageena and her baby’s successful treatment gave doctors at JLN Hospital vital experience to handle Covid cases among pregnant women. Zulekha, the 30-year-old Covid-positive wife of Javed’s younger brother Wazid, delivered a girl on May 3. The baby tested negative. Another woman, 23-year-old Asma, was admitted on May 5 and delivered a Covid-negative baby on May 12. “Cases like these inspired us to handle 456 Covid patients in a small district hospital,” says Dr Shankar Lal, principal health officer at JLN Hospital.

Nagaur collector Dinesh Kumar Yadav adds: “In these times of Covid, successes from the most unusual of places restore people’s faith in survival and leave us moved.” The confidence-building measures initiated by Yadav by using community radio have helped contain the outbreak in Basni.

By Rohit Parihar

No room for panic

Aiming for normalcy: Gupta at his Defence Colony residence. Photo: Yasir Iqbal

Long before e-commerce entered our lives, Defence Store in New Delhi’s Defence Colony Market was one of the few shops that stocked butter paper and imported cocoa. For the past 68 years, it has attracted families, food enthusiasts and students from across the city. On May 17, owner Manoj Gupta downed the steel shutters of his store, not knowing when he would get to pull them up again. He had received word that he had tested positive for Covid that day. “My case made it to the newspapers. Almost overnight, everybody knew. There was panic, those who had been to the store were worried, even though we had been wearing masks and had observed social distancing throughout,” says Gupta.

A diabetic, Gupta suffered a fever and cough for almost a week before he got tested, he had initially dismissed his symptoms as the common cold. “Doctors told me not to worry. But after three or four days, the cough became more pronounced and my fever shot up,” he says. Gupta’s test results were received by his son, whose first words to his father were: “Don’t panic, but you have Covid.” Gupta didn’t panic, but social media exploded with rumours and fear-mongering. “WhatsApp forwards spread so many lies. If nine people are infected, they will say 60. They have to exaggerate, which leads to needless worrying and social stigma,” he says. Like several other Covid survivors, his advice to anyone who gets Covid is: “Ghabrane ki itni zaroorat nahin hai (there is no need to panic), stay positive and follow medical advice.”

Gupta’s entire family and his known contacts were tested. His nephew, 21, was asymptomatic and self-isolated at home. But Gupta’s father, 76, tested positive and was showing symptoms. Both were admitted to Max Hospital, Saket, where Gupta spent 13 days on bed rest, taking the occasional walk around the Covid ward to keep his spirits up. His father, however, was admitted to the ICU after a few days with a lung infection. He received plasma treatment in early June and is now showing signs of recovery. “We had no problem finding plasma,” he says, “the Delhi government is arranging donors. The doctors and staff at Max took extraordinary care of us.”

Returning to normal was a matter of planning and foresight for the family. To reassure their customers, they had the entire store fumigated and discarded old products. “Customers are returning. There is no reason to be scared if you remove all risks and follow the guidelines,” says Gupta. With business taking off again, his experience shows that precautions can indeed trump fear and stigma.

By Sonali Acharjee

Banking on himself

Home alone: Takkar in his Gurgaon home. Photo: Rajwant Rawat

When the car turned the corner to his house in Gurgaon on May 19, Ashok Takkar spotted his wife, son, and several neighbours standing outside. They gave him a hero’s welcome, showering him with marigold petals and cheering his recovery from Covid. From that day on, Takkar says, everybody he met, from the vegetable vendor to office colleagues, wanted to know just one thing: “Kaisa tha?” Being the only case in his colony at the time, he had become a point of contact for many who were experiencing Covid anxiety, or were simply curious to hear what the experience was like. In Takkar’s case, there really was little to fret over.

Around May 5, Takkar, who works at the Sarva Haryana Gramin Bank, realised he had a mild fever. When this persisted for a few days, he decided to go in for a Covid test at the privately-owned Aryan Hospital on May 9. A day later, his results came in positive. “I was depressed. That was my first reaction. I was also worried for my family,” he says. Both his wife and son, however, tested negative and Takkar was shifted to ESIC (Employees State Insurance Corporation) Hospital in Gurgaon. “I stayed there for nine days. I did not have any difficulty getting a bed. I had vitamin C every day, drank haldi doodh (turmeric milk) and lots of water,” he says. Thankfully for him, Takkar experienced no symptoms other than fever. After four days, he went through a second test which came out negative. Five days later, he was home. “We need to stop building fear and drama around Covid. I was more depressed based on what I had read and heard about the disease than what happened to me. If you maintain good health, take your medicines and go to the doctor on time, all will be well even if you get infected. There is no need to panic,” he says, adding that keeping one’s mind healthy is essential. “Mentally, too, you should be fit and prepared, because you will be alone and isolated, amid unfamiliar people and surroundings. It will be a testing time, and it will require courage and a calm mind.”

Sonali Acharjee

Leading by example

Spreading awareness: Khedawala in the Muslim locality of Palampur in Ahmedabad

On May 11, 49-year-old Imran Khedawala, Congress MLA from Ahmedabad’s Jamalpur-Khadia, was seen driving around his constituency in his white Toyota Innova, distributing immunity-boosting Ayurvedic medicines to his constituents. Many were surprised that he was out among them. A month ago, Khedawala had decided to get himself tested for COVID-19 in the hope that by posting such news on social media he could convince his constituents to cooperate with the state government’s anti-Covid drive. Little did he know that he himself would test positive and have to remain in hospital for the next 14 days and in self-quarantine for another 12 days.

The initial days at the hospital were full of anxiety as Khedawala learnt from doctors that he was severely diabetic. He ran a mild fever too. Then, his sense of smell diminished. The news of the deaths of two party colleagues, Badruddin Shaikh and Siraj Khan Pathan, from Covid made him all the more despondent. Khedawala, who saw four patients die while he was in hospital, says: “What I didn’t learn in my entire life I have imbibed in just two months. The Almighty has taught me the essence of life.”

Khedawala, who owns a textile-printing business, has been widely credited for his efforts in raising awareness of the government’s anti-coronavirus campaign between March 26 and April 14, convincing thousands of Muslim citizens from his constituency to get tested. Many Muslims had been suspicious about the drive, believing it to be part of a secret identification exercise for the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

When Khedawala began accompanying medical teams to Muslim-majority areas to ask people to cooperate with the authorities, many labelled him a stooge of the government. However, he remained steadfast. “I would travel in an autorickshaw in the narrow lanes of the walled city with a loudspeaker in hand, appealing to people to come forward for testing,” he says.

As a confidence-building measure, Khedawala made a video of himself getting tested and posted it on social media. His first test, in the first week of April, revealed him to be Covid-negative. This had some impact. Then, when the number of Covid deaths in Ahmedabad’s walled city began rising, an increasing number of residents began coming forward. However, when Khedawala decided to repeat his earlier test in the hope of this bearing fruit a second time, he was found to be Covid-positive.

This had some unforeseen consequences as well. Khedawala had met with Chief Minister Vijay Rupani not long before the second test, and his positive result led to the CM having to go into self-quarantine. Seven members of Khedawala’s immediate family were also found to be Covid-positive. Fortunately, all have recovered. When asked if he feared dying in the hospital, Khedawala replies: “Not at all. Perhaps one of the reasons was that my symptoms were never severe. However, it was painful to see four of my neighbours in the hospital ward die.”

Since his recovery, the MLA has been a source of inspiration for other Covid patients. He has been sharing his experiences, hoping to give them the confidence to emerge victorious over the virus.

Uday Mahurkar

High on pragmatism

No distress signals: For Vinay Bansal, who had an easier time than many other Covid patients, the virus was more like an ordinary flu

Vinay Bansal is a stickler for rules. As India went into lockdown on March 25, the retired bureaucrat diligently followed social distancing measures and stepped out only for brief walks within the society premises. He also registered himself on the government’s Aarogya Setu app. On May 6, when he developed a minor cough, he turned to home remedies for respite, saline water gargles, steam inhalation, drinking lots of warm fluids and turmeric milk. But when fever kicked in the next day, Bansal had read enough about COVID-19 to know he needed to step up. He updated his symptoms on Aarogya Setu and decided to get tested. Mindful of the danger of infecting his family, the 75-year-old headed on his own to the HN Reliance Foundation Hospital. He had no fever then, so an antibiotic was prescribed and a swab sample taken for testing.

Bansal was a prominent bureaucrat before retirement, he served as principal secretary to two chief ministers, so he received his test results directly from Nikhil Meswani, a member of the board of directors of Reliance Industries Ltd, and Dr Tarang Gianchandani, CEO of the hospital. “They were so encouraging and considerate that I had no time to bemoan my fate,” says Bansal. On May 9, he was admitted to SevenHills, a dedicated Covid hospital, and his treatment began. He took his iPad for company.

“We have no idea how he got it, even though you hear about how it afflicts those in his age group and with comorbidities,” says his daughter Gitika, who had a hard time dealing with the news. Bansal, though, had a more pragmatic approach to his diagnosis. “If you have the virus, you have it,” he says. “How do you tell the wind not to blow in a certain direction?” The septuagenarian exhibited no anxiety or distress as he recounted his experience, which, he is aware, was much better than the privations many other patients have suffered. Covid, for Bansal, was mostly like an “ordinary flu”, albeit one where following rules is essential.

In the hospital, Bansal was asymptomatic and despite his pre-existing condition of hypertension, he didn’t need any special care besides medication. Days were, thankfully, uneventful. He finished reading Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda and Krishnavatara III: The Five Brothers by K.M. Munshi on Kindle. He also honed his skills in bridge and chess, playing online versions of the game. After 12 days without any symptoms, he was discharged and asked to quarantine at home.

As accounts surface of Covid patients being harassed and ostracised on their return, Bansal has had little to report in that direction. Once back home, he wrote a letter to the residential society apologising for the trouble his diagnosis had caused them after the building was labelled a containment zone as per the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation guidelines. “I got encouraging responses. Everyone has been very kind,” he recounts.

In his second phase of quarantine, WhatsApp messages and calls from his erstwhile colleagues in the Indian Administrative Service, a few members of the building and daily ones from his daughter helped him while away the seemingly interminable days. On June 5, after testing negative, he finally opened the door to his room to see his son, daughter-in-law and five-year-old granddaughter. “It was a great family reunion,” says Bansal, with a laugh. He is still being cautious though. He confines himself to listening to stories from his grandchild. Giving her a hug, he says sorrowfully, will have to wait a few more weeks.

Suhani Singh

Battle of the mind

Masked crusader: Dr Saumil Shah, a doctor and a Covid survivorat Mumbai’s CritiCare hospital. photo: Mandhar Deodhar

It’s an invisible enemy and no one can escape it. Eventually, almost all of us will get COVID-19 and most people will recover. Be strong emotionally and physically, exercise and eat healthy to increase your immunity.” This is the advice from Dr Saumil Shah, a leading Mumbai-based gastro­enterologist and now a Covid survivor. Shah contracted the virus in late March, weeks after attending a wedding in Mumbai where a few international guests were present.

It began with his 83-year-old mother running fever and complaining of loss of appetite. Her second Covid test result came out positive. Being attached to Mumbai’s Lilavati Hospital, Shah got his mother admitted there. “The toughest part was not being allowed to meet her for the first two days though we kept talking to her [on the phone],” he says. Shah was forbidden from seeing patients and entering the wards as he had been in close contact with his mother.

When the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) tested 10 members of the extended family, Shah tested positive. “The rule at that time was to get admitted if you tested positive,” he says. His treatment at Lilavati, though, was short. Four days and two neg­ative tests later, he was home. “I only had to tackle boredom in hospital,” he says. The family followed the fortnight-long quarantine rule strictly and was assisted by neighbours, who would deposit vegetables and provisions at their door.

With lanes around his building cordoned off, a few people in the vicinity got worried. Fear of the disease, Shah says, is exaggerated:. “Most people who get medical care in time and do not have other underlying diseases are recovering,” he says. But he does admit that the actual number of infected people may be 10 times higher as many cases are asympto­matic and therefore untested.

Even as Shah awaits a call from hospitals to donate convalescent plasma, he warns that the virus presents itself in varied ways, such as loss of appetite, extreme weakness or abdominal pain with no respiratory trouble. The only way people can avoid catching the virus is by maintaining hygiene and physical distancing and building immunity through diet and exercise. “The only worrying part is to have lots of people falling ill at the same time. It would be unfortunate if a patient dies because of lack of medical care,” says Shah.

Aditi Pai

On a covidrollercoaster

Positively healthy: Faiyaz Ahmad recuperates at his home in Patna after surviving Covid. Photo: Ranjan Rahi

Faiyaz Ahmed, employed in the Indian Railways’ machine maintenance unit in Savarkundla, Gujarat, was visiting his family in Patna for Holi when he felt the first few symptoms of Covid coming on. Ahmed, who returns to Patna every year during the festival, had been mingling with family and friends since March 6 and had even attended a wedding.

His health troubles began on the night of March 19. It started with a cough, some throat pain followed by breathlessness. Since there was no fever, Ahmed waited a day before calling a medical helpline on March 21. He was advised some medication, but no test. However, as the problems persisted, Faiyaz set out to see a doctor. March 22 being Janata Curfew day meant he had to walk more than four kilometres with his 60-year-old father to find a doctor. They finally did find one, who, after a basic check-up, called an ambulance immediately which took him to Nalanda Medical College and Hospital.

Faiyaz’s hospital stay was a series of highs and lows. He had to wait a full 24 hours before his sample was taken at all to test for Covid. His father, though, faced a tough time as he waited for updates about his son’s health and was, at times, at the receiving end of inconsiderate behaviour from the hospital staff and police. At one point, Ahmed himself was kept in a room with no fan which prompted him to make a video documenting the lack of facilities and the poor conditions at the hospital and release it on social media. At home, Ahmed’s family faced a bit of discrimination. A few neighbours even tried to get the family to leave the housing society.

“The good things started happening when the Indian Railways intervened, offering to shift me to a railway hospital,” says Ahmed. The most comforting memory he has of the hospital was when a doctor told him: “Main tumhein kuchh bhi nahin hone doonga (I will not let anything happen to you).”

Ahmed feels that if you start to lose hope, recovery becomes harder. “After the first two days of disappointment, I decided to do push-ups whenever I felt downcast and sing aloud to myself,” says Ahmed. Now, more than two months after recovery, Ahmed says he has left all the bitterness behind. “I was only the third Covid patient in Bihar. Obviously, people, including a few health staff, were panicking.”

Ahmed wants it to be known that the coronavirus is not life-threatening. “At least not for those free of other ailments. But the suffering that it piles on you and your family is worse than the virus. So, my advice to everyone is to take all possible precautions in public places even if you feel it is uncomfortable. If you still contract it, never let your morale dip,” he says, with a hard-won smile.

By Amitabh Srivastava

Keeping the Faith

Duty first: Jhuma Murmu at her home in Howrah. Photo: Subhir Halder

It was the end of March and West Bengal was just waking up to the realities of dealing with Covid. Satyabala ID Hospital in Howrah district, converted into a dedicated Covid unit, was struggling with its limited resources. Just 10 sets of personal protective equipment (PPE) had been delivered to the hospital, and Jhuma, a nurse and way down in the hierarchical chain, would get to wear one only if she had to approach a patient for swab collection. For taking temperature, changing urine pots and other activities that did not require actual physical contact with patients, Murmu and other nurses had to make do with masks and gloves.

On April 1, a Haj pilgrim admitted to the hospital tested positive. Before the confirmation report had arrived, a spiritually-inclined Murmu would hang around the patient’s bed, hoping to hear the pilgrim’s stories as she fixed saline bottles and took his temperature. One day, Murmu saw him gasping for breath as his oxygen saturation percentage dipped, and even though she had no protective gear on, she couldn’t help but rush to his aid. The man, whom Murmu had affectionately started calling ‘Haji dadu’, passed away the same day. Two days later, Murmu felt the first signs of Covid, irritation in the throat and common flu symptoms. She realised she and her teammates could be carriers of the virus, having worked in the Covid ward for almost a fortnight since March 21 with no protective equipment.

Testing perhaps would have taken a few more days had the medical personnel not protes­ted against the hospital authorities. Murmu was tested on April 10. “My immediate concern was my 69-year-old father, who is hypertensive as well as diabetic,” says Murmu. “I knew they would be packed off to a quarantine centre and be left for days with other Covid suspects. On the morning of April 12, Murmu received the results, she had tested positive for the coronavirus. She was admitted to M.R. Bangur Covid Hospital. “I was told to bring along the bare minimum. I just wanted my Bible and mobile phone. The Bible helped me survive the dreadful storm that is Covid. There were times when gulping even a spoonful of food was difficult and water tasted like bitter-gourd juice. The condition of the toilet, being shared by 30 people, used to be horrible. Even the thought of having to use it would make me throw up. It was a daunting challenge. I thought of the lord and his sufferings and felt calm within. I went into respiratory distress only once and had to be administered oxygen. But I kept insisting to my attending sister to not put me through nebulisation as it could lead to other complications.”

After 15 days, Murmu was discharged. But she was now worried whether she would be accepted by the neighbours in her apartment building. “I was reluctant to go home to my parents, even though they had tested negative. I was required to self-isolate at home for another 10 days.” But the welcome was grand, there were people in the balconies and staircase out to greet her and someone even left a bouquet of freshly-plucked flowers at her door.

It has been a month and Murmu is back at her job in the Covid ward. She says she has emerged stronger from this experience. “Having had Covid, I can handle patients better with a lot more patience and endurance. I am in a position to tell them that this too shall pass,” she says. Murmu’s illness has ensured that hospital authorities are now actively ensuring enough PPE kits for all staff members. She also quarantines herself at her own expense at a small hotel in Salkia (Howrah) during her week off which follows a week of working in the Covid ward. “I cannot put the lives of 23 families living in our building at risk,” says Murmu. As she gets ready for work, dressed in her crisp white uniform, her nose and mouth covered with a mask and her hair wrapped in a scarf, she slips the Bible in her satchel. It has become as integral to her as the mask in Covid times.

By Romita Datta

Out of the abyss

All’s well: Jitendra Awhad waves from the balcony of his home inMumbai

Jitendra Awhad, the housing minister of Maharashtra, was busy distributing food packets to around 80,000 people in his largely Muslim constituency, Mumbra, on the outskirts of Mumbai, on April 10 when he felt a wave of exhaustion come on. His daughter Natasha, a student, worried at the sight of her father looking frail, suggested he go for a check-up. Awhad, a member of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), rejected the idea outright. “It is only overexertion,” he said. Nine days later, he fell unconscious. He was first rushed to Jupiter Hospi­tal in Thane but later shifted to Fortis in Mulund as his condition worsened.

Awhad says he does not rem­ember anything of the next three days. “Probably, the blood supply to my brain was inadequate. I had temporary amnesia.” He was put on life support for a couple of days. Only when the ventilator removed on April 27, does he remember being told he had COVID-19. On May 3, two subsequent tests showed a negative result and by May 10, he was back home.

Awhad blames the World Health Organization (WHO) for not including fatigue in the initial list of Covid symptoms. “I did not have symptoms like fever or cough. That made me think everything was fine with me. My ignorance led to carelessness,” he says. The three weeks he spent in hospital, Awhad says, are best forgotten. He didn’t even know of his diagnosis till an attendant at the hospital gave him a lunch plate with a label describing him as a Covid patient. His wife Ruta, too, had tested positive for the virus and was under treatment. “Natasha was alone at home,” says Awhad. “I did not have access to a mobile phone or TV and my head was full of only negative thoughts.” The nurses and doctors at the hospitals were his saviours during this time. They encouraged him to stay positive and look at the future. “The nurses were very kind. They used to rush to my side anytime I felt nauseous. They kept my hope alive,” he adds.

While on life support, Awhad managed to draw up a rough will to ensure Natasha would be well cared for should something happen. “The doctors had told Natasha I had only a 30 per cent chance of survival. She handled it very bravely,” says Awhad. Back with his family now, he is determined to spend more time with them.

By Kiran D. Tare

A hint of personal touch

BACK TO WORK: J. Santhoshkumar in Kochi. Photo: Ashish Vincent

Santhoshkumar, the junior health inspector in Chowara village of Kerala’s Ernakulam district, is back at work teaching people about the precautions to take against COVID-19. He is scrupulous about the sanitisation programmes in the village and visits the homes of those quarantined regularly to check on them. But not many know that Santhosh himself is a Covid survivor. When the locals ask him how deadly the virus is, he merely smiles and tells them to wear masks and take every single precaution to not pass the infection on to others. No one realises that he is speaking from personal experience.

As a health inspector, Santhosh has been actively involved in the preparations to keep Covid under check in his area. He was deployed at the Cochin International Airport to screen passengers flying into the state between March 19 and 21. After his stint at the airport, the 40-year-old returned to Ernakulam for a short break and was planning to visit his family in Parassala in capital Thiruvananthapuram for a bit. However, on the morning of March 22, he woke up with a fever. He immediately contacted his health supervisor and told him he needed medicines. He remained in isolation for five days during which he developed a cough and pain in his throat. On March 27, he went to Kalamassery Medical College in Ernakulam for a test and was informed the next day that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, making him the second health worker to test positive in the state.

Meanwhile, the district medical officer, district collector and health minister K.K. Shailaja were informed about his status and they all called to assure him that he would receive the best medical treatment. Santhosh had just one request for the minister, that his family not be told about his diagnosis. He feared his wife and mother would not be able to handle it.

“I was not scared. I went to the hospital and spent another 18 days (March 28 to April 15) there. I told my wife and mother that two of my colleagues had tested positive and that I had been directed to stay under hospital quarantine. I talked to my wife every day on WhatsApp. They had no idea I was undergoing treatment at the hospital,” says Santhosh. During his 18 days in hospital, there was a bit of a scare when he developed chest pain and lost his sense of taste. After the first six days, though, his fever subsided and he improved steadily with medication. After being discharged on April 18, Santhosh went into a week-long home quarantine. He did eventually visit his family and also told them about his battle with Covid.

As Santhosh left home on April 25 to rejoin work, what gave him imm­ense joy was his daughter saying how proud she was of him. “My infection taught me how to handle a situation without panicking,” he says. “We’ll have to live with Covid for some time, so we must all join the fight against it.”

By Jeemon Jacob

A Reddy reckoner

Tech at work: Punna Reddy has developed an AI chat bot to help with the initial diagnosis of Covid. Photo: Panil Kumar

Punna Reddy was confi­dent he would pass the thermal screening at the airport without any trouble. Travelling from Edinburgh, via Dubai, to Hyderabad on March 14, Reddy was checked for signs of COVID-19 and cleared. On reaching home in the city’s upscale Jubilee Hills after a week of back-to-back meetings in the UK, a relieved Reddy went to bed. The next day, he woke up fev­erish and with a headache. “Being a workaholic, this was normal for me,” says Reddy, but as his fever rose to 101.9, he decided to get tested at the state-run Gandhi Hospital in Secunderabad.

“The hospital felt like a war zone,” says Reddy. “There was a long queue and I had to mention my travel history to seek a priority check-up.” A day later, he was confirmed positive, officially Telangana’s Covid patient No. 4.

Reddy’s first reaction was despair. “I thought of my wife and two teenage children back in Edinburgh and how I had promised them I would return soon,” says Reddy. “I wondered if I would recover or end up as a statistic, counted among the many who died of Covid.” Reddy eventually forced himself to look at the brighter side. When he informed his wife, he said, “I am positive [for Covid], and with this positivity I will defeat the virus.”

Reddy stayed up to date on Covid news, and kept telling himself this was just a fever and that he would soon defeat the virus. He had video calls with his wife and children every day. “The conditions at Gandhi Hospital were way better than at other government hospitals,” says Reddy. “Their excellent treatment helped me recover early.” On April 1, he was discharged with instructions to be home-quarantined for a month. During this period, he put out a motivational video message for other Covid patients.

Now, Reddy, as the founder and CEO of technology company Purview Services, has launched Purview COVID-19, an artificial intelligence WhatsApp-based chat bot conforming to WHO guidelines, which helps diagnose Covid based on symptoms. It is in use in Oman and the Netherlands. “All this activity kept up my adrenaline, and I almost forgot I was a patient in quarantine,” says Reddy.

Looking back, he says: “A crisis does not make us, but reveals what we are made of. Covid has brought to the fore human fallibility. It has given us a perspective. Only a miniscule [fraction] of the power of technology has been harnessed. We should focus on building the best facilities using technology in a prudent way.”

By Amarnath K. Menon

Role reversal

In the line of duty: Dr Sumedh Kesaria at his home in Mumbai

It was March 20, the early days of Covid, but Sumedh Kesaria, a pulmonary specialist at Mumbai’s Wockhardt Hospital, was already following precautions and, when not working, confining himself to a room in his house where he lives with his joint family. The designated person for swab collection from those returning from abroad or walking in with fever, Kesaria, on March 27, took seven swab samples. He was wearing an N-95 mask, goggles and double-layered gloves throughout. One patient though, he recalls, showed severe symptoms. Two days later, Kesaria had joint pain and fever. By March 31, it was confirmed he was Covid positive. The said patient, Kesaria learnt, had passed away.

The next few days proved to be harrowing for Kesaria. It took him police intervention for him to get an ambulance to take him to SevenHills Hospital, at 11 pm! “It was pathetic,” he says. “No one was ready to take me.” Downcast and anxious for his family, Kesaria also bec­ame a target of WhatsApp harassment. His name and address were circulated in groups, leaving family members to deal with incessant calls. A neighbour also recorded a video of his house being sanitised. “The stigma is frustrating,” says Kesaria. “I caught it while doing my duty and people were outing me as if I was cursed.”

At the hospital, in the unfamiliar role of a patient, Kesaria’s fever dropped, but his eyes hurt, his sense of smell vanished and there was a constant weakness. But it was the mental strain Kesaria struggled with. “For a day and a half, I was just scared I had infected my family,” he says. “I kept replaying the events of the week in my head thinking what I would have done differently.” He was able to calm down only once he received word that everyone else in his family had tested negative. Thereafter, he began a routine, meditation, walking around in the room, revisiting favourites like Harry Potter books, listening to a Coldplay-heavy playlist, video calls with his family and watching Ramayana on Doordarshan. “I thought if Ram could be in vanvaas for 14 years, surely I could pass 14 days.” Kesaria was discharged in a week, having tested negative twice.

He returned home, surprisingly, to applause from neighbours’ windows. “That was healing,” he says. On April 22, after his home quarantine was over, he finally stepped out of his room. Getting out of the house for a simple stroll would take another 10 days.

Kesaria is yet to return to work, but once he does he wants to be posted in the Covid ward. His antibodies reduce the likelihood of reinfection. For the moment, he would like to find a temporary place to stay in to protect his family. Till then, Kesaria is trying to make sense of the disease. “Covid is dicey because the symptoms overlap with the common cold. What differs is that it is quite infectious. The general dictum is that if there is contact with a Covid-positive person, or if the common flu symptoms persist beyond three days, get tested.” He may not be back at work yet, but as a pulmonary specialist, he has been allaying the worries of patients who call asking if they have Covid. “This is a one-of-a-kind situation. Humanity must prevail. This too will pass,” he says.

By Suhani Singh

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