Branded 'super spreader', family of Karnataka COVID-19 victim battles stigma

With seven family members and several contacts testing positive, the family is struggling to move past the branding.
Funeral as per government protocol
Funeral as per government protocol
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It has been exactly a month since Qadeer Sultan’s brother, a 55-year-old businessman from Karnataka’s Kalaburagi, died due to COVID-19. With seven of his family members contracting the coronavirus, Qadeer says returning home has worsened the stigma that they suffer. 

His brother has been branded a ‘super-spreader’ by the media, and for Qadeer and the family, the label has all the more sharpened their grief.

“It's over now. My brother is dead. I am not able to function by thinking about him constantly. I have to learn to live with what I have,” Qadeer says. 

When Qadeer’s brother died on April 13, his entire family was in institutional quarantine at the ESI Hospital in Kalaburagi. His brother was in the isolation ward at the same hospital. “I don’t have any complaints about the government or the way they helped us when we were in quarantine. But he was so close to me and yet we were so far away from each other when he died. I wonder if he died feeling lonely and bereft of his family’s presence. I wonder if he would have recovered had we been there to instill confidence in him,” he recounts. 

A series of harrowing events

Qadeer, a local businessman in Kalaburagi district, lived in the same building as his brother in Kalaburagi city. He says that his brother developed a cough on April 2. 

On April 3, Qadeer’s brother went to visit his family physician, Gousuddin Arif. He is the same doctor who treated the first patient who succumbed to COVID-19 in the state - the 86-year-old man from Kalaburagi, who had travelled to Mecca. 

Dr Arif prescribed medication to Qadeer’s brother and asked him to return after five days. The cough persisted. “It actually got worse,” Qadeer says. On April 8, Qadeer rushed his brother to Dr Arif’s clinic. The doctor did not allow them to get out of their car and asked them to go directly to a government hospital and get tested for the novel coronavirus. 

His brother tested positive for the novel coronavirus on the night of April 8. On the morning of April 9, officials with the Kalaburagi district administration gathered 18 of Qadeer’s family members for institutional quarantine. Qadeer’s neighbour had been to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in New Delhi. District officials say that Qadeer’s brother may have contracted the virus from his neighbour. 

By April 12, his brother, who had Influenza-like illness, had trouble breathing and was put on the ventilator. On the morning of April 13, the doctors at ESI Hospital informed him that his brother was no more.

Qadeer’s brother is survived by his wife and his two children aged 21 and 24 years. His two sons are pursuing engineering and were home in Kalaburagi when the lockdown began in March this year. “He was a god-fearing person. My sister-in-law and her sons have lost a husband and a father. I cannot begin to imagine how they are grieving,” he says. 

Of the 18 family members who were taken to the quarantine centre, seven tested positive, and a total of 24 primary and secondary contacts tested positive in the subsequent days. 

Fear and tragedy

Speaking to TNM, one of the victim’s sons, who wished to remain anonymous, says that his father owned two clothing stores in Kalaburagi. “He was a good father. He never denied us any luxuries in our lives. He encouraged us to do whatever we wanted to. He was always ready with a joke,” Aslam* says. 

On March 15, Aslam’s mother tested positive for the coronavirus, making it doubly hard for the young man to cope with the series of tragic events that struck his family. On the same day, Aslam and his brother tested positive too. 

“My brother and I did not have any symptoms. We feared what would happen if one of our family members died. I could not sleep at night. My father’s death has taken a toll on the whole family. We were scared for my mother. She had a fever after she tested positive. What was very distressing was that we couldn’t talk to my father before he died. None of us got to say goodbye,” Aslam adds. 

Aslam recounts his father wanting to expand his business across Kalaburagi in the future. He was hoping that one of his sons would give up engineering and help run the business. “I remember a time when my father and I made plans to expand a successful business. We would discuss ideas over lunch or dinner when I came back for my semester break,” Aslam says. 

A funeral without goodbyes

Qadeer and his family were in quarantine and their results were awaited when news of his brother’s death arrived. 

“I asked the doctors if we could see him and they said we could not as there were certain protocols to follow before burial. I remember being very, very angry with the doctor. I remember feeling helpless,” Qadeer says. 

The doctors at ESI Hospital allegedly advised Qadeer and his family members to stand at a distance when the burial process was taking place. “We couldn’t see anything. I wanted to see him for myself. I wanted to tell him that things will be good for him in heaven and that God would protect him,” he adds. 

The stigma and search for normalcy

Aslam, his brother and mother are now searching for one thing they crave: normalcy. Local news reports branding his father a ‘super spreader’ has left them disheartened. Aslam says that his friends and neighbours looked at them with wary eyes when he returned home this morning. 

“My father did not willingly get the virus. He did not maliciously spread it to anyone. Everyone is branding him as some criminal. He was at home. He did not go anywhere. This should not have happened to him and no one understands this. I hope no one is in this situation. If my father, who was highly unlikely to get infected, got it,  then anyone can get it. I pray that no one has to bear so much sadness in their lives,” Aslam says. 

*Name(s) changed


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