Twenty-three-year-old Abdul* recalls sleeping well during those 14 days, the ceiling fan blowing on his hair and ruffling the sleeves of his loose hospital gown.
On January 30, the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in India from Thrissur. It was Abdul’s classmate from Wuhan University. As soon as he heard the news, Abdul and his parents drove to the Alappuzha Medical College Hospital where he got admitted to the coronavirus isolation ward.
Three days later, on February 2, it was confirmed that Abdul had also contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but by then the young man had settled into a routine in his room in the hospital.
And although he remained isolated from his family and friends, there was no deprivation as far as food was concerned. Giving the bland hospital food a miss, Abdul instead made sure he ate his favourite dishes every day. Lunch was almost always chicken biriyani with a piece of fish fry together with rice or parotta with chicken curry.
"I would eat non-veg food every day on those 14 days. That's how normal I felt. It became a joke where the nurses would tease me saying that people ate light when they had a normal fever. But here I was, relishing all kinds of food with coronavirus," he says with a laugh.
The third year medical student of Wuhan University had, on January 24, landed in Kochi with his classmate. Suspecting that he too may be infected by the virus, whose outbreak began in Wuhan in China, Abdul quarantined himself at home to ensure that the novel coronavirus did not spread further.
“I was on a strict home quarantine and did not interact with my parents. I remained in my room, had my own set of utensils and bathroom. My parents also stopped going to work and stepped out only if absolutely necessary,” he says.
It is this self-discipline that all governments are asking citizens to adhere to. Kerala is now struggling to contain the outbreak of the virus after an NRI family from Italy failed to inform the nearest health official about their travel history. The family of three have tested positive, and have transmitted the infection to at least eight people so far including their aged grandparents.
"I did not exhibit any symptoms of COVID-19. I was a carrier of coronavirus and could have easily spread it to my parents, who are in their late 50s. And it is a fact that COVID-19 can be fatal for aged or immunocompromised persons," the 23-year-old medical student tells TNM.
More than a hundred kilometres away in Thrissur, 20-year-old Shahnaz*, the first coronavirus patient in India, had also promptly informed the local health officer about her arrival.
“I developed a cough four days after arrival. I called the health inspector who immediately told the doctors. I was taken in an ambulance to the Thrissur Medical College,” she recalls.
WeChat, prayer, and football
The two youngsters and some of their other friends from Wuhan spent the next few days in isolation at various hospitals. While Abdul was discharged in 14 days after his final tests returned negative for the coronavirus, Shahnaz remained in hospital for 25 days before being certified as ‘fully recovered’.
Multiple studies in the past have reported the psychological impact that quarantine can have on people. Post-traumatic stress, depression, emotional disturbance, irritability, boredom, frustration and anger are some of the symptoms associated with quarantine. A February 2020 paper published in The Lancet, a medical journal, states, “Boredom and isolation will cause distress; people who are quarantined should be advised about what they can do to stave off boredom and provided with practical advice on coping and stress management techniques.” The paper recommends having a working mobile phone, activating the person’s social network and social media as some of the ways to stave off boredom, and reduce the consequent psychological impact.
Abdul says he spent his days inside the ward reading his morning newspaper, video calling friends and family and praying a little more than usual. His parents were also in an isolation ward, but at the General Hospital in Alappuzha. “Since I live in China, I don’t use WhatsApp (the instant messaging app is banned in China). My parents and I normally use WeChat (a messaging app). They were in a room together, and had each other for company. So they made sure to call me and also make family members call me. We would video chat multiple times a day,” he says.
In fact a lot of his time in the room was spent talking to people on the phone, something he may not have done otherwise, says Abdul. A fan of the Italian football club Juventus, he also binge-watched football videos. “I watched a few movies too including Mammootty’s Mamangam. I am religious and so heard a lot of religious audios too,” he adds.
Both Abdul and Shahnaz say they felt thankful there were users of social media apps like Facebook. Shahnaz spent her time speaking to her family and friends, watching movies and of all the things in the world- studying. “My university sent me electronic textbooks. So I decided to use some time to study,” she says.
But the highly infectious nature of the virus also meant that they had to keep things to a minimum. “Since the disease spreads through contact, it makes sense to not have too many things in the room. Since I didn’t have a proper network, they provided me wifi at the hospital. They did ask me to wipe the phone at regular intervals with a sanitiser,” she adds.
‘Life-long bond with nurses’
Prolonged hospital isolation can mean different things to patients. While several persons who contacted coronavirus have described anxiety over recovery and the negative effects of quarantine on mental health, for Abdul, it was what awaited him outside of the isolation ward which was a tad scary.
"All I wanted was my family to be safe. God heard my prayers as on the day that my test results arrived, my family had all tested negative for the virus," he says, relief palpable in his voice.
Being medical students, Abdul and Shahnaz, knew that they were not in grave danger. But for many in isolation wards across the country, the wait can be daunting, scary even.
That's why, Abdul says, the staff at the hospital always kept him in good spirits, a reason why he never felt depressed and not truly in ‘isolation’. “They would keep coming in shifts and were always in protective gear. I never saw their faces, but I knew their names and their voices. I feel like I have a life-long bond with them,” he says.
Shahnaz says it’s important to keep your spirits up. “If you let negative thoughts come into your mind, then it would be a downward spiral. The hospital had given me the number of a counsellor and when I had a mood swing, I would speak to the counsellor on phone,” she says. Abdul and Shahnaz spoke to each other too, and in many ways that was reassuring.
An epidemic which has triggered panic on a global scale can often linger on as a permanent marker of one's identity, even if the patient has recovered entirely. It can also cause unwanted social isolation and deliberate targeting by cyber trolls.
"When I first moved out of the hospital and began the 14-day home quarantine, I read a fake message about me. There was a picture of me being circulated which said that I had attended a crowded festival in Alappuzha and had spread the virus to people. It bothered me a little as it was entirely untrue. I was at home, isolated in a room with a mask on," Abdul added.
However, as soon as Abdul's family filed a complaint with the police, the message was pulled down and the trolls responsible for it were arrested by the police.
Speaking to TNM, Sheeba R, health inspector of Shahnaz’s native village says that residents stopped going to her father's shop to buy goods.
"Her father runs a small roadside grocery store in the village. Many people stopped visiting the shop after she was isolated. They distanced themselves from him and called him names. When I heard about this, I reported it to the local police who resolved the situation," Sheeba added.
On March 1, Shahnaz completed her home quarantine and stepped out of her house for the first time in over a month. She had finally fully recovered from the coronavirus. When TNM contacted her, Shahnaz was on her way to pick up her relative from the airport, no longer uncomfortable with crowded spaces.
Abdul was busy decorating his house for his niece's birthday party while narrating his experiences with this reporter. Following his recovery, the 23-year-old visited the Medical College Hospital once again, to thank the doctors and nurses who cared for him. He also rang up the Alappuzha Collector and Deputy District Medical Officer - two people who regularly checked up on him during his days in quarantine.
"People say whatever they want to say. I know I have been extremely careful in dealing with the epidemic. Rest of the conversations around me, I have learnt to ignore. All it does is kill your buzz," he adds.
Shahnaz and Abdul also want to return to Wuhan to complete their studies, following which they plan to join the medical field in Kerala.
TNM is live with Dr. Vijayalakshmi, a senior consultant on Infectious Diseases at Kauvery Hospital in Chennai. She will be your answering questions on #Coronavirus. Send them in here.Posted by TheNewsMinute on Monday, 9 March 2020