"I have never travelled to China. I don’t even have a passport. I only have my driver’s license and Aadhaar card,” says 35-year-old Ramesh*.
Otherwise known as patient 52 in Karnataka, Ramesh* was the first employee of a Mysuru based pharmaceutical company, Jubilant Life Sciences Ltd, to test positive for the novel coronavirus. In the last few weeks, 65 other people, including employees and contacts, have tested positive for the virus.
Several theories were floated by the Karnataka Health Department. Initially, they said that a shipment may have come in from China and was perhaps contaminated. Two days ago, Medical Education Minister K Sudhakar told a news channel that patient 52 had gone to China himself.
For 35-year-old Ramesh*, the entire ordeal has been excruciating. Branded as the one responsible for the spread of the virus in the company and vilified, the stigma he has suffered has been too much to handle, he tells TNM.
Ramesh has now recovered but he’s been placed in quarantine at a hotel for a few more days.
“I go to work every day in the office pick-up vehicle. I have never gone abroad. I do not drink or smoke or go to parties. I have a three-year-old son and a wife to whom I come back home. If I knew how I got it, I would have told the officials what I knew. I have no reason to lie,” Ramesh says.
When asked whether he had received any shipment from China, Ramesh says that the nature of his job did not involve dealing with consignments. He works as the Assistant Officer in the documentation section of the Quality Assurance Department. His job, Ramesh says, involves checking paperwork and handing over documents to those who conduct investigations.
“The shipments are received by the store department. I did not come into contact with any shipment,” he tells TNM.
The Superintendent of Police of Mysuru, Rishyant confirmed that Ramesh does not have a passport and as per their query, he has not been to China.
What happened to patient 52?
On the morning of March 13, Ramesh went to work as usual. He got into his office bus and reached his office in Nanjangud and went about performing his duties as usual. However, he began feeling ill while at work and decided to go to the doctor.
“I felt like I had a fever. After coming back home, I went to meet my family physician. He prescribed pills for fever and I took them. The next two days, I was off since it was Saturday and Sunday. I did not go anywhere,” he says.
He went to work as usual on March 16. Ramesh says he did not have a fever at the time. On March 17, he and four other colleagues had been to a housewarming ceremony in Mysuru. Ramesh and his friends were there for an hour before returning home. “I was feeling unwell but since it was a really good friend’s function, I went. That day, when I got back, I began feeling very uneasy. On March 19, I went to the same physician and they did a blood test. He prescribed some medication,” he recounts.
On March 20, after his mother-in-law urged him to go to a different doctor, he went to the Gopal Gowda Hospital in Mysuru. His chest X-ray was taken. On March 21, he was admitted to Gopal Gowda Hospital.
“March 22 was the Janata Curfew. The doctors there did another chest X-ray because they said the first one did not come out clearly. On March 23, they diagnosed it as pneumonia and took a swab sample. That’s when they told me it could be COVID-19,” he says.
On March 26, he was told that he had COVID-19.
Since late March, Karnataka officials working to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus have been pondering over one crucial question -- how did patient 52 contract the virus?
It is a question for which Ramesh himself wants an answer badly.
“I have no idea how I got it,” he says.
Prior to falling ill, Ramesh had travelled to Chamarajanagar and Gundlupet. He had been to the taluk panchayat office to get katha documents (land title) for one of his relatives.
“Apart from this, I have not travelled anywhere. I go to work in the morning and come back home by 6 or 6.30 pm. I have not met friends or gone on any vacations,” he adds.
Two of his friends who went for the housewarming ceremony tested positive. His 27-year-old wife and his father-in-law also tested positive. Fortunately, his three-year-old son and mother-in-law tested negative. His wife and father-in-law were discharged on Saturday evening after their test results came back negative.
Jubilant Life Science, in a statement on April 16, said that the samples taken from the raw material obtained from the outlet in Nanjangud tested negative. The company too clarified that patient 52 did not travel to China.
Despite all the stress, Ramesh is thankful to the Mysuru district administration and the medical team who took care of him.
Speaking to TNM, Ramesh’s mother-in-law says that she has been through a lot of trauma ever since he tested positive. The 63-year-old woman has been looking after her three-year-old grandson alone at home, hoping that her family recovers from the “nightmare”.
“I never dreamed this could happen to us. I have been so traumatised since this happened. My son-in-law never went anywhere. Everyone is saying he spread the virus. But we don’t even know how he got it. I am upset with him for what we’ve all been through but I know he did not do it intentionally,” Ramesh’s mother-in-law says.
Ramesh’s mother-in-law adds that he still has faith in the police to investigate the case as soon as possible. “I have read so many theories. One person said my son-in-law went to China and another channel said he went to Kerala. This is not true,” she adds.
Ramesh, too, has read several speculative articles on where he travelled and picked up the virus.
“I have read many news articles that have blamed me for this. I read on one website that I went to China. My company has also issued a clarification. I honestly don’t know how I got it. I am not lying,” he adds.
According to sources who know what the investigation team is looking into, there is a possibility that Ramesh's employer might have come into contact with a Chinese person and could have become a carrier for the virus. The employer, however, has gone missing. “Even if Ramesh knows anything about his employer’s meeting, he has not disclosed now,” the source added.
Perhaps, the truth is that Ramesh isn’t patient zero. And we may never know who it was.