Kerala quarantine rules block three women from seeing their mother in her final days

The three sisters were desperately waiting for their institutional quarantine to finish on June 24 when their mother passed away.
Healthcare workers with a body
Healthcare workers with a body
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For now there is grief. And there is anger. 

Brutality has many faces. But nothing is more brutal than not being allowed to be with a parent fighting to live. And then when the parent passes on, not being allowed to be with her in her final journey and perform final rites.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of many diseases humanity has to deal with. But when we tackle this pandemic, we must not tear away humanism, of being with and taking care of elders.  

This is a story of pain. Very intense pain.

What I write is what happened to my friends Sudha, Seema and Sindhu, three sisters who live in Bengaluru.  About three weeks ago they learned their mother’s health was worsening.  Their mother suffered from chronic respiratory dysfunctionality and was asthmatic. To provide her a healthier environment to live in, their parents had moved to Alappuzha in Kerala some years ago. 

When Mrs Nair’s condition worsened, Mr Nair hospitalised her. She was in an ICU when she suffered a cardiac failure. As her condition stabilised she was brought home. This was considered a safer option given the pandemic and pressure on ICUs.

The sisters had been trying to reach home in Kerala, and this took some time. When finally they secured necessary permissions, they did not waste a moment and drove down, from Bengaluru to Alappuzha. On arrival, however, quarantine conditions forced them to stay in a designated resort, 20 kms from their parents’ home. They were not to see their parents till the quarantine had expired and declared COVID negative. Here they waited, desperately, for the quarantine to finish, on June 24. 

Early on June 20, Mrs Nair’s condition worsened. Her oxygen concentrator machine also failed.  Desperate attempts were made to find a repair person, even buy a new machine.  With supply chains broken, no machines were available. Due to the quarantine conditions, no repair person was available across districts. None from out of state would come due to the 14 days quarantine restriction.

Efforts now shifted to get the daughters to be with their mother. It took several phone calls and appeals, to various authorities at panchayat and district levels, all the way to the state COVID control room and beyond. MLAs and MPs were approached for help. They responded positively.  As the state and district authorities went about making arrangements to take them in a quarantine secure ambulance to see their mother, there were hiccups. Somewhere in the immediate community, there were rumblings of resistance, of allowing the sisters who were in quarantine to visit their parents.

Early on June 21, a Sunday marked by solar eclipse, Mrs Nair passed away.  Efforts now shifted to get the daughters to be with Mrs. Nair in her final journey, all precautions taken.  None of the three daughters had indicated any symptoms of any flu, or of COVID-19 in particular. In two days they would have walked out unrestrained by rules to be with their parents. 

It is an unbelievable world we have created with our COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. That children have to struggle to be with parents needing help, and then further struggling to see a dead mother’s face, aren’t supposed to be the stuff of our lives.  Especially when you are so close to them already. The quarantine rules allowed them to see their mother for 10 minutes, wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and with no physical contact. 

This is what happened in the end. The three sisters, wearing PPEs, were taken in an ambulance close to their parents’ house.  But they were not allowed inside because of ‘community objections and fears’.  Their mother’s body was brought out in another ambulance a little distance away from home. The sisters had to be content seeing their mother through the windows of the ambulance they were in, and through the window of the ambulance where their deceased mother rested. 

Unable to bear the agony, they wrested out of the ambulance to be with their mother.  But were forced back into their ambulance and driven back to their ‘resort’. They can leave this place only when their quarantine expires, in two days.

None of them are infected with the novel coronavirus.

This is brutal.

Too many questions flood one’s mind. Who wrote these rules? Why is this disease being so brutally stigmatized? Why are we yanking whatever humanism we have left in us?

For now, there is grief. There is anger.

Leo F. Saldanha is a troubled soul struggling to make sense in a world afflicted by inhumanism.

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