By Kathakali Mandal
We were prepared for the pandemic. Or so we liked to believe. With my mother’s stellar career and quarter of a century’s worth of experience in health and family planning; with an uncle serving as a doctor and head of the department of Cardio-thorasic surgery at National Medical College of Kolkata, with my father’s more than adequate Mediclaim protection; with my family’s general psychotic tendencies of cleanliness; we thought we were prepared and safe from the worst. We were not.
It came with my sister. I believe she contracted the COVID infection from a hospital, where, against my family’s better judgement, she was taken to get an inner ear condition checked. Someone may have been, perhaps inadvertently, roaming around the registration area, throwing the virus around like confetti and infecting potentially half the lobby – my sister being one of the unfortunates.
Within two days of the encounter, she was down and out. She dropped like a sack of lead- so did her oxygen saturation. Imagine the panic of a family watching their beloved child suffocate slowly right before their eyes. My father had done the smartest thing possible at that point- gotten her admitted to the best private Covid care facility we could find. There we were told my sister might need ventilation owing to severe congestion of the lungs- in short a Covid pneumonia. All of this in 48 hours. Our nightmare was only beginning.
Her test results came two days after she was put in the hospital. Actually, we did not receive the report until way later- we received a long list of instructions in a deadpan voice from the State health ministry- we had to go into complete isolation and all six of us had to get tested. But how? Will the state ministry help us? The municipality would, we were told. We believed them.
The first day my sister was in the hospital, her condition got progressively worse. Her oxygen levels dropped below 80 and she was turning blue. We were simply too consumed in our worry, terror and grief at having to watch my sister suffer for no reason to think of anything else. Was she going to make it? That was the only question we would think of, meditate upon. The situation lasted almost three days. My father was reduced to a heap of worry, frowns and blank haggard looks and long telephone calls in that time. My mother, for all her experience with wonders of medical science gave up on her professional faith altogether and took refuge at her sanctum sanctorum. We were no longer hungry and we were barely moving from the bed. That the turn of the decade would prove so fateful, so harrowing for us, we never would have imagined in a million years. My uncle had to insert himself aggressively in the situation for the hospital to come clean and work a little harder for my sister. 5 days later we were asked to sign a declaration and bond by the hospital and my sister, along with some odd couple of million people across the country received the first doses of REMDESEVIR, the only approved medication for Covid. The results were spectacular and immediate- within 24 hours my sister’s congestion started clearing up and she started hacking up the phlegm that was suffocating her a few days back. Once my sister was no longer at risk of mortal danger we could sit back to take a breather. Quite literally.
Kolkata Municipal Corporation was meanwhile living up to its reputation of being the absolute useless juggernaut that it is- the first thing they did was come over with a run down auto and some big plastic batches of a strange smelling liquid. This, they proceeded to spray unenthusiastically around our house. We were given a bit of polythene with a phone number scribbled across and asked to dump our “infectious wastes” in it and store it to be disposed after our quarantine lifts. And how do we dump it? Why, for the low price of five hundred quids a municipality worker on govt payroll would come to do the job he gets paid for. We were treated like half wits with no understanding of urban distancing decorum. We are out of groceries- six people, 5 of them with special dietary needs, will you help us with that? “No madam, that is not our job. Ask the police to do that.” We were later told that was very much their job and not of the police.
We had expected the municipality and administration to respond to this crisis the way they did. The unexpected blow came from elsewhere. From the moment my sister left for the hospital, to the present when I am writing this experience, We received zero assistance of any kind from the people we had hoped to rely on- the friends, family and neighbors. The community. The community where we had spent thirty years, where me and my sister were born and brought up, where we had made a home, laid down roots and stood with others in turbulent times. Not a single query was made, not a single phone call. We noticed people closing their windows that faced our house. They would no longer open their balcony doors. We noticed three of our immediate neighbors just packed and left. Some of these people called me and my sister “baarir meye”. Indeed they had seen both of us be born. Then the ostracization really started. The vegetable and fish vendors who came with their wares on a van, refused to sell us anything. We caught our neighbors indicating these sellers from their windows to steer clear of us. Overnight a few rickshaws and cabs parked themselves in front of our garage driveway blocking it rather inconveniently – Never in the thirty years of us living at Dhakuria, had we seen people so clearly sending us a message. We would hear pedestrians standing real close to our windows and discussing how they would like to beat up my father for “harboring” positive patients at home. Things we would not dream in our worst nightmares were coming true.
Eventually our family helped. Groceries, medicines, essentials were delivered to us. Blood is and always will be thicker than water. This we were reminded of every single day. Meanwhile Kolkata municipality were doing a marvellous job of not helping us in any way possible. After having promised to send a mobile testing van for 8 days straight and failing to do so, my father finally took matters in his hands and we had to spend an exorbitant amount of money to a well known private lab to collect specimens from home. We were tested 9 days after initial symptoms showed. They took their sweet time and delivered results 3 days later. Technically we were on the last leg of our quarantine by then and symptoms were beginning to abate. We dared to start thinking that maybe the nightmare was over. But it wasn’t. My father took a turn for the worse and was hospitalized. It was like we asked God to save us from the frying pan, so He graciously dropped us into fire. We were all tested positive.
I was teetering on the verges of a mental breakdown. This pandemic is a hypochondriac’s worst nightmare. We were all hanging by the frayed edges of our hopes, praying for a miracle every day. We lied to my sister about our father. Thankfully, my father was not that serious and he was released five days later. The nightmare is still not over. We had to watch three people die within 200 mts radius of our house, we had to talk to the Kasba PS people everyday outside our house and we were treated like we were on house- arrest. We were offered the administrative help on the sixteenth day (well after our quarantine was over), and my mother was forced to leave the house for groceries and medicines. She was publicly confronted by the locals demanding what she was doing outside. If we had an angry mob all upon our house, it would not have surprised me.
We are doing better now. Our symptoms have all but vanished. My father and sister are home and recovering fast. The police has ensured that delivery personnel can visit our house. It would be a while before normalcy is restored but thankfully we take one step towards the droll humdrum everyday. The droll humdrum is heaven.
The pandemic taught me a lot. I have aged over the course of twenty days, what I would have over ten years. I feel that I understand human nature much better, and I also understand that one should never expect anything from anybody, least of all from a band of stupid people living on stupidity street.
Kathakali Mandal is an Assistant Professor of English at Narula Institute of Technology. She stays with her family at Dhakuria, Kolkata and is recovering (along with six other family members) from Covid. She loves to paint, when she is not taking online classes or neck deep in research.