My Covid diary: Surviving the virus at a Delhi quarantine facility
First Person

My Covid diary: Surviving the virus at a Delhi quarantine facility

Newslaundry’s Anusuya Som tested positive on May 26. She stayed in a quarantine centre for 17 days.

By Anusuya Som

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Almost every single one of us, at least once, would have wondered what it will be like if we test positive for Covid-19. Yet, even as we live in the middle of a global pandemic, there’s a part of the brain that keeps us in denial mode. We think this is stuff that will happen to other people, that we’ll never get it.

I was no different.

I have always been a visual thinker. When the outbreak came to India, I had over-dramatised scenes in my head, of testing positive. Maybe my imagination was vivid, and my thoughts were romanticised, because in a surreal way, I was convinced I would never contract it.

I was wrong.

It’s been three days since I was discharged from a quarantine facility in Delhi, where I spent over two weeks after testing positive for Covid-19. The day I got home, some symptoms returned but my doctor said it’s normal. And I feel normal now.

It’s hard to believe I spent so long at the centre, far away from my family and friends. Maybe it helped that I’ve been living alone since the beginning of the lockdown; perhaps this made it comparatively easier for me to cope.

Here’s how it unfolded.

Pre-diagnosis

On the morning of May 21, I woke up feeling extremely tired.

I live in a PG in Delhi. Since the lockdown began in March, I had been out on the ground a handful of times, buying groceries and reporting on the crisis of the migrant workers struggling to return to their homes, stranded in their places of work. I took all precautions during my fieldwork: I made sure I had my mask and gloves on at all times, I did not touch my face, I would shower as soon as I came home from reporting.

I had a few stories to work on, but I was so tired that I went back to sleep again. I got up again at 1.30 pm with the same feeling. I managed to complete one story, and slept once more. The next day passed the same way; I felt lethargic. On May 23, I developed a very mild sore throat in the morning, which eventually led to a fever of 99 degrees Fahrenheit.

On May 24, my temperature spiked to 103 degrees Fahrenheit. I called my bosses, and it was decided that I would get tested the next day. By then, I had completely lost my appetite and had developed a severe bodyache.

The test

You need a doctor’s prescription to get a Covid test done. On May 25, I went to a doctor in my locality who said he didn’t think it was Covid, but prescribed a test anyway since I’d recently visited Covid hotspots as a part of my work. I came home feeling relieved. But my fever began to rise, and the paracetamol I’d been taking for a few days was having no effect. It was summer in Delhi and pretty hot outside, but I still had chills; I had to switch off my air conditioner and fan and cover myself with a comforter and a quilt.

After a sleepless night, I started with the formalities to get the test done at a private lab. It’s an extremely complicated process. After downloading and filling up a test report form, or TRF, and attaching documents that included my Aadhaar card and the doctor’s prescription, I was told there are no empty slots for the next two days, and the test results would take two days more.

It was May 26. My temperature was 103.8°, despite taking two paracetamol tablets. I tried a few other private labs but most of them declined. By the afternoon, I found a lab willing to come home and administer the test. A man arrived at 3.30 pm, wearing a mask. He donned a PPE kit and slid a cotton bud up my nose — which was extremely painful — and inserted another into my throat. Both were sealed in test tubes and he left. I was still very confident that my results would be negative.

My results came six hours later by email, at around 10.30 pm. I had tested positive. I read the letter at least four times; I thought my mind was foggy and I was misinterpreting the words on the screen. I then told my colleagues, who assured me that they wouldn't let anything happen to me, and asked me not to stress. (Fun fact: I knew they were all stressing.)

Moving to a quarantine facility

On the morning of May 27, I was supposed to transfer either to a hospital or a quarantine facility, since I live alone and it would be easier to take care of my health somewhere else. Doctors told me I’d already surpassed the “peak phase” of Covid, and my body had begun recovering.

A nodal officer telephoned me, asking about my symptoms and test results. Meanwhile, representatives from my local residents’ welfare association were nagging my landlady about my departure. I was so busy preparing that I had little time to stress, as I packed some clothes, books and toiletries.

An ambulance arrived at 2.30 pm, with the driver and a man sitting next to him. It took me to a quarantine facility in Delhi’s Terahpanth Bhavan. I waited at the entrance for half an hour until I was allotted a room. I was extremely tired at this point, with a temperature of 99°. Due to the exhaustion, I had developed a severe backache.

My expectations from a government facility were low, but it turned out to be decent. I was handed a kit with 14 masks, a bedcover, soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a thermometer. Two men wearing PPE kits cleaned my room and I waited outside, as instructed, while they cleaned the adjoining washroom.

Food at the quarantine facility. Three meals were provided every day.
Food at the quarantine facility. Three meals were provided every day.
The cleaning staff at the facility.
The cleaning staff at the facility.

Aren’t you guys scared, I asked them when they were done. One of them replied, “Ab dar ke kya fayda, jo hona hai wo to hoga. Hum durenge to app logo ki dekhbhaal kon karega.” (There is no point in getting scared now, we don’t have control over what happens in the future. If I get scared, who will take care of all of you?)

I wondered how I would spend 14 days here but then I told myself: I have to do it, and it’s just 14 days.

The men left and I received a phone call from one of the quarantine centre’s medical teams, asking about my symptoms. Colleagues called, asking for details on the centre and my health. The general vibe was depressing. As I entered my room, I suddenly felt low and lost.

Until that moment, I had only told my colleagues what was going on, nobody else. But once I was admitted, I texted three friends. “Dude, I hope you are not scared of anything,” one of them said, and I replied, “Yes, I am not going to get my gluten-free diet for another 17 days.” We started laughing.

The other two friends were panicky — and that’s when I decided I would not tell my parents, who don't live in Delhi. I’ve known my parents for 22 years, and I knew that telling them would mean sending one of them to the hospital, since they would insist on trying to come to Delhi.

Soon enough, other journalist friends heard the news and began calling me.

At around 8.30 pm, someone at the centre told me that food was being distributed on the ground floor. I went down, looked at the plate — dal, rice, chapatis and tinda — and stupidly asked, “Can I get something else?” He didn’t reply. I picked up three water bottles, returned to my room, and went to sleep.

Life at the centre

May 28

I woke up with a start in the morning to the sound of a loud thud on the door. Scared, I opened the door and was told that breakfast was being distributed downstairs. I went down and again, since I’d lost my appetite, tentatively asked if I could get something else. This time, it worked, and I was handed an apple and two bananas.

At this point, my office was worried about two of my colleagues who had been out reporting with me. Both got tested and it came back negative. This was a relief, but other residents in my apartment building hadn’t been tested yet. I also received no phone calls from the government regarding contact tracing. My landlady is an old woman and she was very frightened, wanting to get the apartment sanitised as soon as possible.

I finally received a phone call later that day, from the office of the sub-district magistrate, Mehrauli, who asked who I had been in contact with. No one would be tested unless they started showing symptoms, he said, and hung up.

In the afternoon, a man in a PPE kit knocked on my door to tell me to fetch my lunch. He was sweating so profusely that the kit was sticking to his body. It struck me hard then, what was happening, and I quickly complied and picked up my lunch. All the staff members at the centre were sweating in their kits; one man took off his gloves in front of me and they were soaked, as if someone had poured water into a balloon. The same man later advised me not to speak to the staff unless required.

May 29

My building still hadn’t been sanitised, and the building society was terribly worried. My landlady spoke to the president of the residents’ welfare association who, in turn, spoke to a government official — but nothing happened. I tried telephoning the government official who had called me yesterday but there was no response. I was more worried about the woman who intermittently shared the apartment with me in a separate room. We had very little interaction but I wanted her to get tested. But no one turned up to administer it.

The good news? I didn’t have a fever or any other symptom, which was a very positive sign.

May 30

I had made up my mind to call the sub-divisional magistrate’s office when at about 10.30 am, I heard that three men and two police officers had arrived at my apartment building. A large poster was put outside, saying “COVID POSITIVE” with my name. The building was sanitised and everyone was told not to go out for 12 days. I was so relieved.

That afternoon, a friend, who works as a doctor at GTB hospital, tested positive. I called her and we started giggling at the coincidence. On the health front, I felt almost normal, except for a backache.

May 31-June 10

Spending days at a quarantine facility can be mundane. My room was on the third floor, where 13 other Covid patients were staying. I’d get three meals a day, all of which had to be fetched from the ground floor, and Vitamin C supplements. I was not allowed to leave the building to even walk on the lawn outside. I spent most of my time in my room.

In the initial days, I would get 20 phone calls a day. This gradually came down. I would watch movies and TV shows on my laptop and luckily, I’d brought a small stack of books with me.

I think my Covid journey in quarantine was smooth due to three reasons. First, I genuinely felt that I was going through something hard, but still unique. To make it less stressful, I wouldn’t read too much about Covid mortality rates to stave off the paranoia. I remember the days after Wajid Khan, of the Sajid-Wajid music duo, died of Covid-19. After reading the news, my chest hurt and I started feeling breathless, to the extent that I had to tell the doctors and they gave me some pills. A doctor later told me it was anxiety. From the next day onward, I began doing yoga to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The second thing that kept up my morale was the staff at the centre. They would clean my room and washroom, distribute food and medicines, and they did it all without revealing any chinks in their armour.

Third, I was always that kid who would complain about everything. I didn’t change a lot after going to college, but it was at the quarantine facility that I clearly understood the stark distinction between being privileged and underprivileged. Here I was, in a pretty decent room, while people were dying outside hospitals, unable to get beds, unable to afford treatment.

A selfie in the cab after being discharged.
A selfie in the cab after being discharged.

June 11

It was 16 days since I’d walked into the centre, and I’d completely recovered. I was told I’d be discharged the following day. A team also told me I would not be tested again, since I had served my incubation period and it’s very unlikely that my body still has the virus. But why wouldn’t I be tested to make sure, I asked, and I was told that they had no choice; it’s part of the new Indian Council of Medical Research guidelines.

June 12

I was all set to go. I didn’t know how the outside world would look, since I left it while the lockdown was in place, and I was returning once it had been lifted. I was handed my discharge sheet; the woman who gave it to me congratulated me. I asked her how long she would work here, and she said, “Until the virus leaves the city.”

I smiled and walked out. My office had organised a cab for me, and it was waiting outside. I was good to go.

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