It is the coronavirus that now issues guidelines on how we are to be, where we are to be, why we are to be
Mehr Tarar | 19 Jun, 2020
(Illustrations: Saurabh Singh)
IT HAS BEEN eight days since I have known.
That I’m Covid-19 positive.
My bedroom is my quarantine corner. Everything that I do in the next few weeks must be within the four walls of my room. The years-long, self-imposed isolation that seems to have become a part of my existence has suddenly been redefined. It is the coronavirus that now issues guidelines on how we are to be, where we are to be, why we are to be. To be is the eternal question. Now it is also the existential one. To be tires me these days. Everything tires me these days. The last eight days.
Sleep is my refuge. There is no pain. My body is fever-less. I do not have a cough, breathing problem, nausea, diarrhoea, loss of taste or smell, confusion, rash, redness of toes. I do feel tired. I also feel a tad weak. The first three days, I thought my body was having the desired response to the single daily tablet of the three-day doctor-prescribed dosage. I felt sleepy all the time. Eight days later, all I still want to do is sleep. And I do. Sleep a lot. That is unusual for a chronic insomniac.
Is this the story of my Covid-19? I have no idea.
Should I make a timeline? Normally, the sameness of my 24-hour cycle blurs all my days and nights into hue-less mundaneness that is difficult to chronicle. Oddly, I remember the first time I heard about the new virus, the novel coronavirus, until the day it infected my body. The story is as dull as the breeze-less sunlight behind my curtained windows. But as 2020 will be known as the year invisible microbes brought the world to its knees, every dull personal story of having been infected with the coronavirus will have its own little special place in the life of an individual, a family, in some cases, at a larger level. In my sleep-dulled brain, the little personal story of my Covid-19 seems even duller than it is.
It started in January. I read about pangolins and a new virus. I had never heard of pangolins. I googled pangolins.
Poaching, trafficking and cruelty to animals in China’s wet markets and other such places across the globe have been mainstreamed courtesy the virus that has entered and harmed almost every country of the world. How things will change for animals remains to be seen once the world resettles into its bleak and bleaker post-coronavirus reality. Circa June 12th, the world is still in the midst of the devastation that makes daily announcements of its new rules, its new dynamics.
Pangolins are not the reason for the origin of the novel coronavirus; in my mind, the two would remain inextricably intertwined. That is the thing about the human mind. It forms its own little realities to understand the inexplicable.
My first tweet about the novel coronavirus was on February 1st.
No one in Pakistan seemed to be interested in the strange “Chinese virus” that had already begun its unassuming destruction in China, and elsewhere. It did not seem to have the potential to be a pandemic by anyone other than the World Health Organization (WHO). The only thing I had understood by that time was that the new virus had a special disdain for man-made borders, travel bans on the undesirable, and restrictions of time-bound visas. It was traipsing across continents, marking its fluid territory everywhere.
MARCH WAS MY birthday; the first death anniversary of my missed-every-day younger brother, Babar; his first birthday without him; and my sister’s birthday. March was PSL, and many other important events in Lahore and elsewhere in Pakistan. March was my daily long conversations with my son, Musa, in Paris, whose five-month semester in the European campus of his university in New York had been abruptly coronavirus-ised.
All plans suddenly went awry. So much for human meticulousness. For all my efforts to have the last-minute VIP seat for the PSL final, weekends in Greece and Italy for my son, the PM-RSVP-ed events of political friends. Life was first postponed, then cancelled indefinitely.
In March, I tweeted about the coronavirus. I used to talk about it with whoever I talked to. I didn’t stop even when it infected me. My son came home on March 18th. I became the focal person for English media for the Punjab Minister of Information. Prevention of the coronavirus was my constant refrain. Not many people among the few I interacted with ever paid attention to my diurnal announcement of the deadliness of the coronavirus.
Daily and monthly jobs halted, some gone for good. Big and small businesses suffered. The restlessness of the ignorance of the unknown tomorrow trumped the fear of a virus that still wasn’t a reality to most Pakistanis. Morbidly, it still isn’t.
Pakistan went in a lockdown on March 22nd. Musa had moved into my late brother’s room, which he painted in two days. When he turned to refurbishing the bathroom, everything closed in Pakistan. The lockdown eased and then lifted in May. The bathroom is still unfixed. Musa is oddly stoic about the unavailability of a bathroom attached to his new bedroom while he uses an alternative one. At 20, he has this limitless ability to take life for what it is, and make a perfect martini with the olives life hands him. I learn from Musa every day. It helps me come to terms with the plan-less chaos of my everyday reality.
APRIL AND MAY were a blur of staying indoors, minimum social contact, spending more time than ever with people who mattered, and introspection. Lots of that.
Everyone was quarantined. Those who had the luxury of waiting out the quarantine without fretting about the next paycheck and emotional wellbeing of their loved ones clustered like caged birds in a tiny space were, and are restless, but doing okay. The middle class has suffered too. But not like those who lost their daily-earning or monthly non-contractual jobs. Life ground to the uncertainty of money-lessness. And that is one lessness that causes more anxiety than invisible microbes sashaying into the inner reserves of your body.
Despite Prime Minister Imran Khan’s constant concern about the millions of Pakistanis who lived below the official poverty line, or barely made the bare minimum to put one-and-a-half meal on an imaginary table, things got to a point where food rations provided by countless Pakistanis to their less privileged compatriots helped entire families escape stark starvation. The government’s empathetic and timely Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program has helped 12 million families at a time when the poor of many countries, including that of India, have suffered beyond imagination. A long lockdown for a developing country was never a viable option.
Mosques in Pakistan, despite mosques even in the orthodox Saudi Arabia and Iran and other major Muslim countries closing, remained crowded. Religious rallies appeared in the midst of the coronavirus. Despite Quranic injunctions and teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to adopt precautionary measures as and when required for safety of personal and collective life, Muslims of Pakistan never stopped going to mosques. Most of them insisted they followed the required safety measures.
LOCKDOWN IN PAKISTAN was eased in phases as the prime minister expressed huge confidence in the pragmatism of 220 million Pakistanis for strict adherence to Covid-19 prevention guidelines. Easing of lockdown before Eid-ul-Fitr was a licence to unimpeded shopping for millions of Pakistanis who despite very limited resources due to interruption to their daily or monthly incomes, considered Eid shopping mandatory to the validation of their newfound freedom from the lockdown. It was not just the low-income or no-income Pakistanis that poured into narrow-laned bazaars, it was also the upper middle class and affluent Pakistanis who thronged the upscale shopping areas.
Human beings are not meant to remain indoors for long. Human beings do not do self or government-prescribed quarantines very well. Human beings, despite the very real danger of an exponentially spreading virus, do not believe in maintaining social distancing.
Many famous people, including politicians, have tested positive for Covid-19. The number of cases is rising. The panic mode is on. Another lockdown is a very real likelihood. The government makes daily appeals to the public to observe prevention guidelines. People are very worried, but still not fully masked or quarantined.
My fear of increase in cases after the easing of lockdown prompted me to plan a reinforced coronavirus prevention campaign in collaboration with the Punjab governor. I plan its resumption once I’m Covid-19 negative.
Today, on June 12th, at 6:56 am, the number of global confirmed cases is 7,493,514, and 420,993 dead. In Pakistan, the number of confirmed cases is 123,493, and 2,409 dead. In Pakistan, the number of patients who have recovered is 38,391. Am I going to be one of them? Another week of isolation, too much sleeping, and thinking without focus will tell. God willing.
WHEN WAS I infected? No rocket science required to trace my days when I have barely gone out in the last one month. When people close to me find out I’m Covid-19 positive, there’s one identical exclamation: “How did you get the infection? You never go anywhere.” Well, there goes the assumption that I don’t go anywhere. Once in a while, I do. And in those once-in-a-while excursions, nestles the story of me getting hit by the coronavirus.
On May 29th, I visited a friend. There were three of us, two females and one male, in her living room, maintaining more than WHO-prescribed distance from one another. My friend was masked. In her line of work, her public interaction is extensive, and ergo her constant masking for everyone’s safety.
I was not wearing a mask although I had a mask, sanitiser and gloves in my bag. Despite being a vocal endorser of the importance of wearing a mask, I didn’t think being masked in a disinfected, three-people populated room was necessary. This guideline is missing even in WHO’s mask-wearing instructions. Wearing a mask is something I practise and advise but not when I’m with two-three people, safely distanced from one another. My childhood asthma that I yearly experience, and my seven nasal surgeries make extended wearing of mask suffocating. My alternative to less wearing of masks: maintain social distance or be in isolation. Both, apparently, failed.
And then comes the twist in the story. Just as I’m mumbling it’s late, three people arrive. It is for a short official talk with my friend who works for the government of Punjab. The three visitors also work for the government. One of them is a celeb-turned-politician. For the brief duration of his visit, he’s on the other end of the room from me.
In that room, on that night, in those few minutes, there was no sneezing, or coughing, or wheezing. No one looked ill or feverish. The living room, despite air-conditioning, was barely even cool. Two doors were open. No one sat close to anyone, as is common in most subcontinental settings. No one touched anyone. No one shook hands with anyone.
Fast forward to May 30th. The celeb-turned-politician tweeted that he was unwell, and hoped it wasn’t Covid-19. He did have Covid-19. When I read about that, I texted him my best wishes. I texted the other two to get tested. One of them was infected. Beyond those three texts, I didn’t think much about May 29th.
UNTIL I FELT that something was wrong. June’s first four days. My body felt as if it was in a wringer. For some medically inexplicable reason, I have not had fever in probably the last 20 years. I used to have body and headaches, and a feeling of being feverish. Despite it being a recurrent phenomenon a few years ago, now it is a rare occurrence. I thought the pains were the exhaustion of fasting the entire month after a gap of a few years and eating very little during Ramzan. My workouts had hit a month-long pause. Perhaps, it was sleep deprivation. For weeks, I had not slept for more than three hours in a day.
Despite various painkillers, my body pains and headache remained constant. My pains were unresponsive to medicines.
For a couple of nights, I even tried Lexotanil. Sedatives are a no in my life even when I feel indescribably restless or anxious. I was tired of the pain.
One tweet happened, of Dr Faheem Younus, MD—‘Tweeting health, from the COVID frontlines. Chief of Infectious Diseases, University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health.’ My gratitude to him is immense. Dr Younus and I follow one another on Twitter; his tweets on Covid-19 are my daily information and prevention staple. His one tweet made me think that I should be tested.
My son and niece insisted that I got tested. Masked, all three of us waited in the parking lot of a lab for an hour before we gave up. A lab technician, PPE-ed, took the sample from my place later that night. It was June 4th.
That night, I did not take any medicine. I slept.
On June 5th, past noon, as I tried to sleep, my niece informed me that I was Covid-19 positive. I mumbled: “accha.” I fell asleep. I did not take any painkiller that day.
The same day, on the recommendation of a kind friend, I contacted a doctor, the head of Covid-19 treatment at a reliable hospital.
On June 6th, I had an 11 am appointment. PPE-ed personnel X-rayed my chest. My only concern was that I’d have to remove the pendant I had not taken off since it was placed around my neck years ago. With the pendant pulled to my forehead, I was X-rayed.
Oxygen saturation, blood pressure and other vitals were normal. The 52-year-old me, with my chronic left temple pain, and a not-so-healthy lifestyle, said a silent thank-you to Allah. I keep saying silent and audible thank-yous to Allah. That is my thing. It keeps me focused. And strong.
THE DOCTOR PRESCRIBED a three-day course of one medicine, one tablet a day, the name of which I’d not reveal. All affected by Covid-19 should only listen to their doctor and NO ONE else. The doctor also said that if I had a respiratory issue, I could call them even at 2 am and be hospitalised.
Isolation was mandated. That was the easiest part of my Covid-19.
The first tablet was at 2 pm. At 5 pm, I went to sleep for four hours. It was deep sleep. My body was pain-free when I woke up.
On June 7th and 8th, I took the remaining two tablets at 2 pm.
Other than my chronic left temple pain, I’m pain-free. I sleep well, and a lot.
My diet is my usual food: ghar ka khaana, fruit, fresh salad, cereal, chicken, boiled starch-less rice, eggs, bran bread and tea with milk and brown sugar. I drink lots of water. The one supplement I take is CAC 1000. It is mango-flavoured. It tastes weird.
I feel sleepy and tired. The latter perhaps because of too much of the former. Next week, I’ll start working out a bit.
On June 9th, 10th, 11th, I felt rested, symptom-free, healthy, and optimistic. I pray none of this changes until I test again in a few days.
I follow one doctor’s advice. I don’t practise online remedies and recommendations of well-meaning but basically unhelpful family members, friends and acquaintances.
My belief is simple. My Creator, my Allah, is always Compassionate. He has given us clear guidelines on how to be rational and do the things essential for our safety, our wellbeing. I pray a lot. My faith is unchanging, and very strong. My faith simplifies and guides my worldly actions, like starting treatment, listening to my doctor, doing the prescribed things.
When I tweeted about my Covid-19, there was an outpouring of concern, support and prayers. Every day, many people send me wishes—cousins, some close friends, some new ones, some I have never met in person. The niceness of human beings keeps me positive in my Covid-19 positive-ness.
My sister checks my daily condition through phone calls, texts and visits to my door. My family—my son, sister, niece and nephew, and live-in domestic staff and their children, a family of four—are there for me, despite my occasional grumpiness and frequent unwillingness to accept any offer of help. Nasir, my help, is my family member without whom my Covid-19 isolation would have been very difficult.
In a few days, I’ll be tested again. One day at a time…
INEXPRESSIBLE IS THE feeling of the knowledge that currently my body is a carrier of infection. That anything I touch has to be disinfected later. That my isolation is mandatory. That I can’t hug my son. That I can’t sit with my niece and nephews. That I can’t touch my dogs. It is scary as hell. It is also more humbling than anything else. Undetectable microbes have turned my hands into a vehicle of infection. Endless handwashing wouldn’t make my hands safe until I test negative for Covid-19. I find that terrifying.
I know it is temporary. I hope and I pray it is. Huge is my gratitude for being asymptomatic after one day of medication. Immense is my comfort of being pain-free. But it is not easy. Not being able to live normally is not easy. Knowing how much I have always taken for granted is not easy. The prohibition of not touching any human or animal is not easy. Touching anything and disinfecting it is not easy. It is not human to be so wary of one’s own body.
Until it is over, what I miss more than anything else is not being able to hug my son, Musa. He remains my biggest worldly strength even in the time of my coronavirus-induced existence.
This too shall pass.