Amit Bhatt, executive director, Integrated Transport, World Resources Institute (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
2020 went by in the blink of an eye and yet every day of it seemed a yearlong. There has perhaps not been another year like this in living memory when the world collectively ground to a shuddering halt. Nothing will be the same again, we were told, even as the new reality took over every aspect of life irrevocably. This week marks a year since India’s lockdown was announced. Much has changed since then, and conversely, nothing really has. The pandemic is still raging but the ‘new normal’, 2020’s most overused phrase, has become just normal. The fear that once surrounded a Covid-positive diagnosis has abated a bit, our ever-vigilant stance now a bit weakened. It was a year that taught the world many lessons, and at an individual level, it changed lives forever. Open profiles five people who tested positive over the past 12 months and speaks to them about how the infection and the pandemic impacted them, personally and professionally. A year down the line, these are their learnings
‘There was a moment when I felt my life had come to a skidding halt’
Amit Bhatt, executive director, Integrated Transport, World Resources Institute
In 2019, Amit Bhatt participated in the Ironman 70.3 or the Half Ironman, a series of long- distance triathlon races, that included swimming, cycling and running. He was hoping to participate in the Full Ironman in 2020 until a virus waylaid the whole world’s plans. But for Bhatt, the training didn’t stop. He continued running and cycling, so much so that his doctor’s first message after he tested Covid-positive in July was: ‘You are a runner, don’t worry.’
“When my test result came back positive, I actually sat down from the shock, but my doctor’s message immediately restored my spirits,” says Bhatt. Like most people in 2020, Bhatt and his family, his wife Sarika and their daughter Avira, were being extra cautious, always masked up, stepping out for the bare essentials and always armed with everyone’s most trusty companion—a sanitiser. “My visits were only to the local vegetable vendors. It had to be on one of those trips, but I never spent much time analysing where it could have happened or how. What was done, was done.”
There was a lot of apprehension around Covid-19 when Bhatt was diagnosed. Bhatt barely had any symptoms, but the social censure came thick and fast. Neighbours behaved badly, the family’s part-time maid was fired from the other homes she used to work in even though she had tested negative. “On my tenth day of infection, I posted an update on Facebook and I got direct messages from friends asking why was I sharing this. There was stigma, misconception, such apprehension. At least, now people are more at ease.” It wasn’t smooth sailing for Bhatt despite his asymptomatic status. He resumed work on the third day itself but the hours of isolation were tough to bear. The room Bhatt was isolating in had a balcony and that became his sanctuary, where he spent nearly all his waking hours. Every morning, he would see the sun rise from there. And every day, he would tell himself that things were getting better.
Covid prompted the Bhatts to move to a more spacious apartment in Gurugram as they realised working from home was going to be the “new normal”. But the biggest takeaway for Amit Bhatt was understanding how much work and collaboration go into keeping a home running smoothly. “Then there are the small things, like being there, emotionally and mentally, for each other as a family. My wife and daughter did not panic at all, and as such, neither did I. There was a brief moment when I felt my life had come to a skidding halt, when the oximeter reading dropped below 90, but it was nothing; just a faulty reading, a rather potent reminder to keep your sense of humour with you all the time.”
‘My doctor told me as long as I checked my vital statistics and was regular with my medicines, I should come out of it fighting fit’
Ratan Singh sub inspector, Indirapuram, Ghaziabad
When the first spasm of pain shot through his lower back, Sub Inspector Ratan Singh did not give it a second thought. It was September 2020 and the pandemic had been on for more than six months, the better part of which Singh had spent on his feet, working 12-14 hours a day. Next came the fever that refused to budge from 102 degrees, and while Singh was prepared for what was to come, it still took a while getting used. “The thing is you think you are mentally prepared, but reality hits you differently,” he says, back at work in his station. On the day Open met him, he was part of the security protocol of a Union minister visiting Sahibabad. “I don’t even remember when regular duties replaced Covid duty, but for some time now our work schedule has moved beyond checking people’s quarantine passes and mask-wearing.” The fear and uncertainty of the first few months when only cops were the people allowed to be on the roads has diminished, but Singh is not certain if it is a good thing. He remembers his nervousness when he isolated himself in his two-bedroom home with his wife and son in another room. “My doctor counselled me, told me that as long as I checked my vital statistics and was regular with my medicines, I should come out of it fighting fit.” And now he sees laxness all around him. Masks dangle from chins or rest snugly under the nose and Singh worries about the consequences of it. “The fear that was in people has gone away. I am not sure it is a good thing because Covid is still very much around.” As a frontline worker, Singh got the vaccine in February but in spite of a double protection shield now, antibodies as well as the vaccine, his mask doesn’t slip. “This is my most trustworthy companion; it goes everywhere I go,” he says. And if he were to forget it, a dull ache in his back serves as a reminder.
‘As a doctor, I knew that Day 6 to Day 13 is a crucial period’
Dr S Chatterjee, internal medicine specialist, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi
In the first week of April last year, even as state governments in India were making mask-wearing in public compulsory, Dr S Chatterjee was advocating against them. His reasoning was simple—the frontline workers needed masks more than anyone else, and there was already a shortage. “I was also adamant that ordinary people don’t know how to handle a mask, how to remove it properly, etcetera, and they may infect themselves more.” Today, almost a year later, Dr Chatterjee terms the pandemic a “learning lesson” for all of humanity.
A doctor for almost three decades, Chatterjee never thought that the world would find itself in the grip of a pandemic. The possibility existed, of course, as did close shaves like H1N1 but no one was really prepared for a pandemic until it actually became a reality. “Countries we admired and respected for their healthcare facilities have all but collapsed. I still can’t believe how quickly the world changed.”
As a frontline physician, Dr Chatterjee was conscious of the fact that he would be exposed to the virus. But even then, his positive result last May threw him off gear. “There was no known treatment. As a doctor, I knew that Day 6 to Day 13 of the disease is a crucial period. There was a huge discussion on where to get whatever drugs we thought were effective at that point of time, which included exploring the possibility of getting Remdesivir from Bangladesh,” he says. Not many things have changed since those initial days, but now we have a better idea of what drugs work.
When Dr Chatterjee complained about racing pulse rate and breathlessness after his recovery, it was speculated that anxiety could be a cause. “I spoke with a few cardiologists, took beta blockers; things are fine now, but the point is that we are learning as the days go by. When the pandemic started, doctors did not know what to expect; today, we know that certain medicines used at the appropriate time in the appropriate dosage can show results. The medical fraternity around the world has learnt what works and doesn’t work in real time.”
But the one lesson we seem to have forgotten is how to be careful. People, according to Dr Chatterjee, have become reckless. “We cannot have a lockdown again. Citizens have to change their thought process.”
‘I couldn’t taste anything. I could have been eating cardboard when I ate a meal’
Hanisha Singh, chef, Plats, New Delhi
It is every chef’s nightmare—to have a dish returned by a customer because the flavours are not in tandem. But Hanisha Singh, chef and owner of Plats, a contemporary dining space in Delhi, was helpless. It was October and she and her husband had just recovered from Covid, but her sense of smell and taste was still not back. “I couldn’t taste anything. I could have been eating cardboard when I ate a meal.” Singh started getting her staff to do the taste test while she cooked because even though the food and beverage industry has been hit badly by the pandemic and the lockdown wreaked havoc on restaurateurs, Plats, which is run jointly by Singh and her husband Jamsheed Bhote, has emerged as something of a success story.
From DIY pasta kits to travel cuisine, Plats “constantly pushed the envelope” by doing things that kept people engaged. Bhote first felt uneasy on a Sunday in October right in the middle of a travel cuisine rush. By the time he tested and the result came back, they had already sent out lunch orders, and dinner orders were waiting. “We shut the restaurant, got the whole staff tested the next day itself.” Singh’s result came back positive while the staff tested negative. They put out a social media announcement and then waited. “The staff was tested a week later just to be safe and when the results came back negative for them, we opened up the kitchen and orders resumed.”
Singh admits that they weren’t keen on deliveries when they first opened Plats because they always wanted their restaurant to be a space where there was maximum interaction between the guests and the chefs. “Also, once the food is outside our door, we have no control over it.” But during the pandemic, they had to rely on deliveries. There was a time when their business model was 70 per cent deliveries and 30 per cent dining in, even when the numbers were dropping. It is the reverse now but with cases going up again, the couple is prepared for the situation to flip. And this time, they will be even better prepared. With a 360-degree change in their attitude towards delivery cuisine, they are now setting up two new ventures—Overeasy, a brick-and-mortar space envisaged as a “toastie and sundae” space, and a delivery-only burgers and grilled meat menu. For them, their personal experience of Covid is already a memory, rushed as they are off their feet with the complete turnaround the pandemic has brought in to their approach of doing business.
‘I wasn’t stressed out about the severity of the infection’
Pruthu Parab music composer and educator, Goa
The first time Pruthu Parab stepped out during the lockdown to buy essentials in his neighbourhood of Santa Cruz in Mumbai, he was struck by the silence. Mumbai, the most bustling of all metropolises, was a dead city. “It was eerie and yet it was beautiful.” The lockdown and pandemic brought about a reckoning of sorts for Parab who wears multiple hats as a music composer, a sound engineer and an educator. “It made me ask myself what do I really want to do? Moving out of Mumbai was a long-cherished desire and I worked from home, long before it became the norm. But with the pandemic, people opened up to the idea to access work online. Also, there is no better time to take a risk than a pandemic,” he says.
Parab moved to Goa last October in pursuit of a “slower life”. His work is perhaps even more hectic than what it was in Mumbai, but there is more “headspace” now, he says. “In the city, even if you are going out to relax, it’s an aggravating experience; from the traffic to the sounds around you. With the lockdown, there was a lot of self-reflection, in a very positive way.”
Masked, armed with a sanitiser, extremely careful about where he stepped out and operating out of a bubble, Parab’s guard was up till he was in Mumbai, but by his own admission, things in Goa slipped up a bit. “I remember going to a live music gig in October and showing up wearing my mask while no one around me was wearing one. I felt awkward.” Parab tested positive in January and was recommended a 17-day quarantine period. The biggest worry Parab had during this time was whether he had infected anyone else. “I do feel as if the fear factor associated with the disease has come down. I wasn’t stressed out about the severity of the infection, to be honest.”
When Parab spoke to Open, he was back in his home in Santa Cruz to wrap up the remnants of his life in the city. It was a slightly bitter-sweet day for him as he had lived in that house for seven years and set up his studio there. But then he thought about the garden in Goa where he sits in the mornings after waking up and knows that eventually he made the right choice.