Mu Ramanathan caught COVID despite taking all the necessary precautions. He was even fully vaccinated when he caught the virus. Here is his experience with COVID, starting with precautions, continued with vaccination, quarantine, recovery.
On 12 May 2021, a Chennai based-newspaper reported that the previous day, 3,66,161 cases had been added to India’s Covid-19 caseload, thereby accumulating the total to a whopping 2,33,40,948. On its Tamil Nadu page, the paper further reported that 29,272 fresh cases had pushed the overall tally to 14,38,509. The freshers list would have been poorer by one, had I not tested positive on the previous day. Another news item in the same paper read that though the vaccination has been opened for all adults on May 1, the vaccination rate is low owing to insufficient supply. The 18 crore vaccine doses received by all the states till May 11 were enough to administer a single dose only to 19% of the adult population, and both the doses only to 3.82% of the country’s adult population. Interestingly, I am one among the privileged group of 3.82%. Although I took the virus seriously, COVID-19 was not kind to me. But as I would soon learn, the vaccination helped me to resist the dire consequences of the virus that so many others have experienced.
My family was living in Hong Kong when the city-state was hit hard by SARS during 2002. The viruses that cause SARS and COVID-19 belong to the same family of coronaviruses. During the SARS epidemic, the importance of masks, social distancing, and hand washing was taught in schools, through the media, and at malls and metro rails. Hong Kong citizens realised the importance of masks so much that even after the killer virus receded, people wore masks when they returned to work after a sick leave or when they had to venture outdoors while not feeling well. When COVID-19 emerged in early 2020, some experts from WHO, western countries, and in India underplayed the importance of masks. But my Hong Kong experience had taught me otherwise. It may sound ridiculous now—a year ago, I wrote a piece in a popular Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan on the importance of wearing masks. Also, it might be funny now to recollect that a section of intelligentsia during the early months of last year were trying to establish that COVID was not a pandemic, and I argued the case to counter that ill-gotten theory during March 2020 in the Hindu-Tamil daily.
Even before the nationwide lockdown was announced on 25 March 2020, my colleagues and I had started working from home (WFH), as encouraged by our employer. Microsoft Teams meetings became the new norm. Locals were spared from commuting. Experts outside the state and the country logged into meetings from a further distance. The airline and hotel industries might have complained, but meetings started in time and some even ended early. But we missed coffee breaks, gossip, and office politics. Today, pundits are out to decide whether the importance of bittersweet office space can ever be diminished, and whether WFH can increase productivity.
I work for a civil engineering project, which was then in design and tendering phases, hence delivering most of the work from home was possible. However, in the construction phase this is not possible: one cannot build physical structures in the virtual world. Even during the design phase, we sometimes needed to visit sites and attend offline meetings or presentations. We were also required to visit government offices from time to time once they started working with 50% staff in June 2020 and with full attendance in September 2020.
During these difficult days, whenever I stepped out of home, I wore a cloth mask fully covering my nose, mouth, and chin. In our own office and client offices, lifts and hand-washing basins have been made operable by foot. Security guards have new jobs: checking entrants’ temperature and ensuring that they are sanitising their hands. Conference room seats are all spaced at a hands-stretch distance.
I also meticulously followed the five steps in hand washing learnt from Hong Kong. Wet your hands, lather them by rubbing them thoroughly with soap, scrub for 20 seconds, rinse, and finally dry your hands. I began doing so in January and February 2020, when the virus began its global spread, and later learned that my ritual was the subject of some ridicule among my peers. They, too, would soon learn the importance of hand washing, however.
The world has seen many pandemics and epidemics in the recent past. But COVID-19 is different in many ways. SARS (2002) and MERS (2012), both from the coronavirus family, predominantly affected East Asia and the Middle East respectively. They took their toll and left, and no vaccine was invented to counter them, although scientists tried hard. AIDS (1980) is a great killer; over the decades we have learned how to keep it at bay or to postpone the end-date for those tragically infected, but no vaccine is available to date. Finding a vaccine for Ebola (2012) took three years for scientists. For swine flu (2009), they came up with a vaccine within a year, but it was a lone candidate. Remarkably, unlike these past experiences, multiple vaccines were invented for COVID-19—within months. Russia launched its vaccine as early as August 2020. Most of the western vaccine candidates were launched during November and December 2020. India, too, joined the bandwagon.
However, the actions of the greedy pharmaceutical industry and Western governments are ensuring that the benefits of vaccines are not disseminated to the needy all over the world. While 44% of Americans above the age of twelve have already been fully vaccinated, in several African countries not even one in a thousand has received a shot.
The Government of India rolled out its vaccine drive by mid-January for frontline workers with Covishield and Covaxin. The second phase started in early March for all citizens above the age of 60 and third phase began in early April for those between 45 and 60. When I got my first dose on 8 March (Covishield) in one of the primary health centres (PHC) located in the heart of Chennai, a place where middle and upper middle-class people lived in abundance. They might have come across the news items such as the density of doctors in Tamil Nadu is at the same level as countries like Norway and Sweden, and the number of PHCs in the state are as high as one per 12 villages (Indian average : 25); but seemingly have not visited a PHC before. Exclamation was written on their faces and they were overwhelmed by the warm treatment from well-trained nurses and health workers. Alas, during that time the air was filled with vaccine hesitancy and complacency, and not much attempt had been made to clear that foul air, and therefore there were less takers. When I stepped into the same PHC on 22 April for the second dose, the second wave of COVID-19 with a new variant namely B.1.617 strain had begun. A beeline of locals had swarmed the PHC this time, and I had to wait a few hours to get my turn. On that day, I did not know that, two weeks from then, the experts would opine that both Covishield and Covaxin made to resist the first wave variant B1, may be effective at generating an immune response but are likely to be less effective against the new strain. I also did not know that I would soon become an anecdotal example for both the apprehensions and hopefulness of experts. I was infected after the vaccination, but my case would underscore experts’ point that vaccination helps provide resistance even if infection occurs.
I got my second shot about six weeks after the first shot, before advice from various quarters began pouring in to defer the second one by 12 to 16 weeks. Despite the confusing directions and advice, I stayed clear and scrupulous in adhering to precautions. But the new variant is more tricky and cunning.
On 10 May, I had a dry cough, body aches, and mild fever. I consulted our physician over phone, and he advised me to take an RT-PCR test. My wife and I booked an appointment in a nearby clinic for the next day. Early in the morning on 11 May, a Malayalee nurse, wearing badge declaring that the Nurses Day is only a day away, collected my swabs. We got the results that evening, simultaneously with my physician and the Chennai Corporation. I had tested positive.
The physician asked me to isolate myself, and within hours a staff member from the office of the Chennai Corporation called me and ensured that I’m isolated, and lived in a house where occupants have separate bedrooms and toilets. She also asked whether there is a person at home to care of my needs. I replied in affirmative. I myself did not know at that point of time that for the next few days, my wife would be serving me 3 meals, 2 coffees, and 1 soup outside the bedroom door each day. The following day, a Corporation staff member posted a notice at our door. Steel barricades around the apartment and in the streets, which had benefited only the contractors, have long been stopped. Soon after the receipt of the test result, the doctor prescribed me fever tablets and antibiotics for five days and multivitamins for two weeks. He asked me to check my oxygen saturation level, pulse level, and body temperature every six hours and contact him via WhatsApp. During this entire episode, he didn’t see me once but was monitoring me closely. The ways of treatment have changed, probably yet another new normal. My oxygen levels were well in the range of 97% to 99%, but the fever and body pain built up on 13 & 14 May. I felt drained and exhausted. I advised the doctor that the medication may need to be beefed up. But the doctor was like a saint- unmoved. Continue with what is already prescribed, was his curt response. On 15 May, my temperature returned to normal—not to a new normal, but to an old normal, 98.6°F. (Distances, weights, forces and masses are measured today in standard international(SI) units; I am not sure why medical fraternity is still loitering with an imperial unit for temperature.)
We’ve temporarily stopped the domestic help. Household chores are added to my wife’s cooking routine. She has tested negative and also revealed antibodies, which she might have got from her first shot of vaccine. On the other hand, I had not developed a traceable level of antibodies despite two shots. Physiology is not arithmetics, someone has said.
On 26 May 2021, the newspapers reported that the number of people recovered from COVID in the state on the previous day were 28,475. Out of which 8,033 people belonged to Chennai region. And I am responsible for increasing that number by one.
My story is written in the reverse order, started with precautions, continued with vaccination, infection, quarantine, recovery and now being followed with precautions. The vaccination has surely helped me. The vaccines now in use were invented and tested before the new variants surfaced. People like me might have been infected after shots, but the vaccination certainly offered me additional protection when the virus eventually arrived. I was ill for a few days and did not need to take up precious hospital space. Vaccines, masking, social distancing and hand-hygiene: all of these precautions taken together will help us resist COVID-19. Life is valuable. Let us all follow the protocol meticulously. Let us stick to the science, which is our essential tool against this virus.
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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article should not be considered as a substitute for a physician’s advice. Please consult your treating physician for more details.
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