The world is filled with stories about the COVID-19 pandemic. At the risk of being repetitive, I would like to share my recent experience of getting tested for the disease.
After having arrived in India from Dublin, via Dubai, I went into home quarantine as instructed at the airport. On the 7th day after my arrival, I started showing a few symptoms. I had a mild fever, constant headache, scratchy throat and experienced tiredness. Having a recent travel history and starting to show symptoms around the median incubation period, I decided to call the state helpline and ask for guidance. Here I would like to divide my experience into 3 categories — the guidance, the testing and the isolation.
The state helpline was manned by calm, composed and helpful staff. It took around 3–4 minutes to get connected to an operator. However, the operator ensured that I was not panicking and guided me through the next steps. She took down my personal details, travel history, symptoms and asked me if I had remained in quarantine since my return. She noted the people I had come into contact with during my home quarantine. After learning all my details she looked for the nearest testing centre to my address and firmly suggested that I should go see the doctor along with my father and sister who lived at home with me.
Taking on the tone of a counsellor, she told me that I owed it to the people around me to immediately get tested and isolate. “Do it for your loved ones,” she said.
We initially went to a Large Private Hospital that was listed online as one of the places testing for COVID-19. We had only one scooter at home and we didn’t want to risk being in such close proximity to one another, especially since I was showing symptoms. The whole city was in lockdown and public transport was not available. So, we decided to walk the short distance to the Large Private Hospital.
Once there, the doctor took note of my history and referred me to another Government hospital for testing. I inquired about testing at their facility, stating that their hospital was clearly listed as a testing centre online. I was told that in order to be tested there, I would have to get admitted first. Since this Large Private Hospital was not taking in COVID-19 patients at the moment, it meant they did not have an isolation ward ready for infected patients and that in order to get admitted, I would have to get a private room.
In short — I would have to burn through tens of thousands of rupees to get tested at this big, private facility.
My sister and I walked back home, got her scooter and made multiple trips to the Government hospital. She dropped me first and then went back to fetch our dad. I struggle to describe what I was feeling during the journey.
It was a mixture of fear, guilt and helplessness that I had never felt before. I was terrified of infecting others, guilty that I had symptoms and was putting my family at risk.
The Government hospital was a pleasant change from the blatant money-grab I had experienced earlier. The testing was professionally done, the doctors and technicians were thorough with collecting information and elaborating the next steps for me and my family. I was to go into isolation at a private hospital immediately. I was given a choice of two hospitals that were still accepting patients to be isolated. Everywhere else was either full or not taking in COVID-19 cases at the moment. My family was to remain under home quarantine. If I tested positive, they would be taken into isolation and tested as well.
The test was free. The consultation was free. The ambulance ride to the isolation ward at a private hospital was free. The staff were tired, but friendly, professional and helpful.
The isolation ward at the next private hospital was one of the scariest places I’ve been. There were no staff or doctors to be seen. We were given separate rooms and told not to come out unless instructed. Meals were left outside our doors on a trolley, any medicines we needed were brought to us on another trolley and doctor consultations were conducted over the phone. What really bothered me though, was the standard of hygiene at this place that was meant to be used as an isolation ward for potentially infected patients.
The room was littered with things that had clearly been left by previous occupants — used protective masks lying on the floor, packaging of meals consumed still in the bins. The room was dusty, the bathroom was filthy and it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned after the last occupant had left.
I was terrified of catching something in that ward and did not feel safe at all.
The following evening, I was given the good news that I had tested negative for COVID-19. Then I was kept in the dark for two hours. I received no news of when I was to be discharged. I had no idea how I was going to get home considering the lockdown was still in effect and that home was 20 kms away.
Only after arguing with the staff over the phone for 15 minutes was I given the confirmation that I would be discharged that very day and that I had to make my own arrangements to get home. At 9:30 pm. During a lockdown.
Coming from a place of privilege, I had the means to arrange for a private ambulance to drop me home. I shudder to think of the plight of those who don’t have the same means.
My entire experience led me to make a few observations about the current situation in India
- There are not nearly enough doctors and medical staff available to handle this pandemic should the number of cases rise rapidly. I witnessed medical staff seething with frustration at cases where the patient had carried on with life as usual despite showing symptoms for an extended period. The patient had then staggered into the hospital, barely able to breathe and the staff were immediately doing a million things — treating the patient, arranging for their family to be tested and isolated, tracking down other people the patient came into contact with and getting them tested. The only thing holding the place together was the immense dedication of the doctors, hospital and ambulance staff.
- While protocols are in place, standards vary wildly. I can completely understand that hospital resources are stretched. But the experience I had at a Government facility vs at a private facility was poles apart and not in the way I imagined. My isolation ward at a supposed private hospital that was charging me Rs.2000 a day was filthy. There need to be strict standards put in place to ensure that people being isolated don’t end up catching something or falling ill in the isolation ward.
- Lockdowns are essential, but we need transportation alternatives. Not having a vehicle was a huge disadvantage during this whole experience. There was simply no way for the three of us to get around to avail essential testing during the lockdown. We were stopped by cops a couple of times and asked why we were out and about. But when we mentioned that we needed to get to the hospital, the cops simply drove away. We were offered no assistance by either of the private hospitals or the police. There was no infrastructure in place for transporting people seeking medical attention who did not own vehicles. Again, I simply cannot imagine the plight of those who rely solely on public transport to get anywhere.
- We all have the power to stop this disease from spreading. For the love of God, please follow social distancing protocols. Help those less privileged by donating money and food. Send your domestic help home with a couple of months’ salary and do your housework yourselves. Avoid crowded places, maintain distance and good respiratory hygiene. Stock only what you need and leave enough for the rest. This pandemic is testing not only our bodies and our economy, but also our empathy, compassion and humanity. The sheer strain the medical infrastructure is under currently and will further drown in, should this escalate, is unimaginable. In a country with a significant percentage of the population below the poverty line, let us privileged citizens do our part to keep the spread of COVID-19 under check.
Fortunately, I tested negative and was sent home for a further 28 day quarantine. Others have not been so lucky. What we need urgently is for the Government, law enforcement, businesses and private citizens to step up and support our medical staff in any way they can. My experience in the last few days has taught me not just how deadly the disease can get and how fast it can spread, but also that this cannot be fought by medical professionals and first responders alone.
It is time to stop fooling around and do our part.