We need to understand that social stigma makes it difficult for people to admit symptoms of COVID-19
It all began on March 9, 2020, when I returned to India from Switzerland, via France. At the time, there was no lockdown, nor were there any self-quarantine rules, for persons returning from outside India. At the airport I was not tested for COVID-19, the rules at this stage stated that only travellers returning from a specific list of countries were mandated to be tested; and Switzerland was not a part of this list.
I didn’t have any symptoms typical of the infection, like a cough or a fever; but I wanted to get tested because I was feeling nervous. I had begun to feel a loss of smell and taste four to five days after my return, but this wasn’t a known symptom then.
I wasn’t certain about the protocol to follow, and thought it best to first check with a general physician. Even though I wasn’t allowed to take the test at first, after Switzerland was added to the list of countries, I could take the test—mine showed positive for COVID-19. I was shaken and didn’t know how to respond. It was a frightening time for me, I had many thoughts like, “Will anyone die because of me?” “Do the doctors know what they are doing, or am I stuck with no way out?” “Could this kill me?”
On the same day that I got my test results, health officials from Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP, Bangalore’s municipal corporation) came to my house, and informed the landlord about my situation. Soon, the entire neighborhood knew, they started asking questions and pointing fingers at my residence. I was then moved into isolation.
When I got into the area designated for isolation, I became very panicky. It was lonely there, and I felt stressed and vulnerable. There were rows of rooms completely empty and I was alone for the most part of the day. Only a ward boy and a doctor would come to check on me every two hours. In those hours of panic and deep vulnerability, I had sent some voice notes to someone I trust. Later, I found that they had been forwarded to some random Whatsapp groups. I felt completely horrible and betrayed by this.
There was confusion in the initial stages, when the authorities were trying to figure out a lot of things like health protocols. So when they told me that they will start tracking the people I had met in the last few days, I wasn’t sure how effective that would be—I wanted to inform friends and family, myself.
I posted on Facebook that I had tested positive for COVID-19. I urged those who had met me to not go and meet their grandparents or elderly relatives. While most of the responses I got were supportive, some were hate messages that blamed me for my diagnosis, called me a ‘coldblooded murderer,’ and said that I should be arrested.
There had also been another unsettling incident. On one of the nights, I received a video call from someone I know at around 1 am. The person said, “Why are the lights off in your room? Please put them on—I want to see what a Corona patient looks like.” I felt horrible, and couldn't sleep all night after. If you know someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, I urge you to not make light of this, don’t talk about the number of deaths caused by the virus. This is a time where it’s important that you show them support and empathy.
It’s normal to cycle through states of panic when you are in this position, this can also be triggered by the panic of others who reach out to you. I did not feel worried for my own health until I got into isolation, then, I started to feel stressed about what was going on in the outside world. It didn’t help that I spent hours talking to the surveillance team, reading hate messages. All this started to make me feel low, I started having headaches and a sore throat. Then I realized, I had to cut myself off from these.
To add to my set of troubles, when the authorities informed my landlord, he started panicking and hinting that I might have to look for a new house. The cumulative effect of these different happenings made me feel ashamed of myself. This is funny, because this is a virus we are talking about—there is no element of morality involved. Yet, we have managed to target each other with hate. This is why I wanted to share my experience—mental health is so important right now, if we make people feel a sense of shame, we are not helping anyone.
Apart from the threat to physical health, we are also facing an economic downfall. On top of all this, how is adding an emotional and psychological threat helping anyone? Despite your fears, you need to trust that the officials will do their job, and make sure to take care of yourself and your family. At present, the protocols can be complex and often slow, but the various teams of health workers and officials are doing the best they can.
My isolation period has ended, and I have recovered from COVID-19. I believe that while we are seeing great acts of kindness everywhere, there’s also a lot of bitterness at play, an ‘us versus them’ situation. This attitude isn’t making the lives of healthcare personnel any easier. We need to realize what we are doing wrong and work together to get through this crisis.
As told to White Swan Foundation. The narrator has chosen to remain anonymous.