Ahead of a total lockdown on January 23—some 10 days into their semester break—a group of Indian medical students engineered a daring escape from Wuhan. Within a fast-closing window before the authorities suspended all public transport, they navigated the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak to make the 7-hour high-speed rail journey to Kunming, from where they took a flight to Calcutta.
Not until the flight took off did Antarah (name changed) allow herself relief. “It was a tense few hours of waiting in the train and then in the airport terminal. We had tickets, but didn’t know if we would be sent back,” the third-year medical student says. She had been content to spend the break in her “neat and safe second home”, but the uncertainty convinced her of the need to go home to her parents.
Though Antarah didn’t exhibit any symptoms and cleared the airport screenings in Calcutta and Kochi, she followed public health guidelines for travellers from China and reported to the health centre near her home in Thrissur district. A week after her return, Antarah was admitted to the isolation ward of Thrissur Medical College Hospital after developing a cough and sore throat—with blood and throat swab tests confirming her as the country’s first positive coronavirus case.
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Speaking to Outlook on the last day of her home quarantine, after 25-odd days in isolation, Antarah was in good spirits—in anticipation of leaving her room to be with her family and meeting friends she could hitherto only speak to over the phone.
“There were four of us admitted to the isolation ward and tested. I heard on the news that there had been a positive result. When the doctors informed me, my first thoughts were of the health of my family and friends. It’s not that I wasn’t scared for myself, but I’m young, healthy and don’t have immune-compromising conditions. Anyway, it’s important to stay positive,” Antarah says. Her medical training helped too. “From reading about the disease, I knew that mortality rate was about 2 per cent (now revised to 3.4 per cent by WHO) and there were some indicators that it was not doing well in tropical settings. The sub-zero temperature in Wuhan when we left might have been ideal,” she adds.
“Although I couldn’t meet her, I talked to my mother who was in an adjoining room. To pass time, I had books, my phone and laptop. The nurses and doctors who attended to me were calm and friendly even though they had to camp out in the hospital. I also had counsellors to speak to when I felt low. Even Shailaja teacher (the health minister) called to tell me the whole state was behind me and praying for my quick recovery,” says Antarah, who credits Kerala’s public healthcare system and its experience tackling the Nipah outbreak as reasons why efforts to combat the disease have been effective.
It wasn’t until the 10th and 11th test results—blood and swab samples were taken every alternate day—came back negative that Antarah was declared infection-free. In that time, health officials had tracked down and kept nearly 3,000 people under observation across the state—among them people with whom Antarah had been in contact. “My friend (discharged after two consecutive negative test results) was admitted to the Medical College Hospital in Alappuzha. Community health inspectors had taken details of everyone I had spoken to since I came home,” she says.
Her university arranged online classes with a virtual classroom and e-learning materials to ensure the students don’t fall behind. “Being able to attend classes, even if it’s been mostly theory so far, has been a real load off my mind. The course is already six years long,” says Antarah, who hopes to return to Wuhan once the lockdown is lifted.
For now, Antarah is glad enough to have ditched the disposable clothing and plates (which were incinerated daily) for her own clothes and some home-cooked food. “I can’t wait to finally share a meal with my family, and meet relatives and friends. After this experience, I am prepared to face any social isolation. For now, it’s good just to be back home,” she adds.
By Siddharth Premkumar in Thiruvananthapuram