February 23, 2020
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SARS: A tale of two cities

'You Are Treating Us Like Criminals'

An account of the apathy faced by Pune's first SARS victims

'You Are Treating Us Like Criminals'

A visit to the Kumar Park Society in Pune’s Bibvewadi area did not suggest anything eerie unlike media reports ever since SARS was reported in the city. The society wasn’t exactly abuzz with activity, but some kids could be seen enjoying a game of cricket as people, fewer in numbers than most weekdays because of the summer heat, went about their chores normally.

So where did those pictures of the society wearing a deserted look come from? A resident told Outlook, "A lot of the society residents are vacationing outside Pune. The childrens' examinations have recently got over." It wasn’t then just the scare of the deadly virus that was keeping people at bay? Not quite, as had been corroborated by the events of the past few days.

The D’Silva family who triggered off the scare were let off after the 10-day old quarantine on April 29. Dressed in a coloured shirt and cap, Stanley D' Silva came out of the Naidu Infectious Diseases Hospital and waved at media personnel and with a near-heroic confidence, said, ''I was feeling all right even before, and I am completely okay now.''

His maternal uncle Joseph Daniel Pawar snapped at waiting newspersons for ''blowing things out of proportion''. "You are treating us like criminals," he cribbed. "The sort of things you have reported will impact our future." Stanley's mother Vimla and sister Julie, their faces covered, got into a waiting car and left without saying anything.

The D’Silva family would like to forget their latest Pune visit for obvious reasons. Though the occasion was that of Julie's wedding, the SARS episode left them with more bitter memories than pleasant ones. When they were discharged, they chose to head to an "undisclosed location in the city", from where they left the same evening for Ambarnath, their hometown near Mumbai.

The health authorities had advised them to do the same to avoid confusion or chaos in the city. It was less than 24 hours ago that the quarantine was lifted by the State Director General of Health Services Dr Subhash Salunke after the go-ahead from the city-based National Institute of Virology (NIV).

But not all were convinced.

Residents mobbed the deputy health officer and Dr Salunkle had to force his entry to pacify them. There was chaos at the Kumar Park Society at the news of the four being let off quarantine. The residents had already vented their ire at local politicians and health officials for their inability to shift the patients to an isolated location outside city limits.

Mobbed by the protestors, Dr Salunke had a harrowing time pacifying them and he had to later acknowledge that the state machinery had not been entirely successful in educating the people about the virus and its spread.

Dr Salunke could be heard shouting, "I hold the people of Pune in high esteem. Please try to think scientifically." Subsequently, the residents understood the clarification provided by Dr Salunke and life in the society limped back to normalcy.

The residents later said that local authorities had made no efforts to educate them on the risk and did nothing to alleviate their fears.

Chairman of the society, Rajender Sancheti, recalled the day the news of SARS outbreak was received. "We contacted the municipal commissioner and wanted the authorities to initiate immediate quarantine procedures. There were at least 100 people, including women, waiting till 2 a.m. near the society gate for the government officials, who never turned up."

A lot of people were incensed that the D’Silvas insisted on going ahead with Julie’s marriage, jeopardising the guests and an unsuspecting Father Dawre, who solemnised the wedding, completely unaware of the confirmed SARS status of the bride.

Simon Alhat's family, in whose apartment the four patients had stayed when they were confirmed as carrying the virus, faced hardships during the first few of days of their quarantine. The Pune Municipal Corporation attendants, who were posted at their residence, kept shying away from their duties. On condition of anonymity, one of them later said he couldn’t stop worrying for his family.

Vicky, Simon Alhat’s son, was disappointed to see his neighbours abandon the family. "There was nothing wrong with us. We had faith in God and knew He would see us through." But Alhat's eldest daughter Priti says, "The way they reacted was quite natural. We are happy things have returned to normal."

The staff of Siddharth Hospital, who had earlier come in contact with the patients have all tested negative, as also those who had come in contact with the D’Silvas in Ambernath. Julie’s husband Shailesh Suryawanshi - a local politician - did not show any symptoms either and was let out of the house when he completed the mandatory 10-day quarantine period on April 30. The quarantine on the family of the priest who had solemnised Julie’s wedding was also lifted on April 30.

Even as Dr Salunke was preparing to declare the city SARS-free, another case had tested positive -- a 27-year-old software professional named Ashish Atal, who returned from Beijing on Saturday after spending 10 days there. Despite being cleared at the Delhi airport, he had developed symptoms by the time he landed in Pune.

However, uncertainty surrounded the actual quarantine period. The Additional Director of Health Services, Dr PP Doke, had advised his staff to follow a 14-day quarantine period in accordance with WHO guidelines. But, at Dr Salunke’s behest, the patients were discharged in 10 days.Dr Salunke believed extending the quarantine period would have resulted in greater tension among residents. An official later said, "The virus cannot survive for more than three hours outside the host’s body. At the peak of summer, it is unlikely that the virus would survive at any place the patients visited."

The state government has arranged for N95 masks to be distributed in the city. It has also decided not to reveal the names of suspected or confirmed patients to save them from social stigma, a decision that has been sharply criticised.

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