I tested positive for Covid-19 on June 6 after two and a half months of a fairly rigorous quarantine. The first question that people who test positive ask themselves is, how did this happen despite my precautions? This is especially true of middle class victims of Covid who have the online connectivity and financial reserves to shield themselves from the outside world as the virus spreads.
My household - my wife, our cook and I - stayed inside the house from late March, when the lockdown began, to late May. All deliveries were transacted in the open air across a table in our backyard. We vaguely understood that the virus could linger on objects and infected surfaces called fomites, so we let durable goods sit outside till their surfaces became sterile and tried, to the extent possible, to scrub packaged perishables with soap and water. Fresh produce was soaked in a solution of potassium permanganate and rinsed in the hope that this would keep the novel corona virus at bay.
As the lockdown was eased, I began to occasionally take my evening walk around the neighbourhood with my mask on, veering away from approaching people at abrupt tangents. Given the repeated assurances of epidemiologists that the possibility of catching the virus outdoors was vanishingly small, provided social distance was maintained, it seems unlikely that those walks were the source of my infection.
I visited banks on three separate occasions to catch up with transactions that had been postponed. In each case, the banks were nearly empty, the tellers (and I) wore masks and social distance was strictly observed. All of these visits were short: just over five minutes. On another occasion, I went to a large shoe shop to buy summer chappals. Shop assistants sprayed my hands with sanitizer, I pointed at the pair I wanted to buy and a quick credit card transaction completed the visit. There were very few customers about and as I paid, it was moot who was keener to shrink away from the other, the cashier or me. Again, it's possible that I caught the virus during these transactions, but given the scientific advice, the physical precautions taken-sanitizing, masking, social distance, handwashing afterwards - and the brevity of the visits, the risk seemed small.
The one transaction that seems careless in retrospect was a visit to an optician to order a pair of back up glasses that were, by definition, unnecessary. This happened four days before I began running a fever, and the visit was more a diversion from the cloistered monotony of two months of quarantine than a real errand. It was a small, air-conditioned shop and I was there for just under fifteen minutes. Everyone inside was masked but getting fitted for frames is a close-range business. I didn't need a test because they had my prescription, but trying on spectacle frames, centering the lenses and paying the bill took a while.
An article I read later in The Wall Street Journal about covid transmission suggested that some infections in China occurred in restaurants because aerosolized virus accumulated "...in the air over time and strong airflow from an air-conditioning unit on the wall may have helped recirculate the particles in the air." It's possible that the close encounter at the optician's led to my infection but it's impossible to know for certain. If there is a moral to this story, it is that if you must go into an airconditioned shop, either order what you want and step out while the shop bills you, or finish your business inside five minutes and leave.
A friend of mine who has diabetes was even more careful than I was, not stepping out once since the Prime Minister inaugurated the lockdown, and not coming within yards of non-household humans. It still wasn't enough to keep the virus out. It's hard to draw definite lessons from anecdotal evidence. Statistically, the chances of infection via fomites might be low, but it's still a possibility. All you can do is commit yourself to best-practice routines that keep the odds in your favour.
The second, and more pressing question after testing positive for Covid is whether you should isolate at home or check into a hospital. This is a particularly urgent question for people over sixty (like me) because this cohort accounts for the vast majority of covid deaths the world over. From my own experience, and that of friends over sixty who tested positive, the answer to that question depends on a) your symptoms and b) whether you have co-morbidities that leave you vulnerable to the sudden respiratory crises that severe cases of covid can induce.
I had a single symptom: low-grade fever that lasted unbroken for eleven days. I didn't have a cough or shortness of breath, nor did I lose my sense of smell or taste. I don't have hypertension or diabetes. I do have apnoea, a sleeping disorder, but I hadn't read it mentioned as relevant to Covid, so I chose to ignore it. I isolated at home and I was lucky; my fever broke and I recovered. The friend with diabetes chose to check into hospital after a cough developed and his oxygen levels (as measured by an oximeter) dropped. It was the right decision because it allowed the doctors to spot and treat a patch on a lung that might have gone undetected at home.
My decision to isolate at home, and my friend's decision to check into hospital, were taken on the advice of physicians contacted over the phone or via a video consultation. These aren't decisions that a lay person of any age should make on the strength of general knowledge or online erudition. We are so irradiated with information about Covid-19 that the temptation to stay home and self-medicate with hydroxychloroquine or Vitamins C and D or karha is strong. It should be vigorously resisted. It's another matter whether a hospital bed will be available or affordable, should you choose to check in. But that's a question for another day.
Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is 'Homeless on Google Earth' (Permanent Black, 2013).
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