Covid-19 Diaries: A one-on-one experience of a journalist with the virus
How would a journalist deal with news, when they become a part of it? What happens when on one day, you become a part of the daily tally of Covid-19 patients, of the many ‘cases’ that you have been keeping track of incessantly? On the ‘stubborn’ virus, that refuses to leave the room, Revathi Hariharan, a Delhi-based journalist shares her recent ‘in an out’ experience of Covid-19, with Uncommon Talks.
The Pre Covid-19 Newsroom
It was business as usual for me as a journalist even as the world went into lockdown. Not too much had changed in the newsroom except the things we were doing to adapt to the ‘new normal’. That meant: masks on, sanitizer by our side, and working twice as hard. Everyday we witnessed something unprecedented – the world as we knew it was coming to a halt and all of this was playing out in front of us. There were many firsts. For the first time in 167 years, the Indian railways did not ferry passengers on it’s birthday. For the first time in decades, India’s CO2 emissions fell amid the lockdown. The Olympic Games were cancelled for the first time in the 124 years of its modern history unrelated to a World War (the three other times it was cancelled was during World Wars 1 and 2).
At the risk of sounding callous, I’d like to admit that it was an exciting time as a journalist. So many news updates and the feeling of living through a historic time kept me going.
The fact that things were going to become much more dire hadn’t dawned upon me just yet. A few months into the pandemic, I would test COVID Positive and everything I knew about my priorities and my life would change.
The Covid-19 Week: Think ‘Positive’, Or Maybe Not
It was the second week of January and there was buzz in the newsroom about a Chinese city called Wuhan. There were reports of some people getting sick with a ‘pneumonia of an unknown cause’. I began pitching the story to my news editor and continued tracking the news. This mysterious infection began to be referred to as the Coronavirus.
Cut to a month later, I had just returned from an impromptu trip to Nepal (the thought of actually taking a trip like this seems almost impossible now), and the specific coronavirus strain was named SARS-CoV-2 and it was referred to as Covid-19 or just coronavirus. China had a few thousand cases and had imposed a lockdown and there were known cases reported outside of China for the first time. In the beginning of March, the World Health Organisation made it official – coronavirus was categorised a Pandemic.
My personal experience with the coronavirus began in June. India was in ‘Lockdown 5.0’ and had less than 2 Lakh cases. We were to soon enter ‘Unlock 1.0’ even as cases were spiking. On June 8, I came to know that someone I had been in close and consistent contact with had tested positive for Coronavirus. That day would go on to become my last day at work for a while. My flatmate and I caught up over chai and discussed how we should isolate ourselves just in case.
On June 10, I began to have what I can best describe as an itchy throat. By the end of the day, my itchy throat had turned into a mild cough. June 11, I woke up after a 10-hour nap with a runny nose. I had become a little worried by then. Fatigue had set in, but my body temperature remained normal (98.0-98.5).
On June 12, I decided to get tested for Covid-19, based on my symptoms even though they were rather mild. My body temperature was now touching 99.9 and I couldn’t do too much other than stay in bed. I got a PCR nasal-throat swab test at home.
After what seemed like the longest day of my life, at 9 pm on June 13, I received a phone call. A doctor had called asking me to describe my symptoms. The doctor then began reassuring me that people my age had a really high recovery rate and that I would be fine soon – I had tested positive for Covid-19. Just like that, something that had just been a news story far away, a virus that was infecting millions of people I didn’t know, was in my body.
The “14-Day” Isolation: New Day, New Symptom
The night of June 13 marked the beginning of one of my most inconceivable experiences. (Not to be confused with the 1932 mystery thriller film – The Night of June 13. It is a real film; I am not making it up) I had just received the (not so) ‘positive’ call marking the beginning of what will be the weirdest 14 days of my life. There were so many questions in my head. What if I had given it to someone else? How bad is this going to be? And the most obvious question – What next?
I had to immediately come to terms with the fact that I was now a ‘Case’. I was part of the daily tally of Covid-19 patients in Delhi. There were so many dreadful news stories that were popping in my head. I had spent months tracking every Coronavirus story worldwide, and now the story had become personal.
First, the infamous fatigue that one was supposed to feel when infected with Covid-19 set in. My temperature was 98.8, below that of the day before (99.9). Neither my cold nor my cough had worsened and I had no breathing issues (supposed to be the top concern for most Covid-19 patients).
The immediate thing I was most worried about was making that phone call to my parents who live in Bengaluru over 2,000 kilometers away. I had to give them not just any piece of news about Coronavirus, but a rather personal one. Of course, there were tears, concerns, and knee-jerk responses like ‘pack up your bags and come back home’ but as we continued to speak, they calmed down. I was surprised by how well they handled it in the end.
There was another important phone call that followed – My flatmate who was one door away. I gave her the news and talked to her about the numerous consequences that it would have on her including the daunting possibility that I could have infected her. After the phone call, I sat in my room in silence trying to process all that was to happen in the days to come and I could arrive at just one solution – I put my phone aside and went to sleep.
I woke up to a feeling that I can best describe in the same way as I did to everyone I spoke to over the next few days – “I felt like a bus hit me.” The fatigue was now getting severe and it remained so for the next 5-6 days. I was bombarded with calls from family, several calls from concerned colleagues and warm messages from friends. I can’t help but highlight the support I received from my organisation. They also offered to send me food for as long as I needed.
For the next few days, all I could get myself to do was eat and sleep. Every other day, I had a new symptom to add to the list along with the near-constant itchiness in my throat and my fatigue. Dizziness on day 3, nausea on day 4, severe abdomen pain on day 6, I could hardly keep track! A medical official visited my house on day 3 and posted a sticker outside my house marking it as the home of a Covid-19 patient. For me, this was ‘the moment’ it actually sunk in.
Around day 5, I lost all sense of smell and taste. (This was no joke. For three days, I had been drinking coffee assuming it was chai until my flatemate pointed it out to me.) By this time, my flatmate had taken a test and fortunately tested negative. Since day 11, my fatigue had been getting better but the itchiness was persistent. Every time my symptoms changed, I would call my cousin, a doctor working in the Covid-19 ward in Chennai. Although I had never met her, she quickly got on my speed-dial list, and became one of my saving graces through this period.
On day 11, I received a call from the Delhi government home isolation team that my quarantine would officially end the next day. Delhi’s new quarantine period had been shrunk to 12 days from the earlier 14. The official said I could step out after my 12th day in quarantine as long as I took the necessary precautions such as wearing a mask. He assured me that I was now ‘Coronafree’. This struck me as odd, and rather anti-climactic. Was that it? Was there no exit test that would officially state that I am, in fact, ‘Coronafree’? How was I to know that I wouldn’t pass the virus on to someone else? I just couldn’t take the chance.
So, on day 20, I opted for the drive thru Covid-19 PCR testing. An anxious 24 hours later, I was back to square one. The result was the same – I was Covid-19 positive for the second time. All those complicated questions from the night of June 13 came rushing back into my head, and this time, the answers were even less definite.
‘Negative’ The New Positive?
I called my doctor-cousin in Chennai and she gave me two possibilities of what this could mean – 1. My lungs were still infected which could complicate the situation or 2. I am not actively infectious, but the throat and nasal swab picked up traces of the dead virus that were possibly still in my body. To get some clarity, she suggested I get a CT chest scan and a bunch of blood tests to rule out the first possibility, the rather scary one.
With some help from my workplace, I got an appointment to get my tests done the next day at Fortis hospital, Vasanth Kunj. I was a little worried about this part. The thought of having to go to a hospital at this time was scary to say the least.
The “new normal” at the hospital was daunting. Most people were walking about in several layers of protective gear, many wearing three masks and a face shield and some even goggles. I could not help but think about the risk that these ‘Corona Warriors’ were taking to help protect all of us. I was sweating after my rather short wait outside in a cloth mask, but here they were wearing several layers, standing strong and saving lives.
As I was seated in an isolation ward waiting to finish other formalities, I noticed several fellow Covid-19 patients, on beds lined up across the room. The word ‘isolation’ got me thinking how this virus achieves this so well. It totally isolates you from everyone else. In normal circumstances these beds would have family members around to help them and support them, but now, they were all alone, isolated.
Before long, I received a call with some good news from the doctor. She said that my lungs were clear and ruled out the possibility of me still being infectious. However, considering my previous test result and the fact that I still had symptoms, she suggested I remained in isolation for the next 7 days and get myself tested again. From day 22 to 25, I had severe headaches. I could hardly stay awake, but I could not sleep either. The itchiness in the throat resurfaced after it had reduced for a couple of days in between, along with a mild cold and no fever.
I was back in my room where I had been in quarantine for almost a month. By the end of the week, things started getting better. My symptoms were slowly disappearing and I was looking forward to what I hoped would be my last and final Covid-19 test. As the swabs were pushed down my throat, and deep in my nose, I hoped this one would be the last time.
A few hours later, while I was on the phone with my father, a text notification caught my attention. It was my report. As my heart quickened its pace, I quickly opened the report, and there it was, the word I would not normally be this happy about – “NEGATIVE.” Reading that word in all caps over and over, I paused for a second in silence. It was over. I had won a small battle, but I knew that the war was still raging on. I knocked on my flatmates’ door – ‘tell me it’s negative,” she said, I smiled at her. “Let’s bake a cake,” she said.
I was not in ‘isolation’ anymore.
Revathi Hariharan, currently works as an Associate Editor with NDTV, Delhi and has over 3 years of experience in the field. She is a television show enthusiast and an ardent sports buff. She has also blogged about her Covid-19 experience. Views expressed are the author’s own.