Fatigue. Brain fog. Anxiety. Despondency. Myalgia. These words come to mind as I recall the past two months, a hellish period consumed by Covid-19.
I am no longer infectious but the virus is still with me. I am worn down. I have forgotten what my “normal self” felt like. If asked, I tend to say I am OK or “better”. I am so mentally and physically exhausted that it is difficult to articulate how I feel.
My experience of “long Covid” has been debilitating. But it has hit my home country, India, even harder.
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The second wave of the pandemic peaked in April and May, fuelled by the Delta variant. About 45,000 new Covid cases are still reported every day, the second highest worldwide after Brazil. Doctors are warning of a potential third wave in coming weeks, raising an alarm over lack of Covid-safe behaviour after the recent reopening.
There is little to explain why people are dropping their guard, when only about 5 per cent of India’s 1.4 billion population is vaccinated and the “Delta plus” variant is spreading. I shudder to think what a third wave might be like as the scars of the second wave are still fresh for me.
My father was first in my house to be infected in April, the day India reported 314,000 cases — the highest single-day surge globally until it broke that record with 414,188 in May. Infections were spiralling out of control, the death toll was rising, and hospital beds were running out. Scared, my mother and I said nothing as we focused on my father.
He had a high fever and his oxygen levels were dropping to the point where he might need a hospital, according to the pulse oximeter we purchased in the first wave. In those tense hours we made him try everything from deep breathing to proning — where a person is turned on their stomach to increase their lung capacity.
We were lucky that he remained stable through the night. The next morning, he handed me a sticky-note-sized piece of paper. On it, he had scribbled his health insurance and banking information.
My heart sank when I glanced at it. I put it away and told him that we would not need it. I felt a weight of responsibility on my shoulders like never before. I was not ready, I felt paralysed.
My parents were fully vaccinated when they got infected. In fact, it is likely that at least one of us contracted the virus when I took them to hospital to get their second dose. My mother and I became symptomatic days after my father. Her initial symptoms were mercifully milder than his.
I had not received a vaccine dose. I wasn’t worried about my mostly predictable symptoms — fever, body ache, nasal congestion, loss of taste and smell, nausea, an upset stomach, and sagging energy levels. But I was anxious about breathing. I have a history of allergies that impact my breathing in cold weather and can last for weeks even after regular use of steroid inhalers. I am well aware what tightness in the chest and gasping for breath feel like.
India was facing an oxygen shortage and people were dying because they didn’t get help in time. I dreaded the thought of having to rush to a hospital near my home in New Delhi. Who would take me? I did not have the energy to even walk to my car. I was infectious and in isolation so seeking help from a neighbour was impossible.
I could not entertain the thought of looking up phone numbers for ambulances because I couldn’t bear the sound of the sirens that wailed through the night, signalling constant death and distress.
My parents and I were fortunate that we did not require hospitalisation. We convalesced at home, and we had access to a doctor. But during the initial days, getting medicines delivered to our house was incredibly stressful.
We took turns to call the pharmacist. His number either went unanswered or was busy. When we got through, his delivery boys were busy attending to customers flocking the store.
The disease was spreading fast and so was the panic. People were stocking up on medicines used to treat Covid symptoms, leading to inflated prices for devices such as thermometers and pulse oximeters, which were being sold for up to triple the usual price.
The toughest part of dealing with Covid-19 is the acceptance that we have to battle it alone. Some friends got sick around the same time as us. We exchanged notes on doctors, medicines, symptoms, oxygen levels and bloodwork; everything in our lives was about Covid-19. We all needed help but none of us could be physically there for the others.
The virus can break the hardiest of us. It gnaws at our bodies and we only realise the damage weeks into the illness when we notice strange things happening to us. One day as I was feeling better, I tried to make a cup of tea. It’s something I could normally do in my sleep, but that day it took me a long time to figure out what to do with the pan.
It felt as if the flowchart in my brain had been upended. I struggled to do basic maths in my head. My memory started failing me, I forgot words.
The illness made me question the notion of youth and vitality as many young people died. An acquaintance in his early 40s, father to two young children, died. Not long ago he had enrolled for a PhD.
The number of daily deaths from Covid-19 doubled to about 4,200 almost two weeks after I got sick. Social media was flooded with cries for help. Strangers were tagging each other on Twitter in desperation as our healthcare system crumbled. I was tagged in one tweet in which ventilator support was being sought for a young woman in her early 30s.
I understood how grim things must be for so many Indians if they had no recourse left but social media. Our leadership had failed us.
I felt empty. I struggled to get up in the morning, my body felt sore. I couldn’t face the day because all I heard were narratives of death and despair.
Like many Indians, I lost members of my extended family. It is hard to accept that I will never see them again. Our social bonds have seemingly frayed; we are unable to pay our last respects. Cremations and prayer meetings are held over Zoom. There is no dignity in death.
An aunt fought the virus for weeks but her co-morbidities made survival impossible. She and her husband were infected at the same time and were treated at the same hospital in Mumbai. Their only daughter lives abroad; she could not say a goodbye to her mother.
My uncle went from his hospital bed, a catheter attached to him, to perform the last rites for his wife and straight back to the hospital. My family was still processing the loss when the next day my father’s cousin died. His wife is still on 24-hour oxygen support at home with only 30 per cent of her lungs working.
She was not told of her husband’s death because her family wasn’t sure she would be able to endure the shock. Her daughters tended to their mother with a smile, fighting their tears, the day they cremated their father. For days, she kept asking about my uncle. After more than two weeks of his death, she sensed that he was no more. Her health is failing.
We are not very hopeful, but I am not ready for more bad news.
Pamposh Raina is a journalist based in New Delhi.