By flattening the earth, Covid-19 has highlighted the pyramids!

The year 2020 began like any other for me. Covid-19, as the name implies, was there already except we had no clue what was in store. I have heard about SARS in 2003, when the International Symposium on Shock Waves, to be held in Beijing, was postponed by a year. This reduced the time we had to organize the 25th International Symposium on Shock Waves in Bangalore in the year 2005. My collaborators from our Aerospace Engineering Department, Profs. KPJ Reddy and G. Jagadeesh played crucial roles in bringing this symposium to India for the first time and making it one of the best in the series. I did not read much about MERS but did read about Nipah virus in some parts of Kerala. During the first national lock down, I did see the Malayalam movie, Virus, which I would recommend to everyone. January and February were as busy as any other year, perhaps busier this year. A collaborator from UK was visiting these two months, I organized one and attended three symposia and had numerous travel, while teaching/attending a course.

In the first week of March, I heard some stories from colleagues who were traveling by air about the restrictions faced. After Kerala, Bangalore was beginning to have some cases. We had planned an in-house symposium (IPC Day) on 14th March, Saturday and IISc had planned the Court Meeting on 13th March 2020. I received an email on 10th March announcing that Court meeting was cancelled. Some students were celebrating holi during 9-10 March in our campus and many were beginning to worry about Covid. Some colleagues were suggesting that IPC day be postponed while many others, including me, thought we should go ahead with the meeting. As the concerns expressed by the few could not be ignored, IPC day was cancelled and the dinner we had planned for the 13th March was cancelled too. Many did feel at that time these were over-reactions. Though IPC day was cancelled, we had the Chemical Dynamics Group meeting on 14th March, in which several research groups participate. When we finished the meeting at 11 AM, Registrar’s email announcing the shutdown was there. IISc decided to ask all students to leave on 14th March and gave a two-day notice. I was glad we had cancelled IPC Day scheduled for 14th March. Campus community was upset and angry and it seemed to me that the Administration had enough reasons to shut down the campus.

IISc announced a two week shut down from 16th March with a 2 day notice. India announced a 3 week shutdown on 24th March with a 4 hour notice! Though some states had announced some restrictions by then, national shut down with a few hours notice appears to be a major blunder today. My reaction at that time was that it was a wise and bold decision. Three week shut down was extended by another two weeks. Since then lock down 3 and 4 happened and unlock down plans were announced. It is now 7 months. While several nations in the world are experiencing the second wave, India has a long wavelength and it is not clear if we have reached the peak of the first wave yet. It took more than 3 months for India to register 100,000 cases and we were having close to 100,000 every day until recently. The total number of cases is getting close to 7 million with more than a 100,000 dead!

In the early days, one of our neighbor lost her father to Covid and she could not go to the funeral. Her experience was horrifying as no one can be with the patient and relatives had a tough time paying last respect. Towards the end of June, one of my nephew caught Covid and he was admitted in the General Rajaji Hospital, Madurai. His experience was different. Many patients were staying in a hall and they were generally having a good time as most of them did not have any symptom. He was discharged after a week without having another test. (In the initial days, a patient had to be tested negative twice with a gap of 2 days before discharge). He did see a few cases of patients suddenly developing breathing problems and dying. Two weeks later, my father was taken to a hospital to check his chest congestion. Based on the CT Scan result, he was considered covid positive. His diagnosis happened when we were having PhD interviews online. To our shock, we could not get a bed for him in any hospital in Madurai. My brothers, niece and the nephew who had recovered from Covid were all trying their best to provide care for my father.

On the night of diagnosis based on CT scan results, he was admitted in the same ward in the General Hospital where my nephew was. However, in the two weeks, situation had become worse and there were no nurses or attenders available. A Doctor would visit once every day. One or two family members were staying with the patient in the SARI ward where many patients suspected of Covid were kept. Let me repeat. One or two attenders were staying with the patient in the ward, helping them. My brothers, nephew and niece took time and stayed with my father in the ward with only a mask and hand sanitizer. They were handling him, changing his diaper, giving him a tissue bath. My family is generally resourceful in Madurai and we could not get a hospital bed for my father at that time.

When we took him to the General hospital he was generally in good shape, except for the chest congestion, and asked ‘Why did you bring me to the hospital?”. He was tested for Covid on admission and the result came negative two days later. However, the next day after admission, he needed oxygen as his blood oxygen level reduced. My nephew’s experience in the ward helped in arranging an oxygen cylinder and it was not easy. During the three days he was there, he could be given oxygen continuously and a family member stayed awake to ensure that the mask was not accidentally removed by my father. My daughter, a Doctor, monitored my father over video calls and helped the others attending to him in person. After 3 days, we could get a bed in a private hospital and shifted him in an ambulance, continuing the oxygen supply. It was an ordeal that kept us worried. He was tested again and he was positive at that time. Once he was admitted in the private hospital room, it was like what one reads about Covid patient’s treatment. No one could visit him. Nurses and Doctors in PPE were caring for him. We could send a phone through an attender and talk to him the next day. He recovered in a week and was brought home after testing negative. He has both BP and sugar and takes tablets regularly. As his condition was critical, I applied for an ePass to travel to Madurai and it was denied.

Though his Covid condition was cured, he had some infections and pneumonia for which he needed treatment in a hospital. According to the regulations at that time, he had to be kept at home quarantine for 2 weeks before he could be taken to a hospital. Two weeks later, he was taken to a hospital where he was tested for Covid and kept in isolation until the result came negative again. He was moved to a room where an attender could stay with him as the treatment for infection and pneumonia continued. His condition looked critical and I applied for ePass again for travel to Madurai. Karnataka had relaxed all restrictions by then. Tamil Nadu needed an ePass and it was given for specific conditions such as medical emergency, death of a close relative, tender applications, and stranded returning home. I applied for medical emergency and it was rejected again.

Third time, I managed to get an ePass and drove to Madurai from Bangalore. By now, Karnataka regulations said that someone leaving the state and returning within 4 days, need not be quarantined. However, IISc had one week quarantine for anyone returning from another state. By now, I had stopped worrying about any logic in all these decisions. At that time, according to the regulations we followed, someone going to Mysore (about 150 km) could return and join work. Someone going to Hosur (about 40 km) had to be in quarantine on returning. I packed some food and drove non-stop to Madurai. I was tested before entering Madurai and my result came negative three days later. I stayed in the hospital with my father. He showed improvements, though his condition oscillated. I returned to the campus within 4 days. I drove straight to the Centenary Visitors House, where IISc had kept one wing for keeping the people in quarantine. Everyone was assumed to be a carrier during this time.

I stayed in 1 room for the whole week. IISc had made all arrangements and you could live on your own. One attender fully covered in PPE, would bring food three times a day and leave it at the door and ring the bell. Once I hear the bell, I come out and take the plate inside. Some attenders would move away from the door and wait until I picked up the food. With mask on, I used to thank them. Some attenders, would leave the food, ring the bell and walk back in a hurry. During this quarantine time, thanks to the nature of our work, I could continue my work. I also subscribed to Amazon prime and watched the Tamil movies ‘Thuruvangal 16 (16 directions)’ a very good crime thriller and ‘Baaram’ on Thalaikoothal (one way to put an end to an elderly patient, who is a burden (Baaram in Tamil) on the family). It was a disturbing movie. KD engira Karuppu Durai also covered this topic in a lighter vein and was positive. I like being positive under all circumstances. I watched Alex in Wonderland finally as well. Alex is a popular standup comedian, who had resigned his IT job in the Americas and returned to Chennai to pursue his interest. The show is based on Tamil film songs over 2-3 decades that I grew up with and I enjoyed watching this show.

If you had read this far, the contrast should have been stunning. My father, a Covid patient was kept in a general ward with family members staying with him as attenders in Madurai. In IISc, I was in quarantine being served food by attenders in PPE, though I had tested negative. First one was an inevitable consequence as the system could not handle the number of patients and the family members could not leave the patient unattended. Second one was the rule being followed at that time in IISc. During this period, there were a lot of incidents being covered in the print/social/visual media. In Kerala, a husband returning from abroad was not allowed in to the house by wife and her family. In Madurai, one old man jumped down to death as his family disowned him after becoming positive. One post in the social media lamented that Amitabh Bhachan and family could get admission immediately while some poor lady could not. How far removed from reality people could become? World has never been flat and I doubt if it ever will be. Scandinavian countries have achieved some level of equality, thanks to their small and more uniform population.

People all over the world, for one reason or other, disobeyed the orders/suggestions. Though, there have been talks about such a pandemic for many years now, when it finally arrived, no one was ready anywhere in the world. Africa seems to be handling it better than other parts of the world and it is likely to be due to the natural immunity. How long will this continue? I doubt if anyone knows. Spanish flu (originated in Ft. Riley, Kansas very close to Manhattan, Kansas where I did my Ph.D.) lasted two years and killed 10-20 % of those infected within a few days. Covid seems to be a milder threat and gives patients several days before the condition might become critical. If one is watchful and gets treated for the symptoms, the chances are that it is not fatal. The data as of yesterday, (from Worldometer website) show that “a total of 36,391,128 confirmed cases of the coronavirus COVID-19 that originated from Wuhan, China, and a death toll of 1,060,443 deaths.” That is 2.9 %. The numbers in India show 6,832,988 cases and 105,554 deaths and that is 1.5 %. Somewhat coincidentally, both the numbers in the world and India show that 0.5 % of the population had become positive now. That is one in 200. I certainly know a lot more people, and in my circle it seems like this percentage is significantly more. This includes some who ventured out bravely and others who took all safety measures and isolated themselves until they caught Covid. My father survived and is recovering well. None of my relatives who took care of him turned positive. Stay safe.