In a world before coronavirus hit, I was pursuing my masters degree at Panjab University in Chandigarh. But then the COVID-19 crisis started in India and soon, we were told to vacate our hostels at the earliest.
My friends suggested I head home by taking a flight, but the flight fares were too steep. Additionally, my parents are in their 60s and I did not want to run the risk of infecting them in case I got infected on my way home. So I decided to stay on in the hostel, with a fallback plan of shifting to a friend’s rented place in case the hostel authorities forced me to vacate the room I was in.
I was a little worried whether food would continue to be served at the hostel after everyone left. So I prepared myself by stocking up with ready-to-cook noodles and oats. I had an electric boiler in my room that I used to make tea and coffee, and I thought of using that in the worst case scenario.
In two days flat, the whole university campus was deserted. Everyone left, except for a few who were from far-off places. But eventually, staying in the hostel for two months without going out, with no human contact, living in isolation either by reading or watching movies and seeing photos of home made food on social media built a tough situation for me.
Reading about the rise of COVID-19 infections in the country added to my unease. It was uncertain how long my predicament would continue and soon I was feeling homesick. The reports of racial discrimination towards people like me from Northeast India added to my tension for even in Chandigarh, a few friends called me to say they were being called ‘Corona’.
I started to feel unsure about staying on at hostel cut off from other people, in near total isolation. How safe was I in my situation? Yes, I was far better off than the poor migrants on the roads walking long distances for days and nights, but what if the hostel authorities forced me to leave? After my friends headed back home, where would I go? I also heard about friends in the Girls Hostel being asked to leave by the warden. Chandigarh itself came in the ‘red zone’ list, indicating the high prevalence of COVID-19 infections, while Manipur was in the green zone then.
When I heard that the Manipur government was facilitating the return of people from the state by trains with facilities for community quarantine, I decided to head back. I registered myself for travelling to Manipur and many others stranded in Punjab, Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and Haryana were informed that we would be moved on May 13. This was indeed welcome news, all thanks to the state government.
May 13 morning, all the stranded Manipuris in Chandigarh wishing to return home gathered at the Sector 17 plaza for medical screening. The Chandigarh administration arranged buses at a few pick up points. The arrangement for the medical screening was efficiently carried out: chairs for seating were kept in accordance with distancing protocols. We were given breakfast while we were waiting for our turns for the medical screening. Our temperature was checked and we were asked if we had any complaints about fever, vomiting, headache, sore throat, etc.
After the medical screenings, we were taken to buses according to the seat arrangement we had while waiting for the screening. One lunch pack was given to each one of us when we boarded the bus. On our part, we wore face masks and a few had gloves on. While in the bus, some people started opening their lunch packs but I hesitated to open mine because I would have to take off my mask in order to eat! On hindsight, it sounds funny but COVID-19 is something that one cannot laugh away. After all, being careful was the best way to keep it at bay and continues to be so.
Prior to my return to Manipur by train, I had spent almost two months in enforced physical distancing. But when I saw that the train was literally packed, I realised that calls for physical distancing were not happening: each and every seat in the train compartments were occupied. The train started from Sirhind in Punjab around 4 pm on May 13 after we had kept our belongings in the compartments. That’s when I realised I had lost my wallet – it had my savings, some Rs 8,000 in cash, my PAN and Aadhaar cards, my University ID card, a few passport photos and my ATM card. I searched my bags to check if I had put my wallet in them by any chance but found nothing. I felt terrible about this, but there was nothing to do and so I turned my thoughts towards what I could do instead. I ended up sanitising the train seat using the sanitising liquid I had brought and slept till hunger pangs woke me up.
I woke up with a bit of a cold and a sore throat. Maybe it was because I had kept the train window shutters open. But I started worrying whether I had been infected with COVID-19. The train stopped at a few railway stations along the way so that food items could be handed to us: each of us got a few biscuits, some chips, bread, bananas, water and tetra pack juice. These items were not brought into the train but volunteers from each train bogey went down to collect and then distribute them. There was no proper meal as such but no one, including myself, thought too much about it. We had too many things on our minds – the uncertainty of what would happen to each one of us, the trolling on social media with so many people saying people in the rest of the country should not be heading back at all and the overall COVID-19 situation: would things ever get back to normal?
In my compartment, the Kabui family I was travelling with told me that they had come to Chandigarh in December last year for a heart surgery of the grandchild (she had turned three years two days earlier). An adorable girl, she had no idea about the uncertainty around us and kept us entertained with her songs, dance and cute chatter. The family was now heading back as the lockdown had put an end to treatment of most health cases in wake of the COVID-19 infections and the concerned doctor told them to come back later. Inside the train, our common uncertainty and fears bound us to one another while outside, we heard ‘corona’ ‘corona’ being chanted at some train stations. What hurt me most was when the same thing happened in Assam, too.
In the evening of the second day of the train journey (May 14), a fellow passenger in D bogey shared on our common WhatsApp group that he had a sore throat and needed medical attention. The WhatsApp group consisting of stranded Manipuris from Chandigarh, Delhi and nearby places had been created to share our experiences during the COVID-19 lockdown. The group, which still exists now, is pretty informative and now, we share our quarantine experiences there. It was on this group that the update about D bogey was put up. By a strange turn of events, the news about a Manipur returnee from Mumbai testing positive for COVID-19 came in right after the sore throat scare in D bogey and we were collectively scared. What if the person in bogey D was infected with COVID-19? What if we got infected in turn? A family seated in the compartment I was in said a prayer while another co-passenger took out her rosary. I said a little prayer in my mind.
Most of us started using the sanitisers we carried with a vengeance soon after this! It was almost like an obsession! We kept sanitising the surface of the compartments we were in and ended up sanitising our compartment many times over. It was almost like pouring sanitiser over anything and everything: on our hands, all over our clothes, bags, legs, seats, everywhere. A friend and co-passenger went up to the upper seat in the compartment and never once came down. All through the journey, we kept asking, ‘Where have we reached now?’
On the morning of May 15, a passenger who coincidentally is from the same area that I am from, answered, ‘We have reached Assam’. I could almost hear the reverberation of joy and happiness that brought to everyone in the compartment. The common refrain was ‘Home is near, we are reaching soon.’ I felt a sense of peace and some mental strength hearing this.
We reached Jiribam railway station around 8:30pm on May 15 and felt a sense of joy that we had reached Manipur finally. But yes, it did not mean the end of our journey. We were called for the medical screening turn by turn. We had survived on bread, biscuits, banana, chips and juice we were given for three days but once we were in Manipur, we were all hungry and craved for rice! Imagine our happiness when we were given a packet each of pulao while waiting for our turns for the screening. I dug in ravenously and it was only towards the end of our first proper ‘meal’ (read rice) that we realised the food was probably spoilt. It was smelling a bit and tasted sour, but no one complained.
The ‘medical screening’ turned out to be only temperature checks, which were carried out as per the compartments we had travelled in. There were around two-three medical staff for every compartment. When it was my turn, I mentioned the slight cold I had, though my body temperature was normal. The nurse told me to inform this to the quarantine centre I would be taken to. After the medical screening with proper distancing, we were taken to buses to head to Imphal. We left Jiribam at midnight and tired as we were, most of us slept just as we sat down in our seats.
We finally reached Imphal around 9 am on May 16. Those of us belonging to Imphal East district were first taken to Modern College at Porompat for another medical screening and for the allocation of our quarantine centres. It was a hot, sunny day and we stood in a long queue for yet another screening again. Outside the screening centre, there weren’t too many government officials. Most of the activities – from maintaining physical distancing to arranging transport for those who had already been screened – were carried out by Red Cross volunteers. Sometimes it was hard to maintain physical distancing and I thought back to how the screening at Chandigarh had been more efficient.
After more than five to six hours of waiting, I got my turn for the screening. I thought this time the medical screening would be just more than checking temperature but again, it was only our body temperatures being checked. My temperature was normal but I mentioned about my sore throat. All of a sudden, the people around me started looking at me differently. I was taken to JNIMS flu centre. Some of my friends were worried when I was taken in an ambulance. The doctor there asked my travel history and questions like: Do you have fever? When did my cold begin? A doctor seated across me with a transparent glass wall between us took my medical history: we spoke to each other through a microphone speaker.
I thought I would be taken for my COVID-19 test but instead, I was given a prescription with a host of medicines (Cefpodoxime, Potassium Clavulanate, Montelukas and Levocetirizine Hydrochloride Tablets, Paracetamol and mouthwash). I was told if my health condition deteriorated further, I could come back again. It was an anticlimax of sorts – the doctor had fired off his questions with great seriousness and there was another associate with him. With the glass partition in between them and me, it felt like a prison scene in a Hollywood film.
I was taken back to Modern College again, but found that none of my friends were there. I asked the volunteers there and someone who seemed to be a government official. They told me to wait and I waited there for a long time, all alone. It was almost dark now – I was very exhausted and hungry now after the long journey. I was feeling low and started regretting my return. My despondency turned into anger in a while and I asked the Red Cross volunteers why I was being kept for such a long period and why I was not being sent to a quarantine centre. Maybe they suspected that I had COVID-19 but if that was so, why wasn’t I being taken for a test? By this time, there were no government officials outside but the Red Cross volunteers arranged some cake and juice. After some time they arranged for my travel as well.
I reached the quarantine centre at Azad Higher Secondary around 8 pm and found that about 8-9 people were being kept in dormitory-like rooms and 2-4 persons each in slightly smaller rooms. There were no single rooms available and it meant having to stay in these rooms. Given that I had a sore throat and a cold, I chose to stay in the corridor.
I found that contrary to government announcements that quarantine centres were being equipped properly, each of us had to bring everything required for our stay. I called my brother who brought me my bedding, a mosquito net, a bucket and mug and the medicines I had been prescribed. Thankfully, the washrooms are not that dirty though many of us end up sharing the same. There is often shortage of water for bathroom and toilet use though.
Our temperatures are checked twice a day, though I have no idea what use it is when medical experts are saying that a fever alone is not indicative of COVID-19 and that more than 80% of cases are asymptomatic. Different health workers come everyday to check our health conditions. Every single day I tell them about my sore throat but as of now I have not been tested. The medical staff who came to the quarantine centre said they too are helpless as they have submitted reports from their side and will have to wait for further action.
To maintain physical distancing at the quarantine centre, there is a ‘boundary’ of sorts marked by benches in front of the building. No outsider, including anyone from the volunteer team, is allowed to breach the boundary. All the food and water packs for those at the centre brought by their family members are dropped off at the point. On a disturbing note though, the waste materials from the centre are kept in makeshift dustbins made of empty tar drums near the boundary, which are then set on fire. There are no masks being given to any one of us at our centre. By the time of writing this, it’s been only one instance when each of one of us was being handed a surgical mask and small bottles of disinfectant.
Some days earlier, an argument broke out between the volunteers and few of the people inside over a long power cuts. The volunteers at the centre are really doing selfless work and are not in a position to bring about any resolution to the issues we face but at times, the lack of amenities at our centre gets to be a cause for flare ups. During a brief chat, they expressed that our centre has a financial sanction shortage.
This might be due to the fact that the centre falls under a constituency whose MLA has been disqualified recently. That explains why there is no bedding or drinking water being given, perhaps. As for our food, except for a packed dinner for one day so far, our own families bring it to us every day. But surely, the government and the district administration should have ensured that basic amenities are being provided?
Thankfully, not everything about my quarantine experience is negative as I see some good gestures from total strangers at times. A few days ago, a few women who are small-time market vendors came to offer everyone some biscuits and water. One day, representatives from a women’s self-help group came to hand over small locally made cakes and water.
I heard that a few local donors have also donated small amount of money for running the quarantine centre. These are small rays of hope that tell me that yes, there are some decent people who will come out to help others in need. As I write this, the number of people at the centre has swelled above 70 and we are hearing that people coming by different batches will no longer be kept together. That’s a lesson learnt well.
But I honestly don’t know just how many of us are at risk of being infected and then infect how many in turn. I really do not know how many highs and lows I have to get through before I get an ‘all clear’ and get to see my parents and my home. I know I am not the only one in this state of unease right now, and I wish there were better systems in place so that when the next pandemic comes calling, there is more strategic planning and preparation.
This article was originally published on FPSJ Review of Art and Politics.