In 2018, at age 69, I underwent a heart transplant, a risky surgical intervention that saved my life. I live in India, and ever since the latest surge of COVID-19 overran the country with cases, I’ve often asked myself, “Did I come back to the world to die of this disease?”
Since last year, I’ve lived like a recluse. I am a single woman, without a partner or immediate family nearby. For 15 months, I haven’t seen my sisters, my brother, their partners or children, with whom I’m close. We call one another, even do video calls, but it’s not the same as sitting with them.
I buy my groceries online. The delivery boy leaves them at the doorstep. I wear a mask and a face shield before venturing out the door to collect them. I’m too scared of getting COVID-19.
Pandemic or not, as a solid organ transplant (SOT) recipient, I wear a mask outdoors, avoid crowded places and socially distance from others. SOT recipients get infected easily. Yearly, I take a flu vaccine but I still develop a cold and cough at least twice. I’m on medication to keep my immunity low and to prevent my body from rejecting my donor heart.
When COVID-19 first hit my city, Pune (about 100 miles from Mumbai), last year, I shut my apartment door. I’ve let no one inside since. I’m used to staying alone. I’ve never felt lonely before. On the contrary, I’ve loved solitude and enjoy sitting, reading and writing. But no more. I feel desolate and scared as I continue to stay inside.
With the second surge in coronavirus infections, there is a nonstop chatter in my head: “What if I’m next? Should I call a cab or an ambulance if I have to rush to the hospital? Should I keep my immunosuppressants and toiletries packed, just in case?” I’ve rehearsed these questions a million times.
The unprecedented new wave of COVID-19 has left us all devastated and stunned. Around 250,000 infections and 4,000 deaths are reported each day, though the actual figures are probably higher. These are alarming statistics, and they’re jousting me into panic. More than 300,000 people have died in India because of COVID-19 since 2020.
The coronavirus was seemingly under control in November 2020. How did it spread again so quickly, this time like a forest fire?
While many of us seniors stayed put in our homes, obeying all the instructions, trying our best to fend off infections, many moved around unmasked. These included overconfident younger people fatigued with the restrictions and reckless political leaders who flouted precautions and held giant election rallies over weeks. For these leaders, gaining power was more important than the people they were leaving infected.
I’m anxious because I can’t visit the health care center for my routine monthly checkups. With millions of COVID-19 patients being rushed to wellness centers and hospitals daily, and many being turned away for lack of rooms, with reports of people gasping and dying without oxygen and ventilators, who can stay mentally “normal”?
The new variant is highly infectious. It’s been attacking the entire population unlike the first wave, which claimed the lives of mostly seniors. In Delhi, India’s capital, my cousins and their families have all been infected with the coronavirus. Almost every family in Delhi has lost one or more members to the pandemic. It’s heartbreaking.
No cremation grounds are left to dispose of bodies, no burial grounds to lay the dead to rest. Images on television of body bags thrown casually in the parking lot of a hospital and hundreds of bloated bodies floating down the “holy” Ganges river make me cry. I can’t sleep at night.
My heart rate shoots up to an abnormal 190 beats per minutes when the normal rate for me is between 90 and 110. I feel feeble and lie in my bed. There’s a growing feeling of helplessness. I imagine my end is near.
My distress grows when I read of new research that older SOT recipients may not be able to produce sufficient antibodies to fight COVID-19, even after vaccination. It’s worth noting that scientists excluded SOT recipients from clinical trials in the urgency of finding a vaccine for the healthier majority. Even today, no one seems too keen to search for a vaccine for us. They say, “Take whatever is available. Otherwise, you’ll suffer far more if infected. “I can’t make sense of the contradictory advice.
Aide has been flowing in from people and governments across the world. Essential workers are getting food and oxygen cylinders to patients every single day, and ferrying the dead to cremation and burial grounds. COVID-19 has infected some of them through contact. They’ve recovered and come back after a fortnight to continue their work for humanity. I salute them.
During the lockdown in Pune between mid-April and mid-May, the police collected fines of 1.785 million rupees from about 350,000 people violating COVID-19 guidelines in public. Will some never learn?
Every person has the choice to stay protected, but some can never understand their advantage. Millions of others — doctors, health care workers and essential service providers — have no choice. They have to look after infected patients.
I, too, have a choice — the choice to stay indoors. The thought tones down my fear and mental anxiety considerably. I tell myself, “Instead of worrying, I can pray for the living and the dead.”
But the next minute, I read an interview with the chief scientist of the World Health Organization. She warns that COVID-19 response is going to be critical over the next six to 18 months. I slip into gloom.
What if the pandemic doesn’t go away? Will I be the next?