Thirty-six days of lockdown in an apartment in Wuhan, 16 days of institutional quarantine in Delhi, and 11 days of home quarantine in Kangra, a district now under stringent lockdown following Himachal Pradesh’s only COVID-19 death — that is the story of the last two months for a biologist from the state who was working in China when the coronavirus outbreak hit.
Now isolated at home with his family in Matlahar village in the district, Som Dutt, 36, chuckles, “It’s the year of quarantine for me.”
Kangra is so far the only COVID-19-affected district in Himachal, with three cases and one death.
A vaccine researcher, Dutt who works with a Chinese company engaged in research and development of vaccines, moved to Wuhan three-and-a-half years ago and lives by himself in a two-room apartment at Guangu Square. “It was January 10 when local authorities started advising residents to wear masks. It was a new virus, and nobody knew much about it. The number of cases shot up as people started moving out of the city in large numbers ahead of a seven-day spring festival. It was then that the government locked the city down on January 23,” he says.
Initially, people were allowed to step out to buy groceries and essential items, Dutt says. But, after February 10, they had to stay confined to their homes. A volunteer was assigned for each community to deliver items to their doorsteps.
“It was coordinated over WeChat and we never met. I physically met no human in that phase. I lived in a corner apartment, and my balcony opened out to a garden and an uninhabited area. I could see no human,” he says.
Eventually, Dutt would step out of his apartment for a total of 1.5 hours in 36 days, spending most of his time reading medical literature and doing some online work for his company.
While he didn’t plan to return home, Dutt’s family started panicking. “All types of rumours, such as doctors killing patients, started doing the rounds and my mother turned sick with worry. The Indian government facilitated the return of 112 of us from Wuhan. When I stepped out of my room on February 27 and met one of my colleagues, I got overwhelmed and hugged him. It was a different experience,” he says.
Back in Delhi, he was quarantined at the ITBP camp, where four of them shared a room. Dutt says that “everyone was scared of everyone” initially due to the threat of the virus but, in time, they bonded well and had a hearty farewell at the end. “We got separate beds, the place was hygienic, the doctor checked on us twice a day, the food was good and, to top it all, there was WiFi. I frankly didn’t expect such a nice stay there. We enjoyed ourselves like during college days,” he recalls.
It was the Kangra isolation that caught him unprepared. He returned home on March 14, after testing negative for the virus. Six days later, the district got its first case. With Kangra now under strict lockdown and curfew, Dutt’s new quarantine will last at least 21 days.
However, Dutt doesn’t resent the measure. “The lockdown is a great step by the Prime Minister. Isolation is our best defence. In Wuhan, people followed what authorities ordered and there was no culture of rumours. We will have to develop that. I would also suggest using the local machinery of leaders — panchayats, mahila mandals etc — to enforce the lockdown,” he says, pointing out that a large number of policepersons and health workers got infected in Wuhan and it must be prevented in India.
At home too, Dutt spends much of his time reading research related to the virus. “This time, I have my wife and parents with me, and my five-year old daughter. Given the circumstances, I couldn’t have asked for more,” he smiles.
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