What a bummer! Being killed by a stupid virus!
Goku’s dialogue (Dragon Ball Z)
In Dragon Ball Z, when Goku, the major protagonist of the franchise, returned to Earth from the Namek planet, future Trunks, another protagonist, told him that he (Goku) would die of a heart virus in the near future. Goku, one of the Earth’s bravest fighters, was unimpressed. True to his fighting spirit, Goku did not want to die of the disease, he would prefer to die fighting. I consider Goku’s statement as an important metaphor of my condition at the quarantine centre I stayed for 14 days – I needed courage to overcome some of the most miserable situations at the centre. We, people of the planet Earth are facing a pandemic now, and I want to reiterate that my personal allegiance with Goku does not mean to downplay the seriousness of any deadly virus. Covid-19 is not stupid, while suffering itself is life’s illuminating experience that makes us our own protagonist. The number of deaths and pain that family/friends of those who died and who recovered faced should not be fiddled with for ideological and sensational cravings.
This personal essay is inspired by my 14-day mandatory quarantine at a community quarantine centre (QC) in Manipur. For many reasons, stories of QCs and experience of the people quarantined there must be told by those who have experienced it; media, social media platforms are not the only truth-tellers and investigators here! Unfortunately, social interfaces such as Facebook and Whatsapp are also increasingly becoming a popular source of information among the populace.
I would not have had the energy to write this essay if I did not have Dragon Ball franchise to give me courage and interest. In the mysterious quarantined circumstance I adjusted my musical taste to Bruce Faulconer’s score for the English language version of Dragon Ball Z, the score never failed to inject me with a reasonable dose of mental energy in the past, which I desperately looked for during the quarantine, stemmed from my disillusionment with the condition in which our quarantine was managed.
The returning of Manipuris stranded in various other cities throughout India, the status of Manipur as Covid-19 free the later part of April[i], and the sentiments of Manipuris back home towards returnees are closely woven into the reality and popular attitudes towards quarantine and quarantined people. Amidst rampant fear of Covid-19 pandemic, popular sentiment plays a very critical part. This is mostly reflected in a problematic attitude towards quarantined people. Popular sentiments often hold the quarantined people as morally reprehensible. How is such an attitude towards quarantined people created? Are there correlations between life actually lived inside the designated QCs and the news we read about these people in the media?
The quarantine centre
Rapid increase in the number of people tested Covid-19 has brought about the need for quarantining people who have crossed geographical boundaries among others. According to the guidelines for quarantine facilities COVID-19 issued by the Government of India (NCDC 2020[ii]), ‘Quarantine is the separation and restriction of movement or activities of persons who are not ill but who are believed to have been exposed to infection, for the purpose of preventing transmission of disease. Persons are usually quarantine in their homes, but they may also be quarantined in community-based facilities.’ Quarantine is chiefly aimed at reducing risk of transmission. Correspondingly, QCs are fully responsible for facilitating, social distancing, hygiene, health, and other aspects which would contribute to achieving the aim of quarantine. As a part of their responsibility towards the present scenario, quarantined people must also be responsible towards the same goal. These understandings were tried and tested at the centre I stayed for 14 days.
According to the newest guidelines by the end of May, all returnees returning by flight will also be quarantined at centres, this status has been changed from earlier decisions that stated that returnees reaching Manipur by flight would be home-quarantined. Following such measures, we (five women and one 17 year-old boy) reached the QC around 8.45 p.m. The centre was a school premise. All six of us were allotted a single room, a ramshackled door was the only source of ventilation. There was a fixed window which could not be opened for all the days we lived there. There was a single bed and a few bunk beds.
The recommendation for minimum one metre gap between two beds from all the sides (NCDC 2020) was not applicable in this space. No bedding or food was provided at the facility. The volunteer told us that there would be no arrangement for food. We received six surgical masks, two bottles sanitizer, six water bottles, 1 litre each, for 14 days.
For almost a week, we did not have a dustbin. The only option was to pile the waste up in front of our room. On the fifth day of quarantine the Officer in Charge (O.C) of the area provided us an empty tar barrel to serve as dustbin. Since there was no possibility of emptying the dustbin, we regularly burnt the waste inside it to maintain hygiene at the centre.
Another problem faced at the centre was the non-availability of bathrooms; five among the six people were women. The volunteers told us that nobody could see us, so we could take bath in the open space in front of toilets.
Halfway into quarantining, a family of three arrived at the QC. A new problem emerged – how could the new batch share toilets, the same water tap and bathing/washing space? In order to solve this problem, the same O.C made a mock partition of the bathing/washing space – it meant nothing, we shared the same washing space with the new batch. To prevent chance infection and transmission, they were asked not to use the water tap we used, which left them without water for daily use. Luckily their family was from the same neighbourhood as the centre and so water, food, beddings and other requirements could be arranged. The entire arrangement from partition of the washing space, separation of living space between the two quarantined groups, which supposedly constituted ‘social distancing’, was a farcical namesake. It hinted at the utter inadequacy of QC to maintain quarantine measures.
On the eighth day of quarantine, one of our companions (17 year-old boy) developed fever. When the mother contacted the control room in the morning, she did not get immediate help. At her insistence, two doctors arrived in the evening. From across a safe distance, one doctor took an oral report from the boy. Based on this oral report, the doctor prescribed Paracetamol tablets. When we asked if they would check his body temperature, the other doctor laughed and replied, ‘No, it will not be done.’ We understand the immense dedication and health risk professionals go through these days, the pandemic has revealed that the health of the entire society also depends on them; doctors and nurses have lost their lives treating Covid-19 patients. The two doctors do not in any sense and degree represent the entire medic community. However, it is essential to point out that laxity in dealing with health emergencies at our centre could cause larger problems affecting quarantining. Later that evening, one of the boy’s relative bought a thermometer.
We compromised with the infrastructural failure of the QC by bathing in the open space, cooking food with materials provide by our families among others. While such failures could be overcome, apathetic treatment shown towards us by a few volunteers must not go unnoticed. Such a treatment violated dignity and emotional health of already vulnerable people in addition to stigmatising our very presence.
After settling at QC for a brief while, an argument broke out between two volunteers and a woman from our group. Within a short span, one volunteer turned from being a benign facilitator to a burdened Jehovah. He thundered upon us, ‘I’m using my own pocket money. You should be thankful to us.’ The subject of the argument was the volunteer’s assertion that mobile phones were a non-essential items and he could not be responsible for repairing or providing a functioning socket-point for the purpose of charging mobile phones. The quarantine room did not have a functioning socket point. We could never discover the veracity of his assertion that he used his pocket money to buy things for us; he resigned from volunteering after two days. If we had not contacted him, we would never come to know that he resigned from volunteering. We still needed volunteers to address problem at QC. However, for rest of the quarantine period, we had no volunteer. Were we punished for arguing with the volunteer? If so, it was a vindictive one. If we had acted unlawfully, he could have taken recourse to law.
The volunteers’ argument was the need for us to be grateful because we had reached Manipur. Being grateful is a beautiful human response. But should this be argued in favour of dominating others who are in a fragile situation? In the volunteer’s worldview it was through silently facing inconveniences that we show gratefulness. Such a sentiment transforms into a double-edged arguments against the quarantined people – first, we should be happy with the fact that we reached Manipur, no matter how good or bad QCs are; second, quarantine people are bound to bear the ethical burden of bringing in fresh Covid-19 cases, which implies that we should bear it with silence. In both cases we cannot speak, not because our grievances are puerile imaginary of ungrateful people; rather because we bear the ethical pickle – the need to be thankful that we ‘safely’ reached home. Any kind of ethical stance is not full-proof, they suffer from glitches advanced from competing sides. It becomes extremely problematic when such seemingly ethical considerations are used to cast us as uncouth and ungrateful individuals. The larger populace echoes this sentiment. We understand current state of global emergency and lockdown have impacted the contemporary ways in unprecedented manner. Restrictions of civil liberties throughout the world have been impacted in this context and this has not been received in black or white. The question we have ignored so far is how do we retain dignity and show empathy to those who are vulnerable?
The high moral ground of a few volunteers and neighbourhoods are an unfortunate interface of quarantine. This happens notwithstanding the fact that quarantine measures have saved many people from the risk of transmission. However, in our concern for economising anxiety, many quarantined people are banished off to fear. The situation no doubt raises very complicated ethical dilemmas on both sides; we do not hope to be able to resolve the situation soon. Nevertheless, it is not impossible to extend empathy even from a distance.
Demons and lotus-eaters – the quarantined subjects
QCs are a crucial destination in the entire psychological journey of people who have possibly been exposed to the lurching might of the disease. We accept the risk and we have to wait at QC for two reasons – our ambiguous status will be determined by a test result and our ambiguity should not cause risks to healthy others. Many of us waited for test results for days and reached a point of agonised psychic exhaustion. Quarantining cannot be escaped – within the legal ambit of International Health Regulation, 2005 (WHO 2020[iii]), quarantine measures are legal. There are also strict mandates against quarantine-renegades. Under the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, returnees who flee quarantine protocol will be jailed[iv].
At present, there are bizarre stories about ‘unruly’, ‘irresponsible’ behaviour of quarantined people – men leaving QC to meet their girlfriends and sneaking back in the centre with local liquor, men and women dancing at QC, fighting with volunteers, etc. Such conducts is reprehensible for the risk of transmission of the disease. However, such reports in the media nevertheless transmits the narrative of idle, ill-educated people at the QCs. Reports that inform us about the condition of quarantined people and the poor situations of the centres are few and far between. In the presence of a mysterious disease, popular attitude of disdain towards quarantined people is not condemned – ‘the disease could kill’ becomes a testimony to further problematised the quarantined people.
Since the beginning of large scale quarantine of returnees, quarantined people are constantly mocked and ridiculed for being insensitive to the fatality of the disease. They are ridiculed for not maintaining distancing, scattering waste items and so on. Many QCs do not have enough space for ‘social distancing’. At our QC we had a small space to eat, sleep and do other activities that constitute daily life under which distancing was supposed to be maintained. The gap between the reality of the condition and the requirement of distancing questions the very aspect of ‘social distancing’. Moreover, ‘social distancing’ had already been flown out of the aircraft window. At the premise of our QC, ‘social distancing’ was not a reliable weapon to economise damage. ‘Social distancing’ among people inside many QCs is not supported by infrastructural feasibility. We must admit that the distancing between quarantined people and outsiders is the very purpose of quarantine, to separate risk population from the rest. Unfortunately the boundary between disease control and stigmatised treatment of risk persons is no longer visible. Irrational fear does not prevent diseases, it surely feeds our misery and makes us apathetic to the people around us. Covid-19 is novel but stigma is a recurring pandemic. At the screening centres, the presiding officers threw our quarantine certification on the ground. While ‘social distancing’ is understandable, ridiculous gestures like throwing an important piece of document on the ground, even when tables were available, hinted at the degree of apathy justified in the name of fear and contagion. It was comical and degrading.
The apathy towards quarantined people also stems from the assumption that returnees are introducing the disease in the otherwise green zone. This sentiment also implies that people should not return home at such a critical situation. The looming shadows of death, disease, and dying in another land far away from home constitute one of human beings’ deepest fears. Knowing well that travelling at this time involves risk, people do travel back home. A friend of mine said, ‘What will happen if I die here? My body will not get the last rites that a dead body deserves. What if my parents suddenly die? I will take the precaution needed but I will go home.’ One of my companions at the QC said, ‘Honestly, I was okay with staying at Delhi, but my father just did not want me to stay there anymore.’ Another young woman who boarded the same flight with me said, ‘My father said that he would pay any amount of money for me to come home.’ I came home on the insistence of septuagenarian parents, otherwise I would not have taken the risk. Many students were asked to leave hostels and rented accommodation in addition to the gory cases of racism. Human beings need their family and loved ones in times of crisis. A condemned person often falls into ‘delusion of reprieve’ (Frankl 1946[v]). In many cases home was the reprieve and luckily many reached home. Therefore, a hasty and vindictive assessment that returnees are bringing in the disease might be statistically correct, but it cannot be an analytical justification for moral indictment of returnees. It is also immature to foolhardily seek comfort in the assumption that by blocking off people from returning, we can stay safe and green-zoned. The disease has not been declared a ‘pandemic’ out of a dumb explosion!
It is understood that by the time people reached QCs, they have passed through a few levels of exposure. Recommended precautionary measures such as wearing facemasks, hand gloves and sanitizer provide psychological reprieve. However different stages of exposure led to a significant disowning of fear. In fact, after I arrived at the QC, confusion arose in my mind regarding the object of fear – the disease or the narrative of ‘pandemic’ or the fear itself. Fear, an emotion and an emergency in taxing times unfortunately becomes an object to toy with – is there anything left to fear amidst the reality of the quarantine we are put under? Since the beginning of lockdown and before, we have been instructed in varying doses to guard ourselves against the disease, through various sources of Covid-19 education. Inadvertently, the literature resulted in the inordinate amount of fear and panic among the multitude. The gradual disowning, not elimination, of fear amongst some of us could be calculated as a wonderful transformation of the human mind.
I anticipate being chastised for writing unfavourable points about quarantine condition – those sitting in warmth and comfort of home often instruct us to be grateful. Inside the quarantine, exposure to risk and callous apathy are more prominent than a cultured response to be grateful. If one among the six of us were infected, the rest five could be spared only by a mechanism of dues ex machina. The only way to be sure if we were infected or not was the test and the result. Waiting for test results adds to the misery of quarantined people. Many are tested positive. Will a voluntary feeling of gratefulness counter the anxiety people at QCs and their family members currently face? While, the ethical Olympian ground of those sitting at safe periphery seems to be righteous, people at QCs are desperately waiting for test results. Above all, it is not difficult to imagine that calling people argumentative for demanding potable water, a safe place to bath and a dustbin provokes frustration and misunderstanding.
Initially, I boasted on my unproven conviction that I was protecting my family members by protecting myself. In reality, I was being a privileged, healthy person. It is easy to take higher grounds as long as one is outside the boxing ring of exposure. There are people tested positive, some of the diagnosed people died; many are being disadvantaged by the economic meltdown, refugees do not have a home to ‘stay at home’. We might never know the immense biological and sociological battles these disadvantages people face now. After testing the sacred water of quarantine, I am reduced down to the base. From being an arm-chair observer, I became a mere body to be controlled. In the new state of being, my relying cry that I wanted to protect others meant ‘touch me not’ for I might infect you.
Quarantine process was an instructive one, notwithstanding the inadequacies. When the frustration and disappointment subsided, a calmness also re-emerged – ‘After a great storm, a formal feeling comes’. At this stage, it is possible to emerge in your own character. This could well be the ‘character formation’ the philosopher and mathematician John C Lennox believes would be unfolded in the midst of the present crisis (Lennox 2020[vi]). I did not start as a contemplative person regarding the relation between freedom, fear and every form of validation in the name of emergency we are facing now. Quarantine process was an instructive one, notwithstanding the inadequacies. I will not be killed by a virus of fear.
End Notes and References:
[i] The Hindustan Times. 2020. “After Goa, now Manipur says it has no Covid-19 cases.” April, 20. Accessesed May 01, 2020.http://www.hndustantimes.com/india-news/after-goa-now-manpur-says-it-has-no-covid-19-cases/story-jKtGwRQkT6klwQX6lpb5L.html
[iii] World Health Organization(WHO). 2020. “Considerations for quarantine of individuals in the context of containment for Coronovirus disease(Covid-19)”. http://who.int/publications/i/item/con.
[iv]The Indian Express. 2020. “Returnees failing to undergo COVID-19 quarantine will be jailed: Manipur CM.” May 23. Accessed June 01, 2020. http://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/may/23/returnees-failing-to-undergo-covid-19quarantine-will-be-jailed-manipur-cm-2147051.html
[v] Frankl, Victor. (1946). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
[vi] Lennox, John. (2020). Where is God in a Coronovirus World?. Surrey: The Good Book Company.