In the 18 years of our relationship, I must confess, the past one month has been the longest time that my partner and I have actually spent together 24x7 in our beautiful home at Bandra (West) in Mumbai. My better-half is a neurologist and I am a journalist-cum-writer. Like all old happy couples, we argue over small things (news reports, laundry, food, bills, AC temperature --thankfully no TV in our home) but eventually kiss and make up over food, booze and sex (which unfortunately has gone for a toss due to this damn coronavirus social distancing).
At the outset let me tell you that we have been home quarantined thrice. The first time was after we returned from London on March 12. Although we did not show any Covid-19 symptoms, they asked us to remain in home quarantine for 14 days, as per government rules.
Our second quarantine was when my partner was checking a patient with dementia, who tested Covid +ve. All the 15 doctors and nurses from the hospital who attended on the patient were asked to remain in home quarantine for the next 14 days. The health officials took their swabs. Sigh! I cooked chicken biryani the next day in celebration when the swabs returned negative and we both downed a can of beer each.
But our joy was short-lived when in the evening we learnt that our building’s security guard had tested positive. This time it was not just home quarantine. Our entire building was marked as a containment zone. Simply put, nobody could enter or exit the building for 14 days. “Oh, damn. Now we are stuck for another 15 days,” said my partner. I just shrugged.
I still remember vividly that it was April 15. We were enjoying the cool summer breeze, watching the sun set on the shimmering Arabian Sea from our balcony, when a WhatsApp message popped up on my housing society’s group: “Our building watchman has tested Covid+ve. He is admitted at Bhabha hospital.”
It took me a few seconds to understand what had hit us. Suddenly, all the popular search words of 2020, “Covid+ve”, “lockdown”, “hotspots”, “containment zones”, “Corona symptoms”, “staycation” that I searched on the Internet were now playing scrabble outside my door.
Worse still, the daily news reports sent a chill down the spine. Mumbai has the highest number of Covid-19 cases in India. According to Ministry of Health and Family Welfare data, the total number of coronavirus patients in Maharashtra has touched 15,000. Mumbai alone has over 9,500 coronavirus patients. The government has already extended the lockdown curbs till May 17. By mid-April, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had already marked out 400-odd containment zones across Mumbai.
From the time we learned of the coronavirus outbreak in Mumbai, our daily routine had changed drastically. After the second scare, my partner moved into a separate bedroom at the far end of the apartment. We paid full salaries to our domestic helps and told them to stay in their respective homes until the lockdown ends. We also assured them that their jobs were safe. Now, I venture out once a week to buy groceries. I wear disposable masks and gloves outside the house, sanitise the car’s steering and wash my hands with soap and water. We launder clothes and bed linen at 60 degrees Celsius.
But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that it is in time of crisis that good leaders emerge. Within 15 minutes, the residents of my building formed a new WhatsApp group that included new tenants. We quickly messaged the 60-odd residents staying in the 15-storey building not to panic. A Zoom meeting was set up in 30 minutes and we chalked out a contingency plan. I must mention here that like all housing societies, mine too is riddled with byzantine politics and some old and new members are at loggerheads, but for once we were all on the same page – ready to tackle this crisis.
All in a day’s work
A tech savvy resident organised the Zoom meeting, while another informed the BMC authorities about our watchman. Frankly, none of us knew how to handle an unprecedented situation like this one. However, we had one thing in common – fear, vulnerability and, most important, the spirit to face all challenges together as a team. Even before the BMC authorities swung into action, we quickly informed our building security guards to close the two main gates. We asked all the residents residing in the 21 apartments to strictly adhere to home quarantine and social distancing norms. We requested every family to check if anybody was exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19 – cold, cough, high fever, body ache, breathlessness, loss of taste and smell, diarrhoea, etc.
Like most cities, in Mumbai too, people dwelling in these modern high-rise apartments hardly bother to check on their neighours. You could blame it on the muggy weather, fast-paced life and daily work pressure that sap energy. And we were no exception. It was interesting to know that my building is a potpourri of doctors, media persons, hairdressers, professors, homemakers and biggies from Bollywood.
Despite being short-staffed and working 24x7, the BMC staff reached our building within 45 minutes and put up a Containment Zone poster at the gate. All this while, doctors and journalists who were covering this pandemic were considered as the new “social pariahs”, now my entire building had become a “No Go” zone. That night, I was mentally and physically exhausted. I had a cold shower, listened to some smooth jazz and gulped down my gin and tonic. The only saving grace was an excellent supper of chicken-chorizo stew fixed by my partner.
Men at work
The next day, photos of my building were doing the rounds on WhatsApp. A few concerned friends called to check on us. People staying in the adjoining buildings stood in their balconies and stared at our building. Some clicked photographs with their cell phones. We had suddenly become the cynosure of all eyes.
The BMC’s Covid team comprising a doctor, local area ward officer and a social worker reached our building around 10.30 am. They sought information of all the people who were in proximity to the affected watchman. They sought details of every resident (age, medical condition if any, contact details). Two people from my building collated the information on an excel sheet within two hours. We sent the excel sheet to the BMC ward officer. After two days, the BMC’s Covid team called every household in our building again to check if anybody was showing symptoms of Covid-19. Luckily nobody else had been affected so far.
The first few days in containment were a little tough as some senior citizens from the society insisted on going out for their regular brisk walk and purchase of fresh fruits, curd and milk. “I need fresh bananas and milk daily,” said an old resident. However, one had to cajole and tell him that nobody was allowed to step out of the building for the next two weeks.
The milkman, vegetables vendors who earlier waltzed in and out of the building, now stood suspiciously at the gate. Some vendors left essential goods at the gate and watched us from far. But there were some who were kind to enough to wear masks, gloves, maintain social distance and hand over the essential items over the gate. The lockdown had already sent prices of essential goods through the roof, the containment of our building took the price war to a new level. Some vendors started to levy “special charges” as our building was a containment zone.
To ensure everybody strictly adhered to the containment guidelines it was decided that only one or two persons (preferably youngsters) would go to fetch the daily essential deliveries from the vendor over the gate. A few people volunteered to collect milk packets from the milkman and distribute it in the morning. Ditto for bread, eggs and vegetables. Since the three watchmen could not leave our building, we procured essential items like milk, vegetable and groceries for them as well.
People shared jokes, videos and easy-to-cook recipes on the society’s WhatsApp group during the containment. We even celebrated birthdays of two residents via a Zoom meeting and WhatsApp greetings. One night, around 11 pm, I heard an owl hoot outside the bedroom window. I opened the large French windows of the bedroom and whistled in the dark, but there was no response. Sometimes it takes silence to hear others!
As the days of containment reached an uncertain finale, some residents suggested we all party hard once things returned to normal. We all replied in the affirmative but nobody knew what would be the new “normal.” On April 29 at 4.35 pm, the BMC Covid team came and removed the “Containment Zone” poster from our gate. I thanked the BMC officers for their support. I clicked a photograph of the building from outside and shared on the group: “Hi All, BMC has “Released” our building right now. Cheers!” Within few seconds, the WhatsApp group was flooded with happy emojis. Everybody heaved a sigh of relief, but knew deep down that we are still in for a long haul!