NEW DELHI— Fifty-four-year-old caregiver Parul only wanted to make sure that her fever and headache did not mean that she was infected by the novel coronavirus when she went for a check up to the Muawin hospital in Vadodara, Gujarat.
But her visit would trigger a sequence of events that would put her, her family, and an ageing couple she looked after, through several weeks of social censure, and prejudice that are likely to become all too common as the novel coronavirus continues its march across the country.
In the past few weeks, urban Gujarat has been particularly hard hit by the novel coronavirus, with the state accounting for at least 8903 cases, the third highest number of cases after Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. At 537, the state also has the second highest number of deaths after Maharashtra, as per union health ministry data till May 13. As state governments across the country contemplate a gradual easing of lockdown restrictions, the Gujarat government has sought to tighten the rules in a bid to contain the transmission of the virus.
As more and more people are likely to catch COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, aggressive containment measures will mean enforced quarantines prompted by chance encounters, and the ensuring bitterness and victim-blaming, are likely to embed themselves in India’s fissured social fabric and exacerbate existing faultlines of class, caste and religion.
HuffPost India spoke with Parul, the caregiver, Chandani, her daughter, and referred to a written account by the daughter about the incident to piece together one such account.
When Parul visited the Muavin hospital on April 3, she had been working as a nurse and caregiver for several years. Of late, she was looking after a seventy year old woman who was suffering from paralysis. Five days later, she was at her employer’s house, when representatives of the Vadodara Municipal Corporation visited her house in Harinagar where her daughter, husband, son-in-law and infant grandson were present.
The corporation staffer informed her daughter and other family members that the doctor Parul had visited had tested positive for coronavirus and so they were putting all those who came in contact with him under home quarantine. As Parul was at her employer’s house, their home was also put under quarantine.
Given a choice of which house she could quarantine herself in, Parul chose to stay with her employers to look after the old lady in her care.
The municipal corporation officials went back to Parul’s home in the Hari Nagar neighbourhood, and unwittingly inaugurated the troubles of the family.
“They stuck the red sticker of ‘home quarantine’ on the main door of our house. The sticker read ‘No one should meet the members of this house nor should these members go out of this house’- April 08 to April 22, 2020,” her daughter Chandani wrote in a note for Sahej, a non-profit organisation which helped the family during this time.
The mother of a three year old boy further mentioned in this note, which was shared with HuffPost India, that, “Our neighbours gathered seeing this board and the vehicle and started inquiring. We explained to them. As soon as they heard that the doctor who treated my mother was detected as corona positive, their attitude changed.”
Chandani shared the house quarantine sticker pasted by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation she mentions in her account with this reporter. While it does not exactly say what Chandani records in her recollections, it can certainly appear to imply that to curious onlookers and outsiders alike.
They shut the doors if they saw any of us. I cried a lot. Every one of us was tense.Chandani, resident of Harinagar, Vadodara
The resident of Harinagar said the family’s neighbours stopped speaking with them. “They shut the doors if they saw any of us. I cried a lot. Every one of us was tense,” she said. “I was scared for my son who is just three years old. I was anxious whether they would take us to the hospital and what else they would do to us. We lost our appetite.”
The next day, two Gujarati newspapers printed their names and addresses and identified them as one of the families which was put under home quarantine. “The names of all families who were put under home quarantine had been revealed in newspapers. We started getting calls with people asking what happened and how?” Chandani told HuffPost India.
QUARANTINE NOTICE SPARKED HOSTILITY FROM NEIGHBOURS
The public disclosure in newspapers of the family being under quarantine also alerted more people in the neighbourhood who started calling them. But it was the notice on their front door, Chandani said, that sparked the most hostility.
“Nobody had seen something like this before. After it was put up, there were rumours that all people in the house are infected by coronavirus,” Parul recalled. “Since my mother wasn’t here, people presumed that she was in the hospital and they would come up and ask me about her. One person speculated that she had died.”
When her cousin stepped out to buy milk for the family, her neighbours rounded on him, Chandani said.
“One of them shouted at him and asked him where he was going,” she said. “My brother was scared. He came back home without the milk.”
The 28-year-old also recalled that everybody’s behaviour in Harinagar changed towards the family. Things got so grave that even the family’s access to their daily source of drinking water was prohibited. “Our RO has been out of order for some days. I used to jump to the other side of the fence into the neighbouring colony to fill the drinking water. But when the residents of this colony came to know of our quarantine status, they closed the area of my entrance into their colony,” said Chandani.
If the mother of a three-year-old boy was dealing with fresh challenges while living through the quarantine, her mother Parul had her own issues to face. The 70-year-old woman she was nursing fell ill on the ninth day of the quarantine and had to be taken to a government hospital after a private hospital denied her treatment.
When they tested her for coronavirus, it was confirmed that the old lady was indeed infected by the deadly virus. Much to Parul’s chagrin, her employer blamed her for this. At the time, it seemed plausible as well. After all, the caregiver had come in direct contact with the doctor who was found to have been infected. But, when the test results came back, they confirmed that she was not infected.
“The employer said it was because of me. I felt very sad at the time,” recalled Parul. Worse, officials from the municipal corporation extended the home quarantine by another two weeks. “The corporation staff came with the police this time. They removed the old ‘home quarantine’ sticker and put a new one which read ’This house will remain closed from 08/04/2020 to 30/04/2020. Once again, the neighbours started inquiring,” notes Chandani in her note.
For most of the quarantine period, Chandani said, corporation employees stopped by to check if any of the family members was showing any signs of having contracted coronavirus. But they did not ask if the household has enough supplies of ration and other essentials. The family had to rely on support from NGOs like Sahaj and a handful of well wishers in the locality who chose to ignore the virtual social boycott imposed by other households on theirs and supply them with essentials.
We told the corporation officials that there is a three year old child in our home. You have put this board so neighbours were shutting their doors on us. We told our neighbours so many times to get us vegetables, milk but nobody got us these things.Fifty four year old caregiver Parul
The family is now out of the home quarantine but the bitter experiences are far from forgotten and relationships with neighbours have been damaged.
As Parul remarked while speaking with this reporter, “We told the corporation officials that there is a three year old child in our home. You have put this board so neighbours were shutting their doors on us. We told our neighbours so many times to get us vegetables, milk but nobody got us these things.” Though things have eased significantly now for the family, the fifty four year old said relationships with neighbours and others in the locality remain unresolved. “Now they talk to us but we have reduced talking to them because when we were going through so many problems, they didn’t support us. If someone calls us we say, yes, alright but after this happened, there is sadness in the heart. They could have at least given us vegetables and milk from a distance when we asked them,” she said.