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What being a suspected COVID-19 patient taught me

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I returned to Pakistan on March 10, 2020, before things started to get locked up for the coronavirus. I was a resident of UAE but had to leave because my residential visa had expired. Till now travel bans had not been imposed and I was quite satisfied as I was not showing any symptoms and had not yet learned that one can be asymptomatic while being a carrier. It was business as usual at the Sharjah airport but there was a thin veil of fear in everyone’s eyes and I too found myself using a hand sanitizer repeatedly. None of the passengers were wearing protective masks yet. I made it to the plane and was handed a customary health and travel history form. It was assumed that a screening will be awaiting us at the Karachi airport because the coronavirus had started gradually spreading in Pakistan as well. But there was none, in fact, the airport was just as crowded, as were the streets and Karachi was hustling and bustling just like I had left it. I was extremely happy to see my entire family, consisting of my elderly parents, siblings and their children, waiting at home for me. Educational institutes were closed but no other means of social distancing had been employed or encouraged yet and I proceeded to drown myself in the company of friends and family. Here is a brief timeline of my activities from the day I started meeting extended family and friends to the day I received a message from the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) Sindh that put me through a roller coaster of emotions. March 12, 2020: I visited my cousin’s place to congratulate him on the birth of his baby. My mum accompanied me and we met other relatives there as well. Since the Pakistan Super League matches were in full swing, it took us two hours to cover half an hour’s distance because we were near the National Stadium. March 14, 2020: Four days after I arrived, my sister invited me for dinner. I decided to be thoughtful and stopped at a busy bakery to pick up cake for dessert. March 16, 2020: This day, I met the most people that I had since coming to the city. I started the day by going to Karachi University to submit my examination form as their administrative offices were still open. There alone interacted with people in the administrative block, at a bank in the vicinity and also at my former department, where I not only met teachers but also a dear friend. My cousin, whose baby I had visited earlier in the week, was hosting an aqiqah ceremony for the new born the same day so after wrapping up my errands at the university, I joined the rest of my family at his house. We were about 50 people of all ages, ranging from the week old baby to my elderly father who is 67. March 17, 2020: A week after my arrival I got a message from PDMA Sindh, saying:

Assalam o Alaikum Sidra Adnan, as you have traveled during last 14 days to Pakistan you are advised to remain at your home strictly for 14 days; and if you develop cough, fever, body ache or shortness of breath during these 14 days, immediately isolate yourself and make a call to Corona Virus Control Room at 021-9920xxxxor 021-9920xxxx or 0316-011xxxx. A team of Health Department shall attend you at your doorstep for the screening of COVID-19.This public message is issued in the best interest of your health, family and loved ones.”
The words ‘remain at your home strictly for 14 days’ were like somebody had dropped a bomb on me, because that was the only thing that I had not done since I had returned to the country. Sick with worry, I immediately dialled the numbers sent to me in the text but the line was busy. After a couple of tries, I got through and gave my travel history, while telling them that I was not feeling ill or showing any symptoms, wondering if I should get tested. I was told that since I had no symptoms I was not eligible to be tested but I should stay at home for the next few days. March 18, 2020: The very next day I woke up with an irritation in my throat and flu-like symptoms. As the day progressed, my temperature climbed and I was feeling fatigued. By the evening, I had gotten so ill that I could barely walk and the only positive sign was the absence of a cough. I feared the worst but decided to be sensible and called the coronavirus control room again to explain my condition. I received a profound and rapid response from the other side. The representative took my details including my home address and asked me to isolate myself immediately, which I did. Then the District Health Communication support officer contacted me and told me to get tested for COVID-19 either at Dow University Hospital (Ojha Camp) or the Agha Khan University Hospital (AKUH). He also suggested that I go to AKUH, charging approximately Rs10,000, for the test  instead of Ojha Campus because it was flooded as tests were being conducted nearly free of cost. Understanding that waiting at Ojha Campus may not be an option for me, owing to my health, I decided to bite the bullet and go to AKUH. My brother and I reached the AKUH Coronavirus Centre at around 11pm and were greeted by a full waiting room. Over a 100 suspected COVID-19 patients were awaiting their turn to be tested. After the initial process, we were told that we would have to wait for at least three hours or more. Deciding that it will be safer to wait at home, we went home and came back early next morning. But not before being reassured by the district health officer at midnight that if I am not tested at AKUH by 6am, he will arrange for a screening at my house. He also said that his team would have conducted a test earlier but they had a limited number of kits. March 19, 2020: The dawn at AKUH was silent and gloomy, or that is how it seemed to me at least. We reported to the emergency screening desk and I got my first bit of good news, the doctors said my symptoms had settled and were milder than they were last night. It was still necessary to test me, owing to my travel history. I was led inside after all formal requirements were fulfilled, where the physician on duty conducted a nasopharyngeal swab test, which basically consists of a swab going uncomfortably deep into your nose. He also told me to isolate myself completely until the test results come in 24 hours later. The Sindh government official was just as worried as we were, evident by an early morning text message from him, inquiring about the screening. After I informed him that a test has been conducted and I am going into complete isolation, he wished me the best. The period of self-isolation was one of the scariest experiences of my life. The imminent test results were stressing me out. I couldn’t help but think, what if I was positive? What havoc did I wreak on society? I had flashbacks of all the places I had been to and the people I had met. Such sentiments were making self-isolation even more difficult. As worried as my family and I were, we did not feel alone and the Sindh government stood beside us, every step of the way. I had been continuously receiving calls from the doctors assigned by the local bodies, asking about my symptoms, and briefing me about correct ways to isolate and how to be cautious during this time. March 20, 2020: I got a call from my brother-in-law at around 7:30 am, saying that the website shows that the reports can be collected. My brother immediately rushed to AKUH to bring back the coveted envelope containing my test results. We opened it with trembling hands but thank God I tested negative for the coronavirus and did not have COVID-19. I immediately forwarded the report to the district health department and they too breathed a sigh relief. My time as someone suspected to have COVID-19 was very scary and I hope we all stay safe and home in these unprecedented times.

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