Annus horribilis: Maharashtra’s first Covid-19 patient recalls ordeal
On March 9, 2020, when the rest of India was readying for Holi, the festival of colours, a Pune-based middle-aged couple that had returned from Dubai a week ago after celebrating their wedding anniversary, tested positive for Covid-19. They were the first two persons in Maharashtra to be infected by the disease that soon became a global pandemic.
They were not alone. Most of the nearly 40 people who had travelled with them in a group tested positive. The taxi driver who ferried them from Mumbai airport to their Pune home tested positive, and the next day, so did their daughter. Almost a year later, Maharashtra has recorded 2,155,070 cases, the highest for any state in India.
It’s been an exhausting year for the Awati family, the husband Jivandhar (52) said over telephone from Jaipur where he had travelled for official work. “It is only now that our lives are getting back on track. I have resumed my work and physically and mentally I have completely recovered.” His family members declined to be named or interviewed for this story.
After the Awatis tested positive, the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) sealed all areas in a 3-km radius, a move that scared many and contributed to the Awatis being blamed on social media for bringing the coronavirus into the city.
Their videos and personal information were uploaded on WhatsApp groups and other social media channels. “At this time,” the family said, “doctors and other staff at Naidu hospital were more than helpful to us, as were our relatives.”
For both the couple and their daughter, March 2020 began with anxiety and fear, and it is only now – a year later – there is some semblance of relief.
“The last 12 months have been the same for us as for everyone,” Awati, an engineer with a private firm, said. “We also faced a strict lockdown, but we were the first family to test positive. Unfortunately, the media and government’s spotlight was on us.”
In an earlier interview to this newspaper in October 2020, a family member had said they had stopped watching news on television. “All we want is to look forward to a better life. A simple wedding anniversary trip turned into a nightmare.”
Awati, a trained wrestler, said no one in the family faced any post-recovery complications. “We were always physically fit. I was a wrestler in my younger days. This helped a lot.”
The Maharashtra health department was flummoxed when the first cases came to light. There was no established treatment protocol, and the only document they had was a list of guidelines from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). “It was a new virus, and nobody knew much. As days passed, doctors began offering concrete treatment,” said Dr Subhash Salunkhe, who chairs the Maharashtra Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Technical Committee.
According to Dr Sudhir Patsute, medical superintendent, Dr Naidu Infectious Diseases Hospital, “These patients (the Awatis) were physically fit and had mild symptoms. We gave them antivirals, antibiotics, paracetamol tablets and cough syrup, which was enough. They were discharged on March 25 after a 14-day isolation. They had tested negative twice. If a patient comes to us with the same condition today, they would probably be suggested home isolation. Since the Awatis were the first case, we took it seriously.”
India’s first case of Covid-19 was detected in Kerala on January 30, 2020, but India did not introduce airport restriction or testing protocols until the third week of March. At Mumbai airport alone, 43,000 passengers would pass through every day without being checked.
The Awatis landed in Mumbai on March 2 and soon developed mild symptoms like cough and fever. Even before the test results could come out on March 9, the couple was isolated at PMC’s Naidu infection control hospital. In addition to being distraught by the news of their daughter being infected, the couple faced sharp and sometimes rude questions from the media and acquaintances.
“Within days, all our personal details including phone numbers and addresses were out through mainstream media and WhatsApp. We got calls from random people asking us details and a local newspaper also put out our address which added to our distress,” said Awati. “My family saw the video and read the comments below it. Many blamed us for the Covid outbreak in the state. In addition to fighting such a deadly virus we had to fight this too,” said Awati.
The episode made him afraid of even coming out of the house. “People who knew us supported us. My family and my housing society neighbours helped us. We even got calls from politicians asking for our wellbeing. Now, we want to avoid all questions and just move on.”