COVID-19 Stories: Quarantined in NYC – have we become pictures on a screen?

Jun 23, 2021 05:23 PM IST

The author Sambhavna Dhawan Khanna is a dentist based in New York City.

The author Sambhavna Dhawan Khanna is a dentist based in New York City.

Representational Image (Pixabay)
Representational Image (Pixabay)

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It was a regular weekday. I drove to work after dropping off my 5-year-old at school. It had been three months since I started my first job as an associate dentist at a very sought-after practice at an upmarket location in New York.

Things were busy; juggling with home and work which I was enjoying. It was almost after a decade of heavy labour, sweat and hard work that I was finally launching my career as a dental professional in America.

But seemed like god had other plans. Political undercurrents, COVID news and the new ‘China Virus’ was the talk of the town.

We were having meetings at the office regarding optional leave or sheltering in place.

Yes, a bulk of staff was scared - for themselves and their loved ones. A few were adventurous and agreed to keep working full time. They were still in denial, believing in conspiracy theories of this being a ploy only to control people.

Personally, my fear stemmed mostly due to the nature of my job, breathing aerosols, and braving through the splatter of aerosolized saliva all day long. Working in people’s mouths; there could be a possibility of carrying infection back home especially since this virus resided in the upper respiratory tract; I began to doubt my professional choices for a moment.

No! I did not want this confusion, denial, anxiety, and worry cloud my judgement. I was proud of my vocation, loved it and it was my job to cater to my patients.

But with a child at home and several weeks pregnant, it seemed like too much of a risk to handle and that was strictly reinforced by my doctor.

To ease my moral guilt, a shutdown of the entire company was declared the next day itself. We were all temporarily furloughed. Not how I expected my first job to swing along.

So, everything moved to home grounds. The dining room transformed into a home office for my husband, the kitchen became a ‘drive -thru Dunkin’ Donuts’ as we joked, virtual school shifted into the bedroom study and the living room became the gym. Yes, we did get new equipment after cancelling our regular gym membership.

Our afternoons would be spent watching the Governor’s live daily briefing and witnessing the wrath and fury of a virus that was destroying lives, families, and livelihoods across.

Daily stats of people falling ill and being hospitalized, nursing homes getting affected in waves, a scarcity of ventilators; all got documented and plotted as a daily death rate graph. It was extremely heart wrenching. Soon this became routine.

Panic buying and hoarding of hand sanitizers, daily essentials and water began. Online buying, home deliveries and curb side grocery pick-ups became the new normal.

No one ever thought that a ‘disposable mask’ would become something so essential and now so much a part of our daily lives; a personal protective equipment that could prevent death, a fashion accessory, an anti-tan skin protector (at least for me). Now a mandatory state requirement.

A subconscious sense of fear had entailed everyone as cases rose in number and panic struck in NY City. No one ever imagined there could be anything as catastrophic as what we saw. Was this a sad real-time sci-fi that would eventually have a happy ending or just media hype to scare people off? No, this stuff was real.

Something that would now be in the archives of history forever with more people dead than those in WW2, Korea and Vietnam all combined.

I started to reconnect with friends and family. Daily check- ins with fellow colleagues and friends in different parts. Everyone had their share of struggles and pains. Some had to work in the ER amid the peak pandemic, others had the luxury to work from home but had to move to a new location. Lots of people I knew got laid off with no hope of their jobs coming back at all. People in my industry were choosing alternate careers for good. My own assistant at work, also a physical trainer, started doing online training videos and now has a successful t-shirt printing business.

Lots of them switched tracks, those with kids became stay at home parents.

Streets got deserted as the lock down continued. People scared to be around people. Yes, a pleasant change for the birds and animals.

My parents insistently decided to pay a visit during the peak pandemic only to help me during post-partum. They were scared for me and so were coming over and I was scared for them and hence didn’t want them to come while risking their health. After discouraging them to travel during such unprecedented times, continuous deliberation and changing flights 3 times they finally arrived wearing a jump suit from head to toe. Quarantined for 2 weeks, while not even being able to exchange hugs we finally met. We didn’t let parents step out anywhere other than the short walks owing to the COVID scare and the heavy snow.

But the biggest challenge was to reach back home in India safely and get the vaccine on time only after which I took a sigh of relief. I wouldn’t deny that their presence around me was a big support and helped me tide over a tough phase, but also that I’ve never been so scared for them earlier before.

It has been over a year now, I’m vaccinated and resumed work, part time though; have a new baby, virtual school and work from home continues. Even being smothered with layers of PPE, drenched in sweat and gasping for breath, I am happy to be back with my dental tools and patients. Our office is different. We don’t carry anything while entering. The lunchroom is closed. Everyone eats lunch in their cars by themselves.

My daughter and most children haven’t had a normal childhood ever since. She does play more in the backyard now socially isolated with selected friends. Yes the tide settled in this part of the world, but the worse was what we are witnessing now. A year back was just the tip on an iceberg.

My country is in shambles. My city is collapsing. The systems are far from being poorly functional. And that is when it hit me the most. A leader in pharmaceuticals and public health we are failing as a nation.

The anxiety and fear of family and friends not being safe, vaccines being inaccessible, dearth of beds and oxygen (for god’s sake). This was way beyond the worse. Just when the world complimented India for good disaster management during the first covid wave, actual disaster has struck and this time with a true vengeance.

Both my husband and I together have been living in 2 time zones since months now trying to stay connected with our families. Days that started with skimming through random funny forwards and happy texts on wats app groups are now replaced with frantic texts of friends asking and sharing contacts of oxygen suppliers, plasma donors, hospital beds for their loved ones.

With our own family members being struck with the virus too, it is the most distressing not being able to be there for them. My days go by researching about concentrators and oxygen cans and how they could be sent to India. I feel so helpless. An emotional rollercoaster that most of us have been riding on since over a year now must stop now.

At times I detest myself for being this far and it does inspire some life choice reassessments. Being just a picture on the computer screen! But then this disease is ‘isolating’ in the true sense. And anyone even living across the street would probably be in the same state as mine: “Just a picture on the computer screen.”

I pray for the safety and good health of family, friends and fellow Indians and hope that we could come out of this health care crisis soon.

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The views expressed are personal.

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