The Point to the Panic

Time capsule from an Indian hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic 

~Dr. Shivangi Shankar 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Kidding, it was the worst. 

Before the  dawn of  COVID-19, healthcare workers(HCW) and essential service providers went about their lives knowing that no one cared.  There were shortages in hospitals, an overload of patients, a risk of contracting disease, mayhem in the name of protocol… the usual. 

The Ayammas would shuttle patients to and from the scanning centre to the ward with (sometimes, at least) a single pair of gloves, irrespective of HIV, HbsAg status. They’d be sneezed, puked, bled and peed around and sure, they’d be annoyed but that was it. They’d go on about their day, unprotected. 

Then the pandemic happened.  

There was heightened awareness regarding vulnerability inside a hospital. No one knew where the disease would come from, so everyone developed personal protocols: History-taking from a meter’s distance, surgical masks on at all times, refusal to wear jewellery and watches to work and repeated handwashing. HCWs still knew no one cared but were now more scared, so they tried. They walked up to their overlords and asked for a little protection and the overlords said, “hmmm”. 

Some naive HCWs demanded complete PPE,  despite their own saviour complex(or perhaps because of it). The overlords understood, the Gods were not happy.  So they organised prayer services, chanted hymns, rang bells(and plates) and showered the Gods with flowers.  The only problem- these Gods were not imaginary. They’d have loved to bless the overlords and the people but they couldn’t because as always is the case, humans are not Gods. They played along though, said, “Thank you.” and after the entire schtick, HCWs meekly asked, “okay but where is the PPE?” The overlords said, “Hmmm.”

Some HCWs read articles and wore self-procured masks. Some only skimmed through, so they washed their N95 masks(the ones who had them, anyway) with alcohol. Some realised that journals were also a little lost at that point and did nothing. Some  hoarded antimalarials for prophylaxis. (And blamed the populace for their naive belief in unproven miracles). 

HCWs crowdfunded,  hustled and procured N95 masks. They didn’t know how long to use them, when they would receive another or that the masks were not to be touched after donning. Or they knew and didn’t care, or they really needed to scratch their nose and forgot that COVID-19 was infectious.  

The Ayamma didn’t read articles. She donned the mask that was supposed to be better.  No one told her how to doff it. Truth be told,  they didn’t tell her how to don it either. So, she’d turn up to work in a layered mask worn inside out, washed beyond saving. Her mask had no nose clip so it would hang a little below her nose. Coveralls were a distant dream, so she didn’t dream it. Also because she didn’t know what coveralls were. 

It wouldn’t feel like it but COVID-19 wasn’t the disease, it was a disease. People continued to die of regular things like stroke and sepsis, hospitals had always been high risk zones and shortages have been an unchanging reality. Was there a point to the panic then? 

For starters, it got the overlords’ attention(hmmm). It  taught an intern that scientists, too, hope for miracles sometimes and that it’s important to verify miracles, too, because well, it’s science. It opened up the possibility of protocols being established in Indian hospitals. If only they’d include Ayammas in the ambit, too. 

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