This is an account of a student who has recovered from Covid-19. The name of the student has been withheld to protect her privacy.
I am an Indian student who has been studying towards a master’s degree at a university in the United Kingdom. I live in a hostel where students share a common kitchen while having separate rooms.
On March 3, I went out with my friends for dinner. From the next day I started developing symptoms of diarrhoea, which continued over the next few days. On March 7, I started developing a fever and cough. Since I was feeling very weak, I called my general practitioner, asking for an emergency appointment. Not getting any response, I called again the next day and the doctor finally agreed to conduct a stool test.
Simultaneously, I informed the nurse in the medical facility of my college about my illness. She asked me to contact the National Health Service. The NHS told me that there was no need to self-isolate because I did not have a travel history to coronavirus-affected areas and there was no evidence that I had come in contact with someone who had tested positive. I followed common sense and self-isolated myself anyway.
A day later, a hostel-mate informed me that he had developed a cough and fever after returning from India in late February but he had neither informed the college nor put himself through a test, judging the process to be too complicated.
I called the NHS again and they advised me to self-isolate. When I asked them to test me for Covid-19, they told me they would get back to me in 24 to 48 hours.
In the meantime, since I was self-isolating, the medical facility in my college began to serve me food: they would leave the packed meals outside my door. After waiting for more than 24 hours, I called the NHS again, this time the wait time to speak to someone was more than an hour. When the line was finally connected, I was told that a medical professional would call me back.
As I waited for the call from NHS, I became increasingly anxious, mulling my next move. The call never came. My diarrhoea was becoming worse. I sought an emergency appointment with the GP to enquire about the results of the stool test conducted earlier. He said it might take a week or two for the results to come and refused to prescribe me any medicine until then.
It was more than a week since the diarrhoea had started and I had already lost three kg. I called the college nurse again, informing her that the diarrhoea was aggravating and I was unable to eat, to which she replied: “An adult can survive 3-4 days without eating.” I had started developing body aches, which I mentioned to her, and was told to “take eight 500-mg paracetamol a day.”
Finding this symptomatic advice to be excessive, I called a practising doctor in India for advice. She did simple diagnostics through images I sent her and suggested medicines for diarrhoea.
Since my dizziness kept coming back, I called the NHS again and was directed to an emergency helpline number where I was told that they would not be able to test me for Covid-19 for the next seven days because my symptoms were “mild”.
I continued to follow the advice of the Indian doctor and slowly my condition improved. By March 13, I felt cured: my diarrhoea was gone, I had no other symptoms.
On March 16, I was advised by the college nurse to end my self-isolation. She asked me whether I had a relative in the UK whom I could stay with, but by then I was desperate to return to India. The Indian government had already announced a ban starting March 18 on all incoming flights into the country from the UK, Europe, and Turkey, so I immediately booked a flight to India and returned, reaching home hours before the ban came into force.
I thought the crisis was over – but this was the beginning of a fresh set of troubles.
Stigma in India
After returning from the UK, as instructed at the airport, I self-quarantined myself in a separate room at my parents’ home in a small town. At night, however, I developed a headache and slight cough – I decided to visit the local government hospital to get myself checked for Covid-19. My brother drove me in his private car and we both wore masks and gloves during the journey. Since the Covid-19 swab test was conducted on me, I was admitted to the hospital. As a precautionary step, I was given anti-flu medicine while the result of my test was awaited.
In the meantime, media organisations had already reported that I had tested positive for Covid-19. Several people had gathered outside our house in the evening and taken photographs of our house as well as my brother’s car. Via family WhatsApp groups, we came to know about messages being widely shared in the local community that identified me as a Covid-positive patient, but with wrong information about what had happened in the UK. Some messages were accompanied with the photos of another person. I do not know why people were circulating these fake messages, but my family and I found them extremely painful to deal with.
My family had already been quarantined at home. The results of my test were not communicated to me after they came out. I was put in an isolation ward, and the medical staff there started behaving badly with me, as if I was an untouchable person. Stigmatised, I found myself alone in a hospital, away from my family who were themselves facing an unnecessary barrage of misinformation, with no clear understanding of what exactly had happened to me.
Two days after I was admitted to the hospital, I was told I had tested positive for Covid-19.
The next few days went from hard to harder. I was given medicines but not told anything about them, despite repeatedly asking for more information. I started developing a rash on my body – which I later found out were mosquito bites. The diarrhoea returned and I was feeling extremely weak.
I was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit as a precautionary step. In the meantime, I was tested again, and the results of the test were again not communicated to me. In the evening, in the family WhatsApp groups, I came across an image of the test result showing negative against my name. But I had no means to verify the authenticity of the image.
The same doctor who had advised me over the phone when I was in the UK happened to be a friend of the director of this hospital. Hearing about the way I was being treated, this doctor complained to the director and I noticed a softening of behaviour among the medical personnel.
Two days later, I was told by an intern that along with probiotics, antibiotics, an anti-flu medicine, cough syrup and Vitamin C, I was being administered the drug hydroxychloroquine. I had never been informed about it – I was kept in the dark about my treatment plan. The doses of all the medicines were changed almost daily and the same intern informed me one day that hydroxychloroquine had been suddenly stopped as well. By then, my cough was gone, but diarrhoea and fatigue remained – as did stress over the opaque behaviour of the medical personnel.
The next day, my parents were told their samples had tested negative for the virus. I had been tested again but the results were not shared with me and my family. Over the course of my stay in the hospital, nasal and throat swabs were taken five times and blood samples were taken three times. Almost every time, the results were withheld from me.
When the fifth swab test came negative, the doctor finally discussed the results with me and I was shifted to another ward. The bed here was so uncomfortable, I could not sleep properly. There were mosquitoes. During the day, birds entered the ward – one got injured after being caught in the blades of the ceiling fan. A bat entered the ward one night.
In this ward, the mental harassment by the nursing staff resumed. When I asked for lighter food than what was served by the hospital canteen, once I was not given food at all, another time, they handed over the tray in a humiliating manner, with the food spilling over my bed. I was accused of “roaming around in the UK” – implying that I had been reckless somehow.
One day, I was asked to pack my bags to be discharged. But while I was doing so, the doctor stopped me – the discharge had not been authorised by a senior doctor. Such lack of communication between the personnel was common and infuriating.
As the 14th day of my quarantine approached, my parents turned anxious. The doctor who was treating me reassured them that they were keeping me informed. This was simply not true. It took a lot of effort to extract a response on WhatsApp from the head of the department about my discharge. The next day, I was released – I had never looked forward to going home so badly.
Now, I have completed another 14 days of home-quarantine. My health has recovered and I have been able to resume work on the thesis for my master’s degree. I registered a complaint with the director of my course in the UK about the neglect I faced there, for which I have received an apology.
But there is nothing that can make up for the stigma that I faced in my own country, in my own city, among my own people. I hope others are spared this trauma.
As told to Debdutta Paul