Despite my sisters' and uncle's families as well as adjacent neighbours suffering Covid infection in the first 2020 wave requiring hospitalization and intensive care, overall, we had ridden out the crisis without serious consequences. My 90-year-old mother and I had received our first jab of Indian vaccine for senior citizens above 65 years on 10th of March 2021 and my son had the Chinese one for those under 50 about a month later. My wife, however, fell between two stools – too young for the Indian and too old for the Chinese jabs.
Life had started to return to normal, we felt fairly safe and I was able to take my masked evening constitutional around Patan while offices I was associated with had resumed doing field work. A junior colleague checked into a hospital for minor surgery but tested positive for Covid and was sent home into isolation. She had no symptoms for all of two weeks of home isolation, nor did her family members test positive. Life seemed normal. My last field visit was to Hetauda, interacting with the municipality on our ongoing work on water-induced disasters and the need for the municipality to begin its planning with a systemic water balance study. My colleague and I flew back to Kathmandu from Simara on 20th April.
The infection surge in India was already on, but authorities in Kathmandu were reluctant to impose another lockdown as the economy had started its recovery to normalcy. Ten days after we were back in Kathmandu on 29th April, lockdown was imposed in Kathmandu after a massive surge in infection cases. On this day, I developed symptoms of what I considered was normal cold, my colleague with whom I had travelled to Hetauda having developed it a couple of days earlier. By 2nd of May, I had recovered and felt quite normal but the rest of my family began to show cold symptoms. However, we were warned that it was not a flu season and that we should get a Covid PCR test, which we did on 4th May. All of us tested positive except our domestic help who tested negative and whom we sent home.
On the evening of the 5th of May, I developed high fever (103°F) and low oxygen level. I was rushed to hospital where I spent a night and much of the next day in its emergency with supplemental oxygen and medication, some of it directly into the veins. I was then shifted to an intensive care ward, and soon did not require supplemental oxygen while the fever took a few more days to come down. On 11th May evening, the day after prime minister Oli lost his vote support in parliament, I was deemed fit enough to be discharged.
At home, although the rest of the family developed relatively mild fever and both wife and mother had to be taken to hospital for chest X-ray and scans, they suffered no high fever or precipitous drop in oxygen levels and hence did not require hospitalization, only medication at home. A further PCR test on 20th May found us cleared of Covid, which doctors said was what would obviously happen two weeks after infection. My mother's cough persisted for a bit longer, possibly due to age.
We have to thank Merciful Providence, and good medical help with support from family and friends, for being fortunate to avoid the worst-case scenario. Friends of friends and relatives of relatives have not been so lucky; and almost everyday we do get some bad news. The last one as I write this was Nepal's bright young political star Ujjwal Thapa, who held the promise of an alternative clean politics, tragically passing away.
I had written three pieces previously in this magazine related to Covid. The first was in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic where I argued that the model of Loktantrick governance we had adopted was failing the country in its hour of need. The second was in May 2020where the political quagmire was examined further to show that the federal structure we had adopted had simply not worked to manage the crisis, but was instead a resource-sucking black hole. And thethird was in September 2020that was a philosophically more critical piece where I looked at the uncertainties behind Covid science and its practice.
In this piece, I am opting for a very personal reflection, first my own and then my family's. This second wave Covid is almost reminiscent of Biblical plagues and pestilence that strike without warning and at a mass scale. It has hit those who have stayed very isolated and observed all the protocols, but it has spared some of those who have gone about more or less with normal everyday work. It has not spared even those who were vaccinated, although the going opinion is that having one jab earlier must have had an ameliorating effect.
Having been rushed to the hospital in the early stage of oxygen loss and high fever, the first few days were a kind of stupor, possibly due to all the medicine being pumped into me. The emotional terror hit only after recovery started. The ward was 24-hour white lit and completely isolated with no natural light, impossible to tell if it was night or day, since I did not have my watch or mobile with me. One would wonder what prisoner cells in Abu Gharib must have been like. No visitors from home or friends could come to see me, and the doctors and nurses were covered head to toe in protective gear with only eyes visible behind glasses and visor. There were moments when they seemed like white-and-blue angels for all the care they showered on us. One nurse told me she had earlier spent 17 days as a Covid patient in the bed next to mine, but then here she was running around doing 16-hour duty looking after two wards. At other times, when feverish and worried if this was it, the final moments, I could not help wondering if these were really Yamadoots come to take me to the other shore!
Worry about what was happening at home was another wrenching issue. They also had been infected: what was happening to them? It was only when I got my mobile phone days later and was able to talk to them that I could calm down. But it was not the same with my family: unlike a hospitalization in normal times with say a heart attack or something similar where you could visit your patient, in the Covid case, the family had to live with total uncertainty, even as they were coping with their own infection. Was I really recovering or getting worse? Would they ever see me again?
Of course, like everybody, one suppresses these nasty thoughts but they do live inside the body emotional with consequences for the body physical. A few days after I had returned home, my son woke up in terror from a bad dream. He saw his late maternal grandfather walk into our living room and ask where I was since he had come to pick me up! One could talk (and even laugh) about it and rationalize it over breakfast as suppressed emotional fear playing out in the dream stage; but I shudder to imagine what the state of my family would have been if he had seen this dream when I was still in hospital!
Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras and Kapila in his foundational Samkhya philosophy maintain that one is made up of five bodies in sheaths inside each other, much like those Russian dolls: annamaya kosh, the outer "food body" centered on the muladhar chakra at the base of the spine; pranamaya kosh, the body of vital forces at themanipura (navel) chakra; manomaya kosh, the mental-emotional body at the anahat (heart)chakra; vigyanamaya kosh, the discriminative wisdom body at the aagya chakra between the eyebrows; and finally the anandamaya kosh, the bliss-filled body at the sahasraracrown chakra.
Unlike other diseases that attack the "food body" (say a fungus attacking the skin), this version of Covid seems to attack the pranamaya vital body with sudden viral pneumonia attacking the lungs and its oxygen intake capacity. And then there is a cascading effect: the heart has to pump more to make up the difference, the kidneys have to keep the blood even cleaner to carry more oxygen and so on. If these organs are weak because of pre-existing conditions or even age, it quickly becomes a negative feedback downward spiral. Unlike the materialistic Western reductionist approach that tries to build an understanding of complex life processes from the "food body" upwards, Patanjali, Kapila and other Eastern thinkers explain the human body more holistically from the inside outwards. This is where what Schopenhauer called the Will, and what Eastern philosophers have called Icchya Shaktiand its condition in the manomaya kosh, probably matters in explaining how recovery occurs in some but not in others, despite the same medicine being administered.
One positive result of surviving this ordeal has been that it has forced me to re-focus on important things to do in the days ahead and incidental or frivolous ones to avoid. Hopefully, it won't be a temporary thing!