Straight from a survivor

Updated: May 16, 2020, 09:12 IST | Sukanya Datta | Mumbai

A new podcast narrates the story of how one of Bhopal's first COVID-19 patients recovered. She speaks to The Guide about staying positive and dealing with fake news and stigma

A doodle Gunjan Saxena made during the time, apart from reading, writing and working on her class presentations
A doodle Gunjan Saxena made during the time, apart from reading, writing and working on her class presentations

Although law student Gunjan Saxena was reluctant to travel from London, she did so on March 17, a day before India shut its airspace for UK flights on March 18. She hadn't seen her family in over six months, but when she arrived home, Saxena headed straight to the guest room to quarantine herself, without being able to even hug her mother. However, she started displaying mild symptoms on March 21, and before she knew it, she was the first to test positive in Bhopal. What is it like to experience and survive a deadly disease? Podcasting platform Suno India's new episode deep-dives into Saxena's recovery process. In an interview with us, the 27-year-old shares what kept her going, and why Indians don't need another reason to further discriminate among each other.
Edited excerpts.

What kind of symptoms did you experience initially, and how bad did it get eventually?

I was fine the first few days, but on March 21, I woke up with a sore throat and a mild chest pain, something I hadn't experienced before. Because of my travel history, my sample was taken. Scared that I might infect others, I moved to our farm house, only to be taken away to the quarantine facility the next day, when I tested positive.

Honestly, it all happened too quickly. My vitals were nearly stable in the first two to three days, but later, my temperature shot up and there was a lot of head and body ache. There was severe chest congestion and cough. That was scary, but I had read up enough to know that one has to ride it out. I was at the quarantine centre for 13 days, and in the last four days, I recovered fully.

Your father also tested positive within days. How did both of you cope?

When I heard that my father also tested positive, I was heartbroken, because my worst fear had come true. It was odd because I had maintained more than six-foot distance from all family members. But later, my father said that after I had left, he had gone into the room to collect my documents before sanitising the place. Maybe, that's how he got it. Thankfully, he didn't suffer much despite his age. We were in the same facility, on opposite sides of a large room, so it was comforting.

What was the most challenging part of the recovery process?

More than the disease, what really impacted me was the sheer amount of fake news and stigma. Even before I reached the quarantine centre, a local newspaper had published that I tested positive. People dug up old photos of me and my friends. Random forwards did the rounds, claiming I chilled with my friends after travelling from London, and that someone who 'parties' will contract the disease. I was taken aback at the slander. I was even referred to as the 'Corona girl'. It was hurtful for my family members, especially my father, who is a senior journalist.

Gunjan Saxena and her father spent around 13 days at a quarantine centre in Bhopal; (top) a doodle she made during the time, apart from reading, writing and working on her class presentations
Gunjan Saxena and her father spent around 13 days at a quarantine centre in Bhopal

On one of the days, someone sent a message saying I was in a near-death situation and my mother freaked out. In the first few days of the lockdown, no one in my area was willing to deliver essentials to her. One of my neighbours apparently asked a delivery boy to not cross our house. It made me realise that in a socially fragmented country like ours, this was just another reason to discriminate.

How did you manage to keep your spirits high?

I had read up thoroughly about COVID-19 and knew what to expect. More than the disease, I tried to keep my mind off the fake news. I doodled a lot, got back to writing some shayari, and followed up on class presentations. I always wanted to read the Rig Veda, which I finished. The doctors had advised me to do some breathing exercises and pranayam, which helped. Being a hyperactive person, I followed Sara Ali Khan's workout routine in the first couple of days till I got really sick. While it was a difficult phase, what counted was the way in which my friends, relatives and a few neighbours stood up for me on social media, helped my mother with essentials, and were there for us.

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Words of wisdom

  • If someone tests positive, they should strictly follow protocol, eat well and practise breathing exercises like pranayam, says Saxena.
  • "While we need to maintain physical distance, this is the time to support each other and not socially isolate someone who is affected," she adds.

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