Why the man who runs a meme page started posting COVID updates

Updated: May 24, 2020, 12:31 IST | Gaurav Sarkar | Mumbai

The 26-year-old admin of Andheri West Shit Posting, who spent nine days in treatment for COVID-19, says being diagnosed as COVID-19 positive is not the end of the world

During his quarantine stay, doctors encouraged Balram, who was one of the younger patients, to talk to the older ones and reassure them that all would be well
During his quarantine stay, doctors encouraged Balram, who was one of the younger patients, to talk to the older ones and reassure them that all would be well

Mumbai's Western suburbs—unlike its glorified Southern half—did not have much to their credit on social media until 26-year-old Balram Vishwakarma's page, Andheri West Shit Posting, put the area on the map with its parody-centric humour and hilarious memes two-and-a-half years ago. However, in the first week of May, the content on the Instagram and Facebook page took a turn. They carried first-hand accounts of what it's like to be in an isolation facility and receive treatment for COVID-19.

Balram had ended up contracting the virus that has claimed 3,720 lives across India so far, and was sharing his ordeal, while offering insider tips on how to stay ahead of the curve. "On May 1, which was a Friday, I decided to have a drink, and ended up mixing some leftover whiskey and Old Monk," he says, speaking from his home in Behram Baug, where he is currently recuperating after being discharged from an isolation facility at Laxmi Industrial Estate and then, Cooper Hospital. "I woke up at 2 pm the next day [Saturday] with what I thought was a very bad hangover…I was craving some citrus. But by 7 pm, I had a headache that refused to leave and my temperature had climbed to 102 degrees. I assumed it was malaria or dengue since I had been following all social distancing norms. My office was functioning on work-from-home since March and I had barely stepped outside unless absolutely required. I called my family doctor and he told me that the symptoms didn't sound like either dengue or malaria and advised me to get tested."

"Sunday was the most horrible day. I was having paracetamol like it was dry fruit," says Balram. He says with high fever, a persistent cough, and a body that felt very weak, he asked his family to maintain distance from him. "I had some files that I had to email that day for work, but I was so weak and couldn't manage to get out of bed." On Monday, he and his sister visited a nearby testing centre and paid R4,500 to get tested privately.

A picture showing the beds at the Laxmi Industrial Estate isolation centre
A picture showing the beds at the Laxmi Industrial Estate isolation centre

When the phone rang on Tuesday at 4 pm, Balram was informed that he had tested positive. Two hours later, a BMC doctor called to inform him that an ambulance would arrive and take him to a quarantine centre at Laxmi Industrial Estate. "I was shocked when the doctor told me that they [BMC] have converted all their quarantine centres into isolation wards. I needed an isolation ward because, I could spread the disease to others. I called several private hospitals, but no beds were available." At around midnight, the ambulance arrived. "That was the first time I posted on Instagram about my condition."

Balram was kept at the quarantine facility for six days, from May 6 to May 11, and then shifted to Cooper Hospital for treatment from May 11 to May 14. "They discharged me under the new police guidelines. As of now there are very few beds and most people are asymptomatic, like myself," he says, referring to the relaxed norms by the health ministry, under which positive patients who have mild, moderate, or no symptoms, can be discharged without being tested again, and are required to follow a seven-day home quarantine. "Even if they are symptomatic, it is only five days out of the 20 days required in a hospital that are critical. I think it's [discharging patients who no longer show symptoms] a good approach since it leaves more time and space for those who actually need all the medical help they can get." According to him, the quarantine facility at Laxmi was "disciplined," although he didn't like the food—a problem that Balram attributes to his own privilege—but the infrastructure and facilities at Cooper Hospital, where he was shifted as he continued to suffer from fever, were terrible, he claims. "In my ward, which had around 40 patients, there were only two washrooms that were to be shared by everyone. These too, were mostly flooded with water, dimly lit, and unclean."

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His post detailed his experiences and lessons. In one, he writes about why, even though it's allowed, ordering food into an isolation facility is not correct as it puts the delivery staff at risk of contracting the disease. In another, he talks of the basic etiquette when dealing with the doctors at a medical facility. But, also, he talks of trusting the doctors: "I checked my temperature at 8.30 pm and it was 101F, so I had my dinner and popped some pills but at 9.30 pm I felt like something's getting screwed in my lungs and my temperature was 102.2F so I called the doctor on charge and she gave me paracetamol. At around 10.30 pm, I was 103.4F and was sweating like anything. My head was ultra hot." In this post, he goes on to write that a senior doctor suggested he pop another pill and though he did, he protested wondering if popping three paracetamols every two hours was counter-productive. "And all of a sudden I felt like there was a huge gas ball inside my chest that got cracked. I burped for solid 60 mins but my temperature in just 60 mins went from 103.4 F to 99.01 F… After that cracking thing everything was back to normal… So, what I'm trying to say it have trust in your doctor (sic)," he wrote.

During his stay at both places, he lost four kilos, and doctors and medical personnel encouraged Balram, who was one of the younger patients, to talk to the older ones and reassure them that all would turn out well. "I told them to stay strong and chatted with them and explained to them that just because they had contracted the virus didn't mean that it was the end of the world," he said. "In all probability, the virus is not going to kill you since we are seeing a high recovery rate. If it was going to kill you, it would have done so in the first 3-4 days itself. What it will do is make you weak—both emotionally and physically. It'll make you believe that something bad is going to happen…but nothing will happen if you stay strong."

Balram Vishwakarma lives in Behram Baug in Andheri, one of the worst affected areas. His mother and sister had also tested positive. PIC/Rane ASHISH
Balram Vishwakarma lives in Behram Baug in Andheri, one of the worst affected areas. His mother and sister had also tested positive. PIC/Ashish Rane 

On what prompted him to post real-time updates about his condition on the page, he says: "When 50,000 people are listening to what you—a common citizen like them—has to say, they believe it more than when they listen to a minister. It gives them hope and encourages them to keep their head above water and look ahead. I did what I did for the crowd, because I am one of them."

Balram's mother and older sister tested positive shortly after he did, and were also quarantined at Laxmi Industrial Estate. "Them contracting the virus has more to do with the locality I live in," he said, referring to Behram Baug's narrow lanes and small homes squished into the vacuum, making social distancing practically impossible to follow. "Fortunately, both are asymptomatic and were discharged on May 19."

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