Editor: Ashutosh Bharadwaj
"I said I wanted to be admitted in a general ward of a premier public hospital in Delhi. It was a place as close to hell as I have ever seen."
In March 2020, a strict lockdown was imposed across India in order to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus that had already devastated China and other parts of the world.
What happened next was the biggest mass migration seen in India's history, rampant homelessness and hunger.
Social activist Harsh Mander and his team hit the streets shortly after, to feed those stuck in the cities and those walking the long walk home. He writes about the devastation he's witnessed and the misery the lockdown unleashed, in his book "Locking Down the Poor."
For the next six months, Mander worked consistently from the ground, well aware of the risk he was taking.
"My father was 95 years old. I used to meet him every day. I told him I will be seeing him only on a video call. I would not meet by 84 year old mother-in- law who lived with us, and I slept is a separate room from my wife."Harsh Mander, Social Activist
For the first six months, Mander somehow escaped falling sick. "My doctor friends tell me at the time I was among the safest group of people. COVID had not reached the masses, it was limited to the rich and the middle class."
But it was in September-October when he decided to open a clinic for the homeless, that the risk came home.
"Nearly 15 per cent of those coming to the clinic were COVID positive. I tested positive and so did a number of my team mates. At home my wife tested positive."
It was a decision he took at this time, that Mander says nearly took his life.
'I lost my Memory for 10 Days'
Mander says he suffers from a congenital heart condition. COVID-19 is particularly hard on the elderly, and those who have comorbidities. Heart disease tops the list of risk factors. For the safety of his family, Mander says on the advice of his friends, he decided to get himself admitted to Delhi's premier public hospital.
"I was acutely aware of my privilege. So I told my family I don't want a room. Admit me to a general ward. It was a place as close to hell as I have seen."Harsh Mander
There were 50 beds in the ward, says Mander. He wasn't given a change of clothing and told to lie down in the clothes he had come in. There were hardly any doctors visiting the ward. The patients, isolated from families, worried about death, there was a constant beep of machines, and ward boys and nurses shouting instructions at each other across the hall at all times of the night.
"The machine next to me was broken and it beeped continuously. I started talking to the ward boys and they told me they had just a day's experience. It seems the staff at the hospital didn't want to serve the COVID ward and these boys had been hired as they came in. One boy told me he worked in a hotel and had lost his job. Desperation drove him here," adds Mander.
Two days in the hospital stay, Mander says he begged the nurses to allow him to take a bath. "I was still in the clothes I was wearing when I came in."
Heading to the bathroom is the last memory he had for the next 10 days. "Total amnesia," he recalls.
Unable to speak with her husband, Mander's wife called the hospital and she was told he had gone into 'deep depression.' She managed to get him discharged and brought him home. The discharge slip simply says 'discharged for home isolation.'
"At home, my family tells me now, when someone would ask pointing towards my wife and daughter who they were, apparently I would say they were nurses."Harsh Mander
Extensive Brain Injury
A few days later he got a blue mark on his forehead. His wife rushed him to a modest private hospital and an MRI revealed extensive brain injury. "Even today, doctors look at my MRI and they are shocked how I survived those seven days. Even if I fell in the bathroom, I had no external injury, no damage, no mark at all. It's hard to speculate what could have happened, but doctors say it had little to do with COVID."
Unable to admit him since he was still COVID positive, Mander was finally admitted into a second private hospital. He says the condition was worse, but 10 days since his amnesia, memory slowly started to return.
"I was hallucinating that I am sitting with those we've helped get out of Assam detention camps. We are having a conversation. But a rational part of my brain was telling me I am in a hospital. That somehow helped me come back to reality," Mander adds.
It's been a long road to recovery for Mander. Frequent headaches, nausea, pain, he says he wasn't able to walk properly till very recently, but slowly, he is getting back to work. The clinic where Mander had initially got exposed was shut down, but on his insistence, it's opened again. His 95 year old father lost his life shortly after Mander was discharged from the hospital.