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‘She was positive’ — the test report in Kerala that started India’s Covid story a year ago

On 29 January 2020, India registered its first Covid-19 case in a 21-year-old medical student who returned to Kerala from Wuhan. 

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New Delhi: For 55-year-old Rasheed. K, a shop owner in Kerala’s Thrissur district, the return of his daughter from China was a momentous occasion, but for reasons he would never have imagined.

The day was 24 January 2020.

Rasheed’s daughter, a fourth-year medical student in Wuhan, had just managed to leave the city that was in the throes of a mysterious virus. Two days after arriving in the country, she developed a dry cough. She was immediately admitted to the district hospital where her swab sample was collected.

By 29 January 2020, it was clear that the pandemic had come knocking on India’s doors. The 21-year-old became the first case of Covid-19 in India.

“We saw in the news that the first case of corona (virus) is from Thrissur, but we did not know that it was my daughter. We were very scared when we got to know she was positive,” said Rasheed. “It was a very sad time for us. I was very scared and depressed.”

“Obviously we were thinking that we will not get cases in India, but you know because it was unavoidable due to the kind of transmissibility this disease has, that we were well prepared … so this case was handled well and the rest is history,” said Preeti Sudan, who was the Union health secretary at the time.

Also read: India’s Covid future ultimately depends on the people, state response, says top health officer

When Covid came

The former health secretary was told about the student by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)’s director-general, Balram Bhargava. In the first few months, all samples were being processed by the National Institute of Virology, an institute under the ICMR, in Pune.

“Madam case confirm hua hai (Madam, case is confirmed),” she recalled Bhargava as saying and added, “At that moment, my heart sank, but at the same time, we immediately told the higher authorities that this is what was happening … I still have a WhatsApp message to that effect.”

Meanwhile, in Thrissur, the news of the first case had sent shockwaves.

The 21-year-old’s parents were frantic when they found out. Rasheed even insisted that he be allowed to meet his daughter. “He (the district collector) spoke to the doctors and made the arrangements. I met her briefly after I wore a mask and PPE. When I met my daughter, there were a lot of people in the General hospital but they started leaving soon after to keep a distance from us … after sometime, the doctors told me to leave since there was no use for me to be there.”

ThePrint reached the student over phone, who refused to comment.

Dr Ravi Menon, the liaison officer at the Government Medical College in Thrissur, narrated the sequence of events from that fateful day — 29 January.

“The news of the positive report was announced to us at 4 pm. I was discussing it with the (college) principal, M.A. Andrews … actually, both of us went to the canteen to discuss how to get things sorted out, set up the Covid ward. When the whole state machinery came to Thrissur by 11 pm, we really understood how serious it was,” he said.

According to Menon, the health minister’s team, along with a few other ministers as well as the health secretary of the state came to Thrissur that night. The authorities, including those at hospital as well as the state-level health and ministerial team, took part in a meeting that lasted till 2 am on 30 January.

“We had already prepared the Covid unit at the Medical College at that time. And this girl was transferred to the Covid unit by early morning around 5.30-6 am,” he said. According to him, given that the patient was a medical student made it easier for the doctors and authorities.

When asked about a noteworthy moment from that day, Menon remembered the words of the state health secretary Rajesh Khobragade, who had addressed the doctors of the Medical College upon his arrival.

“I still remember what he said: ‘You know that the second largest population in the world is in danger now and the first case has landed in the city. It is our duty to fight it out and stop it here. I know the battle is going to be long and difficult, but I assure you, we will be able to do (it) … because if we don’t, it will be a catastrophe.”

Also read: Why Kerala is seeing a second Covid surge just months after cases peaked in October

Wait for normalcy

The 21-year-old remained in the Covid ward for 28 days. Around 14 people who had come in contact with her, including her father Rasheed, were also quarantined and tested for the virus.

“Teacher (state health minister K.K. Shailaja) helped us a lot — I will never forget it. Be it clothes, food or any other arrangements for her (the patient), to even her being able to do namaaz. Shanavas sir (Thrissur’s district collector) was extremely supportive … will never forget any of their help,” Rasheed said.

A year, 1.06 crore cases and 1,53,587 Covid deaths later, India seems to be on the road to recovery. But for Rasheed and his family, it’s been a long unending wait for normalcy.

“The biggest tension is that I don’t know when my daughter can return to Wuhan. I’m not educated, so I want my daughter to study,” he said. According to him, several other students like her have been left in the lurch.

The 21-year-old is now remotely pursuing the MBBS-equivalent course and is staying at a hostel to prepare for her online exams. When asked if it will be possible for his daughter to finish the course in Kerala instead of returning to Wuhan, he said, “We do not know if she will be able to complete her studies here.”

Beyond the personal losses, death and devastation that the year 2020 witnessed, Menon and Sudan still talk with a glimmer of hope.

“It was never anticipated in the initial phases that it (the virus) would spread like that … the advantage we had was that our health system had been primed by Nipah … We could extend the peak of the pandemic, so we could control the mortality,” Menon said, adding, “The role played by the junior doctors … doing Covid duty for six to eight hours, is not easy. It is physically exhausting; they have done a wonderful job. Hats off to them.”

Sudan said, “It’s been really awesome in the sense that everybody was predicting doomsday for India, but we have shown that we were resilient as a community, as a system … we are resilient as far as leadership is concerned.”

“This is such an example of cooperative federalism with Centre leading and leading from the very top, so it has been an affirmation of our faith in the system and also an affirmation of how, together, we can meet challenges. It has been a very difficult journey, but it has been a very heartening journey at one level,” the former health secretary added.

Also read: How Kerala and Punjab became ‘worst performing states’ in their handling of Covid


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