One of the priority operations of the government was to ensure the people flying from diverse destinations home, stay isolated for a fortnight. More than 3000 are in quarantine right now. Khalid Bashir Gura talked to some students to give a sense of life under segregation at different government facilities
Everything has come to a standstill except forces of nature. As the invisible Coronavirus has limited movements of billions of people worldwide, quarantining millions, a new life and a new lifestyle are unfolding for many people unused to stillness, silence and confinement and perhaps complacency that Kashmiris have been used to since so long. This time, however, the quarantine is not confined to Kashmir; entire India is locked down as well as the world.
It is 8 am, the sun is high in the sky and it is growing warm. Muteeb Nazir, 21, from Ganderbal, is under quarantine at India’s largest military quarantine facility at Jaisalmer, which is currently housing almost 500 people. He is ready to breakfast, something very new in his life like many others; a breakfast at a fixed time, daily.
Unused to a disciplined lifestyle with a fixed schedule for everything, Muteeb, a medical student who is pursuing MBBS from Tehran Medical University was evacuated with many other Indians from Iran after the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country at an unprecedented level. Earlier termed to be the second major centre for the virus, Iran with 2600 deaths is now a smaller entity in comparison to Europe.
By 9 am, Muteeb leaves his room to get himself tested for Covid-19. “I will call you back soon, as I have to report for daily tests and I can’t afford to skip them,” says Muteeb. He hopes them to be negative like until now.
“To be confined is depressing. At times one feels guilty by not doing anything at all,” says Muteeb, but this is happening globally.
Muteeb like many others had not expected New Year to unfold like this. As everything was going smoothly, all of a sudden life took a U-turn. Everything that was important for them; exams, classes, university, social contacts, suddenly ceased to have meaning for them and survival amidst this deadly contagious disease became a priority. “I had plans and dreams but now everything seems to be on pause mode,” says Muteeb.
Initially, everyone governments society and media were complacent. But when cases spiked exponentially, the government announced weeklong holidays, which is unimaginable otherwise. It is then we realized the grimness of the situation that was unfolding.
“The first quarantine experience started in Tehran.”
For Muteeb and others, the only consolation during the initial self-quarantine was that the disease would go away as it is in China and may not engulf world or Iran.
But they were wrong like many others in the world.
“We were almost done with the eighth semester, and we had holidays to come. We booked tickets but they were getting cancelled. As the cases in Iran were spiking frighteningly so was the anxiety to leave the country. The parents were unable to sleep and made frequent panic calls,” says Muteeb.
It was a war-like situation for quarantined people struggling to leave country struck by a pandemic when everything was closed, the borders were sealed, the air space shut, people confined to some corner of the house, helpless.
“Initially, the Indian Embassy itself seemed complacent and we had to struggle to get ourselves evacuated. We protested and persisted. The more our stay prolonged tenser our parents grew. But then we received a message that we have to report at the airport within two hours. It was a shock mixed with excitement”, says Muteeb, who said he was doubtful about going back given their experience with Embassy.
The plane flew them to Delhi International Airport. The airport looked, unlike past. Masked people on every seat, pockets stuffed with sanitizers and fear floating in the air. “People were fearful of one another. At Delhi Airport none of the evacuees was allowed inside the airport and our belongings were disinfected on runaway and we were airlifted and dispatched to Jaisalmer contrary to our expectations of being quarantined at Delhi itself.
The anxiety, tension of evacuees was subsided when army personnel assured them of every facility and explained the importance of being quarantined in the larger interest of society and nation.
“They behaved so well. And we also cooperated.”
The first few days at quarantine for Muteeb were not easy as he had to shift and adapt to a new schedule and lifestyle. In Tehran, as a medical student his life was circling around books, studies, and university, and hospital, discussions on medicine, exams, and semester survivals. The brain was wired to a stressful life. He was unused to confinement and stillness. The discipline of going to bed on time, to waking up and having everything on the fixed schedule was unimaginable.
“For doctors or medical students, there is no day or night,” said Muteeb.
The sudden change in lifestyle brought a bit of depression to Muteeb as he was unable to comprehend what was unfolding and how to adjust.
“I was getting stressed but now I laugh at it. I am getting accustomed to this new life and lifestyle. I have embraced change unleashed by nature on all of us.”
Tea is being served in the breakfast with a paratha, then another tea at 10 am, and followed by lunch on time where we often get daal, sabzi, gulab jamun and vegetables.
When away from phone and food, it is time for games. The game, which he played after many years, is cricket. “It was a different feeling. Getting sweated and playing like a kid.”
He plays cricket with his new friends of varied ages, from different states of India at the quarantine facility. “We get on well with each other. Our suffering and struggle have joined us,” says Muteeb. After cricket, Muteeb like others takes quick showers to stay fresh in hot the temperature of Jaisalmer.
There is more social connection now, offline as well as online. Disrupted from his automated life as a medical student, Muteeb now has time and attention for every friend of his on social media as well as in the real world.
“I talk to my friends on the phone, my parents from Kashmir and other places. They keep checking on me out of concern. And it feels so good to have so many well-wishers that I was indifferent to before, sadly,” he said.
“I begin to realize all this now because I am getting time to think for myself”.
This quarantine is becoming a diverse society in itself as people from diverse backgrounds have freewheeling conversations with one other and share stories of their lives. “Almost everyone believes none among them witnessed such a pandemic in life that brought the world to its knees”.
At night no one is allowed to leave rooms or hall as everyone is sleeping. “In a way, it is a lesson to be considerate towards others,” says Muteeb.
“At times one is afraid of being mixed up with so many people who may be potential carriers of virus but that is the way it is everywhere and one has to understand the limitations of resources of government and circumstances”.
“Arrangements are nice, and we hadn’t expected much as we wanted to go back home,” said Muteeb visibly excited as his quarantine period is nearing to an end.
Unused to being confined and the routine unleashed by Coronavirus confinement, Muteeb believes it is time for self-reflection. This period is serving as a vacation from all the stress of life.
Muteeb like others is happy that they are in India and close to home. There is a lockdown imposed in India and it still continues to be far from the fallout despite its potential for havoc.
“There are more than 200 Kashmiris here and more than 100 females,” says Muteeb.
“We are quarantined and I hope that distance from the noisy, swift life and being catapulted into this still, silent life has some message.”
Muhammad Mashhood ul Islam, 19, is Muteeb’s brother and pursues MBBS at Kazahkstan, Astana Medical University.
He arrived at Srinagar International Airport on March 19, 2020. But the journey was full of struggle from crowded airports to reach home.
Mashhood sensed the trouble was coming as he keenly followed the reports of the coronavirus epidemic. He had mentally prepared himself for upcoming events.
“We received a message that our studies have been shifted to distance learning and that is when I realized the seriousness of the situation,” says Mashhood. “Meanwhile I was in touch with family and they said book tickets and come home immediately but it was getting difficult amidst official procedures.”
“Backlogs don’t matter, life does,” said parents.
Latter, the university also realized the gravity of the situation and they gave them the option to study via the Internet.
Boarding flight at Astana Airport at 7:30 am, Mashhood landed at Delhi International Airport at 11 pm. “The airport was crowded as people from all over the world were coming back and also leaving. We thought we might get contaminated as anyone could have been a potential carrier.”
Mashhood and his friend booked a room for a night in Delhi. Following day on March 19, they landed at Srinagar International Airport. Mashhood like his friends was excited that they may go home after eight long months but were put under quarantine.
There was chaos at the airport as students from Bangladesh had been protesting against being quarantined. The government later forcefully took them to designated facilities.
“We were scared at the beginning after filling self-declaration form but the officials turned out to be cordial and cooperating. We were ready to be quarantined for the sake of our families and society.” Mashhood and his friends were later escorted to Srinagar Hajj House.
But the students were disillusioned and disappointed as conditions are unsanitary and unsafe. “There are not enough toilets and they are also dirty. Beds were crammed together. No soaps or sanitizers,” Mashhood said.
The girls were later vacated to a hotel in Srinagar.
“But 14 boys were asked to stay there for a night in unclean rooms.”
“Finally, after much protest, they shifted us to a hotel at Rajbagh where two share a single room. It is comfortable and cold but it is better”.
“We are happy, we are quarantined as it is better for us and our family but the way they quarantine students is disgusting and questionable,” said Mashhood.
There is no fixed time to wake up or sleep for Mashhood. The doctor comes twice a day to check up and enquires if any of them has symptoms.
Mashhood and his friends either sleep enough, use social media but struggle with studies due to lack of high-speed internet. Their classes are online but lack of high-speed Internet makes it difficult to access them. “We were trying to focus what was being lectured; pictures were blurred and voices inaudible,” said Mashhood.
“Thankfully we had some movies and series with us. We spend spare time watching them as movement is restricted”.
“This is something I wasn’t used to. This is a virtual confinement.”
For lunch and breakfast, we are served Biryani, pickle, and tea but the food is insipid. During the initial quarantine days, food was good as compared to now.
Another student from Parraypora, Hyderpora also came from Kazakhstan. Wishing to be anonymous he said he is quarantined at Bhagwati Nagar Camp, Jammu. He reached Jammu via Delhi International Airport. The authorities quarantined him there.
“I have been quarantined in an insane way. There is no facility, no mask, and no sanitizers. There is a lot of crowd. Today we ate lunch at 4 pm. No water for drinking. Washrooms are dirty. I haven’t washed my hair for 10 days,” said an aggrieved quarantined student.
“The food was cooked by already quarantined persons because they got money to cook,” said the student. “There is no social gap. 50 people are in a single hall like cattle. I just get bore through the day, so just to kill time I use the phone and pray”.
Another female student who wished to be anonymous is from Chanapora Srinagar and studies MBBS in Tehran. She is being quarantined at Jaisalmer. Though she complains about the food she is happy with the arrangements at camp. Her daily activities include talking to friends, family, social media, sleeping and watching her favourite series.
“This free time I may never get back in life, so I want to use it in the best possible way,” she said. “A lot of patience is needed especially when it is a different city. It was hard to adapt to the climate and food and place in general but this all is for our own and families good and society in large”.
One of the aggrieved students who is a female and returned from Bangladesh was beaten by police for protesting against being sent to quarantine. “We were taken to unacceptable places, a place devoid of facilities with basic hygiene.”
It was only after relentless protests that they were taken to Hotels near Dal Lake. “Our parents were worried and following us,” she said.
The authorities had assured them of better hotels. “But this quarantine period is becoming a jail for us. They treat us like dogs.”
A senior government officer who is part of the quarantine management said the people being quarantined must understand one basic thing: “It is no picnic and it is the outcome of a crisis. We are in a sort of the plague.”
The officer said that all these facilities were created in an emergency just to ensure that the chain of the virus breaks. “If the toilets and unclean and if there are certain hygiene issues, why these young men and women can not do it? Why should they wait for somebody to do it for them? They must understand that nobody wants to keep them isolated. It is dictated by the situation. Instead of complaining, they should cooperate and contribute.”