Covid is a self limiting disease, unless one has the bad luck of sudden or severe co-morbidities, but requires a very great amount of discipline, awareness and practice of comprehensive safeguards without ever letting down your guard, even for a minute.
Alliteration survives adversity and also provides some focus to thoughts streaming through relatively idle minds during a pandemic. It may also have some commonsensical insights for common folks, affected or unaffected.
Having survived almost four months of lockdown, I tested Covid positive on 22 June 2020. Fever around 100° and backbreaking pain on 22nd night led me to immediate testing on the next day and a positive result by 23rd evening.
The first thing I learnt is that inconsistency is the only consistency of this devious disease. After Day 1, till Day 13 when I write this, I have been totally non symptomatic, though positive. No backache, temperature not even crossing 98°, no oxygen saturation issue, no blood pressure issue, no loss of sense or smell, et al. Weakness is naturally there but otherwise, if 22 June is erased, it is as if nothing happened. Hopefully, it will stay that way.
But, secondly, Covid’s unpredictability is equally predictable. It may rear an ugly head on Day 13 or 14, defy conventional wisdom to keep alive beyond 15 days to 20 days, keep showing no symptoms and yet remain positive! In the same house, it may affect three family members in different rooms differently, in trajectory, intensity, duration and symptoms. It is best to respect Covid’s intelligence and not insult it. For example, my wife continues to exhibit clear symptoms, my son to a lesser degree and me and my grandson not at all!
Thirdly, since our family may well qualify as one of the Covid first families, much of this is experiential. Apart from me, my wife, my younger son and my grandson also got it! Mercifully, only my 86-year-old mother and daughter-in-law are exempt. Even my mother’s exclusive maid contracted it (despite 100% separate room isolation for 4 months), but no other domestic servant or driver, of whom there are an aggregate of seven in a multi-storeyed bungalow, was infected. Amongst my home attached office staff, three of four tested positive but with hugely divergent symptoms. My main clerk has fever, ache and clear symptoms, another tested “indeterminate” (dominant positive, other trait unclear but treated as virtually positive) with zero symptoms and a third junior clerk fully positive but 100% normal and without any symptoms! Though all generalizations are inherently untrue, let me break my own rule by saying “never try generalizing regarding Covid!”
Fourthly, ex post facto blame games and 20×20 hindsight wisdom is a way of life and understandable. Everyone becomes an internet expert and “I told you so” wizard in such times. But if logic and reason alone are examined, and truth be told, we were probably the least likely family to be so hugely afflicted. For 120 continuous days my wife and I have not visited a single home other than my own, declined get togethers of even three couples, had no guest home (except one school friend thrice with ample distancing and he remains unaffected). All court cases were argued virtually and all press conferences, concalls, interactions etc were virtual. The only exceptions were, firstly, the presence of one of my own in-house legal juniors in each case I argued virtually, at six feet distance, with all safeguards, to assist and no other advocate or client allowed into my room at all. My immediate staff did interact occasionally but at full distance. The second exception could have caused it, though the law of probability must have skewed up against us. In about 10% cases, one additional briefing advocate, apart from my chamber junior, was allowed into my room, at proper distance. Hard set papers and some hardware was handled, though after spraying. Only one chamber junior additionally tested positive after me but she is also largely asymptomatic. This outside route is all I can think of by way of infection infiltration. I am always respectful of the bizarre laws of probability when I see global or Indian images of crowded beaches, growing mall populations and not even standing space for Lutyens gang at Khan Market, in comparison to my complete isolation.
Fifthly, no one knows definitively why but Covid is gentler on kids. A recent comprehensive Lancet study of over 20 countries so establishes, based on comprehensive age profiling of the disease, though it is basically a mathematical model. My precious grandson is proof positive, without symptoms! Though I am told his viral load could be sufficient to infect others, by God’s grace, he is pain and trouble free.
Sixthly, it is imperative to sync up with one good medical service early on. Don’t delay either testing or treatment by vacillation. In fact, early start of treatment is a great boon. The best I have found is Max Smart home quarantine. Hospitalization is totally unnecessary and the Max team headed by the efficient and amiable Dr Budhiraja and his able and cheerful colleagues (including Dr Arun Yadav and the ever available Dr Dhananjaya) does a great job of home quarantine treatment. At least one regular daily collective video call per patient with full medical team, other calls on demand, full and repeated testing at home (even X-Ray machines were regularly sent to my residence, though I insisted later on in going to hospital since I was easily able to and even shifted there for a few days for better testing and reducing home load of multiple patients, coupled with full support for medicines and monitoring, was extremely reassuring and generated its own undefinable sense of security and safety. The Max team did this separately for each of our afflicted family members.
Seventhly, Covid is a self limiting disease, unless one has the bad luck of sudden or severe co-morbidities, but requires a very great amount of discipline, awareness and practice of comprehensive safeguards without ever letting down your guard, even for a minute, more easily said than done as ennui and “business as usual” sets in with passage of time. Social distancing, masks and frequent washing are a given. A good surface spray is useful. Gloves are of marginal or no use. While in quarantine, even well after testing negative, keep a servant (existing or new), in a hazmat suit, for all entry or help involving proximity. Make one room your control room and stay inside. Pack multiple paper/disposable cutlery in that room, leave out at door yourself and get your staff to do one full filling of food, kept outside again for you to retrieve. Multiple helpings increase interaction, are avoidable or must be done by disposing of earlier disposables and repeating the process de novo. Put all disposable garbage into one basket lined with poly sheets, at night mix with peroxide, leave for the night and put out next morning for removal with normal garbage.
Eighthly, I am not a medical doctor (though PhDs were historically a prior award of the appellation Dr than medical degrees!) but I found an early start of so called “Fabiflu” useful and effective. Constant repetitive monitoring of standard five parameters five times a day and maintaining a clear chart is vital. Remdesivir is supposedly working for medium to serious cases. Whether Covid afflicts blood group A+, then B + then AB+ then O+, in descending degrees of severity, is apocryphal, not scientifically established and should be seen with great scepticism. A better view is that while gargling and steam are both good pre positive testing, steam may be counter-productive post testing positive, on the apprehension that such inhalation further spreads particles deeper inside lungs. Clearly, plasma therapy is the new Mecca and has shown remarkable results if started timely. It is an open secret that Delhi’s Health Minister may owe his life to use of prompt plasma therapy at Max. I pledged my plasma weeks ago and am happy that better institutional guidelines to ensure its widespread use are now implemented by both Central and Delhi governments.
Ninthly, always remain aware that whatever we are discussing here is based on empowerment, ability, capacity and means, vital words unavailable to 90% of India’s population. Never forget to spare a thought for our teeming masses, trudging migrants, primary healthcare centres in remote rural outposts, where all this relatively elite, urban advice is ivory towerish. Obviously, this article is limited to the usual suspects, PLUs (people like us). But that is no reason to ignore India’s many “Indias in one” syndrome in every sector. Always develop an attitude of gratitude in such times of adversity by reminding yourselves how fortunate you are. That was the lesson encapsulated in the constant lament of a poor man complaining of no decent shoes, till he came across a person with no feet! Lament stopped and an attitude of gratitude took over.
Tenthly, Covid teaches us so many virtues. Awareness of some is the first step to imbibe a few. I realized that I comfortably passed 120 days of lockdown in hardly 5 or 10 sets of clothes! My overflowing cupboards of smart designer wear became an obscene reminder of futile, mad, insecure, rat race and greed inspired acquisitiveness. Actually, if you discount for the fact that one can do almost all virtual activity merely in shorts (!) with a decent shirt (including official shirt based court dress), the number of those garments halve! One room with attached bathroom is all you need to be comfortable, communicate fully and relax and rejuvenate meaningfully. Excellent wifi, a few favourite books, music and entertainment, at least two usable platforms (one PC and one iPad) for simultaneous communication while reading documents, disposable cutlery, basic clothing and a few other personal quirks are a must have minimalist list, almost fulfilling the seemingly unattainable idealistic minimalism of the bestseller “The power of 30”. I am, of course, acutely aware of human nature and its many follies and foibles, so that recidivism to our bad old ways of maximalism and mindless consumption is likely to again rule the roost as Covid dims into the recesses of our collective consciousnesses.
Eleventhly, it would be foolish to allow only physical court hearings, as being demanded in some quarters. Virtual hearings must be permanently embedded in the system, from the lowest civil judge or criminal magistrate to the Supreme Court judge. This has to be the new normal and must continue for all times. It must be significantly enhanced in capacity and efficiency. Despite the flurry of activity, reportage and webinar culture, ground realities especially below the High Courts are changing at a tragically slow pace.
Virtual hearings are available, accessible and feasible for large sections of our legal brethren. Inconvenience, obstruction and expense are more often than not pleaded as crocodile tears from vested interests. Yes, there is a small section which is genuinely handicapped. Full cognizance of their limitations must be taken. Each court complex must immediately create adjunct hallways for people who want to come to court and argue from a room where they are connected through court infrastructure to the courtroom virtually, with full distancing and safeguards in such hallways. It is mythical and illogical to assume a magic button date when Covid will end or even all forms of lockdown will end, at least in the foreseeable future. For example, it would be ridiculous to seek full and only physical hearings, post the court recess in July. Invitation to a 2,000 congregation of lawyers, clients, employees and officials per day to the apex court, double that at Delhi High Court, and much more at the several district courts in NCT, is a recipe for disaster. It will open with a bang and close with a whimper within a few weeks, especially because elementary common sense tells us that zig zag Covid peaks and troughs are with us to stay at less for a few months more, if not longer.
Twelfthly, those who insist on physical hearings must be accommodated but virtual hearings should be also the new normal, undoubtedly along with physical ones. Neither should be to the exclusion or substitution of the other. Persisted with long enough, this will revolutionize our system. Already arguments are more orderly, less interruptive, more pointed and briefer. The endless orality of our legal culture, which 70 years have been unable to diminish or discipline, is being set right by Covid. We have to be resolute and we have to persist. Gandhi taught us “that every good reform movement must pass through five stages: indifference, ridicule, abuse, repression and respect”. Tenacity alone can get you to the fifth. Moreover, there is no inherent paradox in having virtual and real legal platforms coexist permanently and, indeed, allow different parties in the same cause to choose any one mode. Tactics to delay cases by any one party will of course have to be nipped in the bud.
Thirteenthly, the lighter side of Covid virtual lawyering should be generating its own jurisprudence. A good natured three-judge Bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra upheld my visual preliminary objection against themselves that it appeared that the three judges were sitting too close and immediately proceeded to physically distance within the same room by moving chairs! I complimented the E Committee head, Justice Dhananjaya Chandrachud, for appositely starting the practice of judges not sitting physically together at all and of using iPads also. A colleague senior counsel, seeing my maiden appearance in gloves, referred to it as a “pugilistic stance”, which I endorsed saying sometimes that’s what court proceedings are! Waiting room chatter boxes have many other examples. Technology suggestions were found useful by me in the virtual waiting room, e.g., the infra red machine for screening files, helmets etc.
Fourteenthly, a word about too much of a good thing, about hyper bureaucracy. Though with the best of intentions, I get five identical calls every day for 11 days from sundry government departments, with identical queries of well being, each denying the others’ existence and having identities ranging from DM department, health department, coordinating departments and several similar diverse fora. No finger knows regarding the other’s existence on the same hand. The mandatory red Covid positive notice must be put on the house door. It is loosely affixed. Miscreants or mischievous local mischief mongers tear it down, photograph it and gleefully send it on all and sundry WhatsApp groups. Next day, all governmental calls restart, some alleging deliberate vandalism of mandatory government notice by patients themselves! All in all a most wasteful and futile expenditure of time by destructive and negative elements.
Fiftheenthly, I found drifting with the tide very relaxing. Since I was largely trouble free, apart from some weakness, I was able to enjoy my favorite genre of action thrillers. The satisfaction of churning out three articles during even my corona positivity period, apart from several earlier ones and webinars during lockdown as a whole, proved personally very satisfying. But I never forced anything on myself. I tried never to create any internal or external obligation. A legal consultation, a press conference, extra detailed newspaper reading, some stray chapter and book reading, maintaining medical charts and the timely taking of medicines, all left me in fact quite short on time, not with excess time. With the start of virtual short yoga breathing exercises, I would say my Covid positive time never hung on my hands and instead was always packed but in as spontaneous and easy a way as possible. I always like to think of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage written by him when laid up flat on a hospital bed after a terrible back accident. It was done as much to enthuse himself not to lose heart, though it became a global bestseller as an exemplar of courage amongst personal, physical adversity. There is always some profit in loss, a lot of blessing in disguise, always reasonable silver in the lining.
Sixteenthly, it is difficult to estimate whether India has found its own equilibrium with Covid. Starting with an early lockdown, I think not. Such relationships stabilize only during the hurly burly of peak vicissitudes and maybe we have not come anywhere near that. There is fear and trepidation of the unknown and the spiking curves suggest that the worst is yet to come. Lockdown is conceptually a form of evasion, not full faced adjustment and it will be interesting to note how much that will test us as humans and as a nation. Nerves, balance, mental peace and stability, taking each day at a time, curbing flamboyance, keeping a low profile, being timid and unadventurous, binding the family, providing rock like support and security to them and minimalism, are some of the hallmarks which will get us through this new era within an era. In any which way, life can never be the same again. Maybe it should not, if we learn our lessons well.
Dr Abhishek Singhvi is a senior third term sitting MP; former Chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law & Justice; former Additional Solicitor General of India; Senior National Spokesperson, Congress Party and eminent jurist. Views are personal.