COVID-19 or coronavirus pandemic has engulfed over 150 nations across the world. With the deadly virus originating from our neighbour, China, the government of India is taking all the measures it can. But, is it enough?
All India Institute Of Medical Sciences, New Delhi (AIIMS) is India's pioneer hospital and medical college. It is one of the only two testing facilities available for the coronavirus in the national capital.
With the rapidly increasing COVID-19 cases in India, I was worried and wanted to get myself checked as I recently travelled from Bengaluru. I tried reaching out government's helpline for coronavirus, 011-23978046, but to no avail. Thanks to my unawareness, I even tried contacting some private path-labs, again, to no avail. It was then that I decided to visit AIIMS.
As soon as I reached the AIIMS, I saw people standing outside the gate in large number. It was scary, as I could see people without masks, coughing uncontrollably. But I was prepared for it. I had my mask on and sanitizer handy.
I entered the gate and could see fear on the faces of people in the campus. I reached out to guard standing near the waiting area and inquired about the parking. He guided me and gently offered an advice, "Beta zyaada choona-chaana matt kuchh. corona faila hai." (Son, don't touch anything. Coronavirus is spreading)
I reached the AIIMS parking zone and parked my bike. Saw a parking worker sitting nearby without a mask, so I nudged, "mask nahi pehna bhaiyya aapne? aapka to din-bhar ka kaam hai?" (Why aren't you wearing face-mask?)
"Ab kya karein bhaiya ee corona ka? hum to bas yu neeche jhukte hai, ee uthate aur corona phus." (What can we do about coronavirus, brother? We just bend, pick this up and corona is gone) he said, picking up a bottle of hand santizer and sanitizing his hands.
As I moved towards the reception area, I saw a number of people waiting in the premise, some with and others without face masks. Everyone was sceptical, talking about their versions of coronavirus.
As I reached the Patient Reception Centre (PRC), I was surprised to see it closed. Given, the panic around COVID-19, I was expecting long queues of patients and relatives.
I asked the way to the Pulmonology department. On the way, I saw people sitting on the ground, wherever comfortable. In short, it wasn't a very pleasant site to see, keeping in mind the precautions advised by the health bodies.
As I moved on, I saw people coming out of the Pulmonology department wearing masks or handkerchiefs. To my relief, people who did not have masks or a cloth to cover their faces, were not permitted inside the department.
No official personnel inside was ready to talk about the deadly virus.
"According to government guidelines, only people with travel history to affected countries will be tested with recommended protocol," a medical staff told me.
I tired to explain why it is important I get tested, but to no avail.
Dejected, I came out of the department and headed towards the central canteen. As I moved forward, I saw people in dreadful condition in the waiting area. But, this was expected.
What horrified me was the pharmacy, on the way to the canteen.
A fully crowded, unhygienic hotbed for coronavirus to flourish and spread, the pharmacy made me realise my worst fears.
Visitors, relatives and patients all gathered in a relatively small, crowded, closed facility!
In country's top most medical institute, the one leading the war against the novel coronavirus, people gathered in huge number to get their low-cost generic medicines! A disaster waiting to happen.
Scared, I walked past the pharmacy towards the canteen. Although, I no longer wanted to eat anything, I entered the canteen and without wasting a second, looked out for washbasin or washroom.
Adding to my worries, I saw poorly maintained wash basins, a water-cooler in non-working state and flies all around. I was hoping there would at least be a hand sanitizer or soap available, but, I was expecting too much.
I saw a cleaning worker nearby and asked him if there is some soap available. He pointed towards the canteen washroom.
It was then that a young girl started complaining about the flies to him, "Bhaiya, idhar poori makkhiyaan udd rahi hai, smell aa rahi hai... Aisie mei koi kaise khaaye? Aap please boliye inhe saaf karvaane ke liye." (Brother, it's too smelly out here, flies are all around. How can one eat here? Please, ask them to clean this place.)
"What can be worse?" I wondered as I moved towards the washroom. "Not again," I said to myself as I looked at the condition of the washroom.
Yes, but I did find some liquid soap in a plastic bottle, a makeshift container!
Shocked to see the condition of the facilities at India's healthcare pioneer, AIIMS, I was determined to talk to medical staff.
As I moved towards the gents hostel, I overheard two young doctors discussing COVID-19 and how the situation is nothing less than a ticking time-bomb.
"Mujhe samajh nahi aata general OPD patients lena kucch time ke liye rok kyun nahi dete hum? aise bheed ikkathi karne se kya hi hoga?" a doctor told the other. (I don't understand why aren't we stopping the intake of general OPD patients? What's gonna happen by gathering people inside the premises?)
This was when I tried to sneak into the conversation. "Excuse me sir, is the situation really that bad? I heard somewhere that close to 1000 coronavirus patients are reaching AIIMS daily," I asked.
"That must be a WhatsApp forward. Don't fall for such rumours. But yeah, the virus can spread rapidly," one of them answered. Interrupting him, the other one said, "Are you a journalist? We aren't supposed to talk about it," looking at the selfie-stick in my pocket.
Although I did not have a detailed conversation, it was evident that the doctors were worried about the situation and the number of rising cases.
I then reached out to a family sitting along the roadside. They told me that one of their relative was experiencing fatigue, body pain and gradually his condition was deteriorating. The family was worried whether other members were also infected.
On my way out, I made a last attempt to speak with someone who may have a different story to tell.
"Kaise ho bhaiya? Yahan sab pareshan ghoom rahe hain aur aap bina mask mast maze Mei?" I asked an Autodriver. (How are you? Everyone is worried here, but you seem to be chilled out and that too without a mask?)
"Arre hawa bana rakhi hai bina baat ki. Mausam badalta hai to hota hi hai na zukham-khaansi? Humein bhi hua tha pichle hafte. To? Bina kaam baithe rahein?" he replied. (These are just hoaxes. When weather changes, cough and cold happens. Even I had cold last week. So, should I sit at home and be fearful about it?)
I tried to make him understand the severity of the situation. Sadly though, he laughed me off.
As I picked my bike and started to leave the campus, I saw used masks lying on the road side, just outside the hospital premise. It rang an alarm bell.
Apart from shortage of facilities to test or contain the virus, we are lacking on the proper disposal of medical waste. It is a neglected aspect in our fight against COVID-19, and needs greater attention.
In all, I can summarise my AIIMS visit as a reality check, against the commonly perceived notion that the situation in India is under control. No, it's not! It's like a ticking time-bomb, that can explode anytime.
On my way home, I also happen to see a rare scenario.