COVID-19 India
File photo: A health worker adjusts the face shield of another as she prepares to go inside a quarantine center for COVID-19 patients in New Delhi, India. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: It was sometime in January that a dear friend from Mumbai phoned me with a hard-to-resist invitation to her 50th birthday bash in Kochi. Catching up with old friends at a destination celebration at the end of March seemed the perfect excuse to kick-start a long overdue visit to my home country. Needless to say, I readily accepted the invitation.

The plan was to fly into Kochi on March 29 and then head home to New Delhi and Bengaluru, where a multitude of tasks, derailed by the pandemic in the year gone by, lay pending.

As India’s first wave of COVID-19 seemed to be ebbing at the time, I remember telling my friend: “India is a great place to be in right now.”

All the same, I kept a close watch on the situation. When it was time to confirm the bookings, Kochi still mandated a seven-day quarantine for international travelers. With much disappointment, I dropped the Kochi plan and decided to fly directly to Delhi instead. I remember making the booking on March 5, a day when the number of COVID-19 cases in the Indian capital was 312.

When I landed on March 29, the number had gone up to 1,901. While that was a six-fold increase in three weeks, nothing had prepared me, like the rest of India perhaps, for what ensued.

Truth be told, I failed to see what was coming at the time. I took comfort in the fact that my family and I had received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine back in the UAE more than a month earlier. There seemed nothing unduly amiss as we caught up with close family and friends, although we made sure we all wore our masks and didn’t break into long-lost bear hugs.

I also went about the umpteen tasks on my agenda with the same sense of caution. I even flew to Bengaluru to get more of my pending work done.

Then, somewhere along the line, the tsunami hit.

Daily COVID-19 cases in both Delhi and Bengaluru exploded beyond imagination. Delhi saw its highest single-day spike on April 20 with 28,395 cases while Bengaluru was not far behind. The statistics and unfolding tragedies, as reported in the newspapers and on television, was numbing.

Closer home, anyone I talked to had a horror story to share. Some of them were victims themselves. A school friend lost her father; a cousin her husband; entire families in some cases - house help included - were afflicted.

As desperation and despair took over, hope sprang eternal too with anyone and everyone making frantic calls to help get an ambulance, a hospital bed, an oxygen cylinder or vials of remdesivir. It didn’t matter who needed them and at whose request help came through. Family, friends, friends of friends and strangers came together like never before, couriering cooked meals to dear ones in isolation, pitching in with chores or simply lending a tele-shoulder.

My mind kept oscillating between fear and its inextricable twin, faith, as I took stock of my own situation. I had a choice and decided to return to the UAE earlier than planned. So I changed my flight booking from April 30 to April 26. By then, the UAE had already changed the validity of the RT-PCR test protocol for incoming passengers. We were now required to take the test within 48 hours prior to the flight, down from 72 hours. As things stood, that was a huge ask as Indian labs everywhere struggled to cope with the mammoth backlog of samples.

On the afternoon of April 22, however, there was much speculation among travel agents about an impending suspension of India flights in the UAE. I knew I had to act quickly and advance my booking as the travel ban was to kick in before midnight on April 24. But the problem of getting an RT-PCR test result within the stipulated 48 hours of the flight remained.

Family and friends promptly swung into action again and help out with the results. When I called the airline, I was relieved to know that seats for April 24 were still available. But they came at a price. I had to pay an equivalent of another ticket to get a Business Class booking changed.

When it was time for the RT-PCR test on April 23, there were many people like me at the private lab in Bengaluru where I went. Contrary to what I’d heard elsewhere, things were well-organised. By 4pm that evening, I was able to get the result, which was thankfully negative.

As I tell the tale, having flown back on April 24, just before the travel suspension took effect, I feel far from relieved as part of my family is still in the thick of the pandemic back home. I ardently pray for their safety and that of others too.

We are all in it together.