What started as a mild cough soon became a cause for serious concern by April 21. I felt so sick that day that I could not spend more than an hour at the office. I had never been this sick in my life – continuously coughing and very exhausted.
At one point, I felt so horrible that I had to lean against the wall just to keep my body propped up. Finding no other alternative, I decided to head home by a rickshaw. At home, I told my wife I was feeling unwell and that my cough had got worse.
While the thought of having contracted the novel coronavirus had popped into my head, I decided to keep it to myself for the time being. Later at night, when I sat for dinner, I found it very hard to swallow food. It felt like something was stuck in my throat, and I suddenly broke out in a sweat, feeling restless.
By now I was fairly certain that I had Covd-19; a few days prior, I had gone on assignments to densely packed slums in Dhaka, as well as the Mohammadpur Geneva camp – a place where the number of Covid-19 patients was rapidly increasing.
I was scared because the doctor I usually go to was not seeing patients and most private hospitals were virtually closed. There was also the fear of being completely fine and then becoming infected at a hospital while seeking treatment.
As I kept coughing that night, I wondered if I should have stayed in another room, away from my three-year-old boy and my wife. I spent the entire next day with coughing fits and fatigue. The next day, my wife and I decided that it would be best for me to stay in a separate room.
That night, as I lay alone in bed, I began thinking about where to get tested. I wondered where I would go and who would take care of me if I had really caught the novel coronavirus. What would happen if everyone in my family died of Covid-19?
I could not sleep that night.
Seeing no improvement by the next afternoon, I sent a text to the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) Director Dr Meerjady Sabrina Flora, informing her that I needed to get tested. We have known each other for the last five years. I sent her my address, but called her later and asked her not to send anyone to collect my sample. I was afraid that my neighbours would cause trouble if they came to know that I was a Covid-19 patient.
However, repeated requests from my family ultimately convinced me to get tested. After trying my luck at getting an appointment at BSMMU, I again called the IEDCR director. Within three hours, she sent two women to collect my sample.
After they left, the stress and panic set in quickly and my heart began beating faster. In the afternoon, I had trouble breathing. As I gasped for air, I phoned Dhaka Medical College's Principal Professor Abul Kalam Azad and informed him of my situation. He prescribed me some medicines over the phone, which I went and bought from a nearby pharmacy. Around 10 minutes after taking the medicine, I felt relaxed and my breathing returned to normal.
I had been advised to drink ginger tea, gargle with hot water, and was now prescribed cold medication; I was still very worried about the test results.
The next day, I sent the serial number of my sample to the IEDCR director. I asked her when I could get the result. She told me that she would let me know. I spent the entire day in mental distress, feeling restless and anxious – imprisoned in a room. I decided to distract myself with work.
But the fear of death kept on mounting.
On April 24, at 9:13am, IEDCR Director Dr Meerjady sent me a text. "Negative," it read.
Elated by the news, I instantly went to my wife and child – without a mask or gloves – held them tight. I put my son on my lap and burst out in tears. I had gotten back my life. I was going to be okay. My family was going to be okay! I began praying from that day.
It had been tough for me to stay away from my son and wife for two days, all the while thinking of death. I saw my son running around in the house from a distance, but I could not play with him. But that was over now. I could be with my family again.
This joy, however, did not last long.
Two days later, I came across news about a senior City Bank executive dying from Covid-19. The 40-year-old had been suffering from a cold, cough and fever for several days. He got his samples tested for Covid-19 twice, but the tests came back negative.
"Negative," I thought to myself. That night was also sleepless. My faith in the test vanished within a second. I panicked and my heart started pounding again. Although my result had come negative, my cough had not cured yet.
A few days later, I spoke to a doctor, who then suggested counselling. According to his suggestion, I received a 50-minute counselling session from Dhaka University Professor Dr Mahjabeen Haque. The Department of Education and Counselling Psychology was providing sessions free of cost for people suffering during the pandemic.
She told me to take a deep breath every time I felt restless, along with another exercise. And they both worked.
In mid-May, my mind was always preoccupied with the fear of death. My brain was on auto-pilot and I failed to do any creative work. Restless, I could not even sit anywhere for 10 minutes. I could not sleep well and felt anxious every time I stepped out to buy groceries or medicine. I spoke to one of my friends over the phone, and she suggested counselling again.
On May 24, I read a news item about a man of my age dying of Covid-19. I again spiralled into the same negative pattern of thought. I could not concentrate on anything. Nothing interested me and I enjoyed nothing – it was unbearable.
I was still working for my office and felt it hard to cope with my mental state. I wanted to write a feature story on mental illness in the time of the pandemic. I went to the National Institute of Mental Health and Hospital at Agargaon and spoke to doctors about Covid-19 related mental illnesses.
At one point of our conversation, I told one of the doctors that I too was suffering from fear and anxiety. He suggested I take an antidepressant, a small dose. The next day, I called him for help with my article. At one point, I again said that I was in stress and feeling depressed. He again told me to take the medicine he had prescribed.
I took the first tablet on Friday morning. The medicine, Escitalopram 5mg, was a selective inhibitor of serotonin (5-HT) re-uptake.
After taking the medicine, I immediately felt drowsy. I started feeling fatigue and lost my appetite. Ironically, the very medicine prescribed to fight my depression had caused more depression.
I was bedridden. On the third day, I went directly to the hospital to talk to the doctor because he had not formally prescribed the medicine. He was not present at the hospital on the day. Then I phoned him and informed him of my situation. He advised me to continue taking the medicine, adding I would be fine after several days.
I took the medicine for two more days, but my condition was not improving. On the fifth day, I consulted the doctor again, and he suggested that I quit the medication.
Surprisingly, just his words that I would no longer have to take the medicine instantly relaxed me.
After a long time, I felt okay.