When the lockdown/general holidays were introduced for the first time in Bangladesh in March last year, there was hardly a need on the part of the authorities to ensure enforcement.
Most people, almost willingly, locked themselves in with their loved ones and families, stocked up on necessities, and warily followed the daily updates on the number of new infections and fatalities caused by Covid-19.
Most people wondered when the infection would arrive at their doorsteps and what devastation it would leave behind. As the days went by, the number of infections and deaths doubled, and then tripled, knocking on one door after another and leaving behind a trail of loss and heartache.
After a while, however, reality also set in. This virus was not going to go away anytime soon. In fact, it is not clear even till this day when it will subside. But people needed to feed their families, they needed to earn a living. Even for those who could afford to stay indoors, depression and physical illnesses set in. Grownups needed to see and connect with their elderly parents, children wanted to see their friends, workers needed to socialise with their colleagues.
Lockdown or no lockdown, they began ignoring the threat of infection, death or the authorities' ire, and stepped out of their homes to breathe in the fresh air. They began ignoring the daily update on infections and deaths, shrugged when they heard about the death of someone they knew, and crowded the streets, launches, public places and shopping malls.
Even during one of the strictest lockdowns imposed by the government, last week, you could see entire families, with their children in tow, crowding super shops in the city. For some, the pandemic is as good as over.
And yet, there are a rare few, a tiny minority, who decided to pay heed to the threat to their lives the pandemic posed. For some of them, there was no option not to. They include a newly pregnant couple, a man with compromised immune system, a cautious son, a responsible teenager, a millennial with a leg injury and an introvert. Starting in March of last year, they have spent almost the entirety of the last 16 months indoors.
The Business Standard tracked down some of the exceptional cases of Dhaka city residents choosing to remain in home quarantine for the most part since March 2020 out of their own volition (at least till June this year in one instance). From protesting return-to-work mandates to quitting jobs and everything in between, these accounts tell us how and why the covid-19 pandemic has kept them indoors.
March and transition
In March last year, Rezwan Ahmed (26) was expecting the worst. "We saw how widespread this virus is and what it was doing to China, USA and Europe," Ahmed told The Business Standard. He could not fathom how people in the city still took "the virus lightly."
"I felt semi-ready for the lockdown though," he said, solely because Ahmed had a bike accident in October 2019 which rendered him a broken leg, a surgery that placed a plate and four screws in his right ankle and subsequent four months of home-bound life.
The North South University student predicted that the pandemic will "further limit my already limited options." Ahmed's biochem thesis requires access to the lab on campus, and this continues to stall his graduation.
For Ahmed, every trip outside still means an immediate shower upon reaching home, and all the basic safety covid measures including the use of double masks upon leaving home.
Ahmed claimed that he left his building a grand total of eight times in the last 16 months for his own vaccination trips, vet visits, short trips with friends or family outside Dhaka (3 so far) and one social outing at a Banani restaurant in winter.
"Eventually I will go out more frequently and try to stay safe," said Ahmed, "getting out eight times in nearly two years is just not feasible," he added, "but I will feel safe outside when the greater part of the population gets vaccinated."
"Have you heard of pandemic depression?" Ahmed asked, "for me, it happened late last year."
October, depression and adaptation
In October last year, Ahmed planned a short trip to Suktara, Sylhet, to get out of his quarantine cocoon for the first time.
Infection rate and death toll were moderately low that month. However, "on the first day of my Sylhet trip, it just hit me. I am unemployed, I borrowed money from my mother to come here. I could have just stayed home instead," Ahmed recalled, "it is one thing to be down, to be in a bad state of mind in your own room, and another to be in that state in a hotel room with people," he further added.
A study found that 60-80% of the population experience depression, anxiety and stress as Covid-19 impacts on mental health. "This was the largest study conducted, I think, so far, in Bangladesh," said Dr. Sanjida Khan, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Jagannath University. The study was based on 10,011 people.
The upside is there are many resources now available online where individuals can seek help, even anonymously, she further added.
In October last year, Taib Rahman's first child was born. And, he quit his job. His decision was partially influenced by his dissatisfaction with his workplace, but primarily because he was asked to go back to work. "Taking a life risk for this job was not worth it," said Rahman, "health and my baby were my priority."
A senior officer at an electronics goods company, at the time, Rahman was working from home for nearly seven months. Although his office discontinued work from home in July last year, Rahman felt strongly against it.
"I wrote an essay like mail to the HR," Rahman recalled, "explaining our situation and stating I would rather quit but cannot come in the office during the pandemic." The higher management placed Rahman on unpaid leave and on remote work, "and in October I ultimately quit," Rahman added.
There was tension, and mounting anxiety too. The realities of unemployment and finding a new job during a pandemic did not escape the couple. "Be sure I am with you," Rahman recalled his wife, Eumna Huda, telling him when he decided to quit his job.
In hindsight, Rahman says he is glad that he stayed put. There were several covid cases that plagued his office last summer.
Rahman and his wife learned about their pregnancy in February last year. "It was difficult not to get the support we needed at the time from people outside our family, instead we had so many people ask us why are we taking a baby during a pandemic?" Huda added.
The first time parents sacrificed their pregnancy cravings and reduced doctor visits as much as possible. "Because of the pandemic, we did not take a seat, even when we had to wait for long hours to see her gynecologist," said Rahman. Including the birth of their child in October, the couple estimates the number of medical visits at seven.
Fear was paramount but it ran its course. The couple navigated through a pregnancy, parenthood, unemployment and pandemic, and still stayed home as much as possible. Huda's parental house is in Bashundhara while Rahman's home is located in Kalabagan. Whenever they felt a risk of infection in either house, they switched between the two houses.
"I used to meet my friends at least 3 to 4 times a week before the pandemic, and now, I have met my best friend only once in these 16 months," Rahman added. "That too was when he came over for an emergency, we met downstairs, both double mask-clad and went out for a short walk."
"We are yet to go to a restaurant," Huda said. The two dates that the couple went out for a semblance of recreation was in February this year. One was a day trip to Cumilla to visit Rahman's parents because his mother was retiring as a school headmistress after 36 years. And another to a relative's house for a get-together.
Rahman and Huda are currently living in different houses on account of Rahman's new job which started on 1 June as a senior officer in a private diagnostic center in the city. Huda also started a new job in May as a system analyst but works from home; she also revived her own small photography business and went out around six times by now for work appointments
Rahman and Huda have shifted gears from surviving the pandemic to adapting to the new normal. Their lives still revolve around masks, hand sanitizers, social distancing and isolation (when needed). The government's decision to lower the age limit to 25 for vaccination now includes the soon-to-be 29 year olds.
"My wife already registered, and I am about to," said Rahman on 31 July.
March, hospitalization and the new normal
In March this year, Rahman's limits were tested. Rahman rushed to Cumilla when he heard both his parents fell ill. "When I stepped in the house, it looked like a scene from a hospital," Rahman added. His parents were both moved to Dhaka for treatment, admitted in BIRDEM and tested covid positive.
"I can recount the events now in a casual tone, but everything was falling apart," Rahman said, "the feeling of devastation was overwhelming."
His mother whose oxygen saturation level dropped low to 69 at one point required the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). "It was for my sister's contacts, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, that we were able to find an ICU bed in Green Life hospital for my mother," Rahman said.
On 15 March, Rahman's family was able to bring his mother to Kalabagan home. His father was discharged from the hospital earlier in the month. "As soon as I got my negative test results, I went to Bashundhara to see my wife and child," Rahman added.
"In all honesty, if things were not as bad as it is now in July, we would have gone for a little family outing somewhere like Cox's Bazar," Rahman added, "Even if the covid situation was like May this year, we would have gone. It's just not possible any longer to stay put but alas…"
Pandemic fatigue is real and the couple may have been experiencing it. Dr. Lipy Gloria Rozario, counseling psychologist and Director, Healing Heart Counseling Unit, stressed on mental health awareness and recognizing the aspect of 'mental health' in our life in order to address issues that bother us.
In March this year, Ashian Khan (27) secured his dream job as a Thompson Rivers University regional representor. It was the perfect fit because it allowed him to work from home.
Khan has set and followed very strict covid-safety rules in the house, specifically over concerns for his 56 year old diabetic mother. "I lost my father seven years ago," he explained, "I am not scared for myself as much as I am to bring the virus home and put my mother at risk."
Khan also quit a job in summer last year, "when my old company said I have to go back to the office, it sent a chill of fear down my spine," Khan added. He also turned down a DHL job offer when asked to go in albeit the job description cited remote position.
An extrovert with a hyperactive social life, Khan managed to change his lifestyle overnight at the country's first lockdown.
"My friends laugh at me for this," Khan added, "They did not encourage me to stay in. In fact it was always, 'get out, get out, why don't you get out?"
"You know how they say talking helps with mental stress, well for me, it has an adverse effect. My friends just don't get it," Khan further added. "As long as I have money in the bank, food on table and electricity in the house, I cannot ask for anything more," Khan said, "what else can I possibly ask for on top of remote work opportunity?"
The business analyst found solace in his 'new normal' routine, "I honestly do not mind it," he said. Between work, YouTube and prayers, he feels content. Sure there had been moments of sheer agony and frustration. But he navigates through it.
"I did not hug my mother in the last 16 months," he explained, "I am still scared to do it." His mother noticed too.
Covid-fear has been destabilizing for Khan. "Deaths, deaths, deaths, wherever I go, I see deaths," Khan recounted, "we lost two close maternal family members to covid in a span of ten days in September last year."
"I do not know how I can express my guilt and hurt in words even today, but I did not let my mother step out of the car when my grandmother's sister passed away. We attended the burial ritual from the parking lot. I was scared for my mother," Khan remembered.
Khan drove out of his neighborhood block for a grand total of six times: one to attend a funeral, two for vaccinations early this year, one eye hospital trip for his mother, two trips to their hometown in Kalatia, Keraniganj (a 20 minute drive from their Mohammadpur residence, according to Khan).
"I felt safe to observe qurbani in my hometown this year instead of doing it online like the last time, because we are vaccinated," he added.
From their use of PPE in the beginning to their continued excessive use of hexasol, hand sanitizers and sprays, Khan did not let up at all over the past 16 months. And he met his friends four times: twice on his vaccination trips and twice when a couple of his friends came over for a house visit. He strongly believes that people who can afford to, should have considered long home quarantines.
"It's just a myth, when I will feel safe again," Khan said, "I may feel safe again when the infection rates fall, the younger population also gets vaccinated and mother leaves the country - perhaps to visit my older brother in New York."
Mental health professionals say that the pandemic has surely rendered a fear of infection and subsequently a fear of going outside in many people. However, when the covid dust settles, individuals who remained in long home quarantine, are expected to be able to resume pre pandemic life.
Family or loved ones should intervene if and when individuals continue to suffer from the same pandemic fears, even after it's made covid-safe to go outside, said Kamal U.A. Chowdhury, Associate Professor and Clinical Psychologist, Department of Clinical Psychology, Dhaka University.
'It's cautionary not cowardly'
"It doesn't matter what others were or are doing," Shahadat Sattar (62), a 'semi-retired' businessman told The Business Standard, "I have stayed put because I have a compromised immune system." Sattar is a liver transplant patient with spinal cord injury. Although fully vaccinated, he chooses not to resume pre pandemic life. He recently lost a cousin to covid during the first week of July this year, "and he was fully vaccinated," Sattar said, "so you can really not be too cautious."
Only when 60% of the population gets vaccinated, the businessman will feel safe to resume pre-pandemic life.
"I have stepped out, so far, a grand total of ten times," Sattar added. Those outside trips include his two doses of vaccination, his doctor's visit for a fall in June this year, Dhaka club visits and office trips. "Only once I met some of my friends in Dhaka Club, I think we were five in total," he added, "other times, it was just me."
"I felt safe to go to my office by my private car," Sattar added, "Everyone strictly follows health guidelines in my office. In fact, there has only been one positive covid case in my office of 93 employees, so far," he further added.
Home quarantine and covid infection
Maya (not her real name) is a 29 year old sub editor in a magazine based in Dhaka and Ayman (not his real name) is a 17 year old recent A level graduate. The two strangers both tested covid positive during their home quarantines.
On 5 December last year, Ayman tested covid positive shortly after his father's infection, possibly from his workplace. "I noticed a change in my father," Ayman recalled, "he became forgetful, inactive and irritated among other things. His health deeply concerned me." Ayman recovered and tested negative in less than 20 days.
Ayman was stuck home from the onset of the pandemic. Online classes were just not the same, and virtual communication with his friends also took a hit late last year. "We started to speak less and less, I felt physically and mentally drained," he recalled.
Ayman estimates that he went out less than 10 times starting from March last year to June this year, and mostly to school for registration paperwork, coaching centers to drop off mock papers or a relative's house which is a few buildings away.
On 16 April this year, Maya tested covid positive, two days after her parents and sister tested positive. "My first thought was 'well, it's home now.' The only way to look was forward," Maya recalled, "I busied myself with work as much as I could. We were positive for a full month, but thankfully with moderate symptoms."
The family suspects that the parents got infected at BIRDEM when they went in for their health check-ups
After Eid Ul Azha last year, when Maya's office lifted the work from home option, she fought relentlessly against the decision. "There was no way I was going to the office until the office provided transport or took some responsibility to foot hospital bills if an employee fell ill," she said, "it angered me that my concern was being seen as cowardly rather than cautionary," she added.
Maya claimed she must have left her house a grand total of ten times in the past 16 months which included office visits, co-working with a friend and bank errands. "The sun felt good on the skin," Maya added.
Maya is currently waiting for her first dose of vaccination date. "I registered as soon as the government lowered the age limit to 25," she said on 31 July.
As an introvert, Maya was one of those people who felt "elated" that she no longer has to socialize at work and engage in "mindless chatter." However, pandemic-induced anxiety snaked around her thoughts and resulted in involuntary shivers and sleepless nights. The uncertainty of where things are headed sometimes "left my stomach in knots," Maya added.
According to Sonia Parvin, psychotherapist and founder, Esho Nije Kori, the pandemic induced sense of uncertainty has emerged among her patients in the last 16 months. Living in the present by letting go of our fear of the future and anxieties from the past is key in order to counter such feelings of uncertainty, Parvin further added.
Technology, virtual calls and recreational activities played an impactful role in their lives during the pandemic. While Sattar took up watching old movies on Netflix, Maya relied on e-commerce and Khan took up reading articles online. Ayman continued playing cricket with his neighborhood friends on his rooftop or downstairs without leaving his building and Ahmed took up reading light novels.
Long home quarantines are not cases of solitary confinement which is likely to result in social alienation because individuals can remain connected with people virtually and stay engaged at least online, say the experts.
In a city of 21 million people, the stories of precaution and continued vigilance - among those who can afford to - remain too few and far in between, but show perseverance.