FROM SARS & MERS TO COVID-19

26 Mar

This piece has been written at a time when COVID-19 is raging around the world. The people and places mentioned are real. So are my experiences.

I apologise for rambling and losing focus now and then. Partly due to geriatric infirmity and partly due to a hard-wired inquisitive streak.

***

SARS

“On 16 November 2002, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) began in China’s Guangdong province, bordering Hong Kong. A farmer in the Shunde district of Foshan County was likely the first case of infection.

“Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS, or SARS-1) is a viral respiratory disease of zoonotic origin that surfaced in the early 2000s caused by the first SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV, or SARS-CoV-1). In late 2017, Chinese scientists traced the virus through the intermediary of civets to cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in Yunnan province.

“No cases of the first SARS-CoV have been reported worldwide since 2004. However, the related coronavirus—SARS-CoV-2—is the cause of the ongoing 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic.”

REF: Severe acute respiratory syndrome From Wikipedia

***

In June 2003, at the height of the SARS virus pandemic, I travelled from Bangalore to Colombo.

At the Immigration desk there was a placard saying, “Do you have clammy skin, low grade fever, headache and respiratory problems? Report to the Medical Desk to get a free checkup.”

I was definitely ill, but I’d have been damned if I had to be bundled off home. So I marched through the immigration with the arrogance and studied casualness of Sean Connery in the role of Peachey Carnehan slipping through the British India border checkpost into Afghanistan.

The flight to Colombo took just 90 minutes. I found my seat and promptly fell asleep. The Air-Hostess decided not to disturb me and I missed my refreshments.

At Colombo there was no screening of incoming passengers. I passed through and after picking up my checked-in baggage, changed some US dollars and booked a pre-paid taxi. (It cost SL Rs. 1200 to my Hotel on Galle Road.) At that time the exchange rate was SL Rs.167 for Indian ₹100.

My client had booked a room at Renuka City Hotel, a business hotel, about 14 km (due North) from the Colombo International Airport in Ratmalana. I got into the front seat of the taxi, leaned back and relaxed.

The next thing I knew was that I had apparently arrived at my destination and the driver was tapping me on my shoulder and trying to wake me up. I opened my eyes and gazed sightlessly as I recovered my wits. This driver could have taken me anywhere and dumped me on the pavement after taking all my valuables. I just wouldnt have known!

I got out of the car and walked into the hotel, followed by a uniformed porter carrying my suitcase.

I was signed into my room and I must have gone out like a light!

***

The next morning I went to the hotel restaurant for breakfast and found that they had “Cornflakes, Eggs, Bread, Butter, Jam”… hahaha… This is the original alien food that the British introduced to upwardly mobile Indians… There was no taste on my palate and nothing could have put me off more than bread, butter and jam. I decided I would go out and see if I can get a more exciting breakfast which would sear the linings of my mouth!

I crossed Galle road and walked to the Hotel Hijra, a small kaka restaurant at the corner of Mile Post Avenue. I ordered paratha and a spicy meat curry… wah! My mouth still waters. And it cost just SL Rs.140/-. I also still remember the low grown tea – strong liquor, bright colour and fresh taste to offset the absence of any remarkable flavour. Probably from Uva, I thought… this tea reminded me of low grown teas from Kumbazha, Koney and Cheruvally, all “Low Country” plantations of my first employer, Malayalam Plantations.

I was in Sri Lanka on behalf of an engineering firm which was pitching for an ADB project in Reforms and Regulation in the Urban Water Supply sector.

***

We eventually didn’t get the project. I got an opportunity to push myself beyond reasonable levels with a previously unknown virus short-ciruiting my nervous system.

I got home safely to Bangalore two days later.

***

MERS

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) was first reported in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2012.

I travelled to Port Louis in Mauritius on 20 May 2014 and returned to Bangalore on 28 May 2014, both trips via Dubai.

Picking up viruses was nothing new to me as an assiduous and indefatigable traveller. I used to boast that I collected “Designer Viruses” during my travels to remote corners of India and Bangladesh.

***

Port Louis was a dream city where I consulted for the biggest company in Mauritius named Harel Mallac & Co. This company was founded in 1789 by Charles-Pierre Harel, from Saint-Malo, Brittany, France. I was treated like a VIP at immigration and a uniformed chauffeur met me outside Arrivals. He drove me to a smart business hotel named Voila! in Bagatelle, which is 38 kms from the airport.

The high point of my visit to Port Louis was an unexpected meeting with a high ranking (32nd Degree) Freemason of the “Grande Loge de France”, which follows the Scottish Rite.

***

I left Port Louis on 28th May 2014 for Dubai where I had a four hour layover. It was while I was wandering around Dubai airport that I began to feel uncomfortable with a scratchy feeling in my throat and a stuffy nose. Very soon, I had a bad headache and an uncontrollable frequent need to cough!

My heart fell as I realised I could be infected by MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), the Camel virus first idenified in Saudi Arabia.

My Dubai-Bangalore flight was a three hours thirty minutes journey. Sitting next to me was a petite teenager who winced every time I coughed.

Out of sheer distress, I asked the steward for a glass of hot water. He said he had no hot water but could give me a glass of Scotch. I suppressed my sudden exuberance and said, “Make that a double!” After coughing and sneezing for a few minutes, I dropped off to sleep and woke up half an hour before landing in Bangalore.

It was early morning and with great difficulty I hailed an airport taxi from my mobile, threw my baggage into the trunk of the car and hopped in. Once home, I got out feeling good that I didnt have to pay cash…the payment was deducted from my MERU TAXI Wallet.

I took the lift to my apartment and crawled in, making sure I dragged my baggage in behind me.

I took the stairs up to my bedroom, considered taking a bath, then thought better of the impulse and flopped into bed.

I looked in the mirror and found myself muttering the lyrics of Stanley Holloway’s monologue, “My Word You Do Look Queer“.

“…
My word you do look queer!
Your cheeks are all sunk and your colour’s all gone,
Your neck’s very scraggy, still you’re getting on.
How old are you now? About fifty, that’s true.
Your father died that age, your mother did too.

My head was throbbing, I wasn’t hungry and there was a sharp pain behind both my eyes.

I entered a clearly altered state of consciousness where colours and sounds were enhanced. This experience was similar to an experience I underwent in 1987 in a village near Baripada, Mayurbhanj district of Orissa. A tribal man gave me some fragrant but bitter exudate gum which I ingested. He told me I will meet his “Bongo” and I shouldnt be afraid. “Bongo” is the name given to tribal deities and spirits.

The minutes of my life seemed to be stretched interminably as the traditional medicine [drug] took effect.

I was undergoing a psychedelic experience similar to what I experienced in Mayurbhanj. It seemed that life would go on forever and I would be surrounded by bright lights and pleasant sounds.

***

So if I had been exposed to MERS infection, could the symptoms have shown up so soon?

“The median incubation period for secondary cases associated with limited human-to-human transmission is approximately 5 days (range 2-14 days). In MERS-CoV patients, the median time from illness onset to hospitalization is approximately 4 days. In critically ill patients, the median time from onset to intensive care unit (ICU) admission is approximately 5 days, and median time from onset to death is approximately 12 days.”
REF: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/mers/clinical-features.html

The MERS virus was “detected in a faecal sample taken from an Egyptian tomb bat, collected close to the home of the first known MERS victim.”
REF:
https://www.bbc.com/news/health-23793649

Scientists think that the virus passes from the Egyptian tomb bat to the dromedary camel and then to humans.

“Jonathan Ball, a virologist from the University of Nottingham, said: “We have long suspected that bats are likely to be the original source of MERS. They’ve been around for millions of years and have picked up a lot of viruses on the way – bats are a source of lots of human virus infections, like Ebola, henipahvirus, rabies and Sars.”
REF:
Op.Cit. http://www.bbc.com

I went to sleep and didnt wake up till evening the next day. I am lucky I woke up and lived to tell this story!

My wife Susanne and my daughter Anjali think I made up the story about getting infected with MERS just for dramatic effect. There was no making up the pain and disorientation I went through. The drama was real, believe me!

***

We dont know so much about the COVID-19 corono virus. I am staying put in my apartment and “investing in myself” by revising Applied Statistics, preparing myself for the assignment for which I was contracted just before the Lockdown. I am also using the opportunity to do some creative writing… another investment in myself!

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