My journey: Coming home to self-isolation

Sudha Kallakuri is a Research Fellow working with the Mental Health division at The George Institute India and is currently under mandatory home quarantine after returning to India from Australia. Here, she shares her first-hand experience of coming home and self-isolation in the hope it might be helpful for others in a similar situation.

The worldwide coronavirus pandemic has created so much unrest and panic in everyone and I too have not been able to escape these sorts of thoughts and feelings. The emotional roller-coaster I went through during my return from Australia to India began at 8am on March 21, when I arrived at Sydney Airport to take a flight back to New Delhi. The decision of travelling back to India itself was a difficult one to take as I had to cut down my planned length of stay in Australia for my PhD and was very stressed about the implications it could have in my candidature. However, I took the decision of coming back and I was very fortunate that my supervisors supported my decision completely.

With the continuous changes that were happening across the world, every day was very stressful for me and my eyes were glued to my laptop to check for any national announcements or decisions taken by the governments both at Australia and India which may have any implications in my travel.  Finally, I managed to reach the airport on 21st March 2020 where I saw so many faces at the airport, filled with so much stress, uncertainty, helplessness and an eagerness to get back to their family and loved ones so many miles away. I also shared the same feelings, with each moment filled with a lot of conflict in my mind about safely arriving at my home in Hyderabad.

I knew the outcomes were unsure and I thought about the numerous checks I was going to face and the kind of treatment I would have to go through. I was extremely worried about this uncertainty, and was thinking: “Will I ever get home safely? What if I contract this infection during the travel on the flight,or have already got the infection, , or at the airport or in the cab? Will I be able to avoid spreading this disease in my family?”

I was going crazy.

These thoughts haunted me throughout the long flight and finally I landed at Delhi Airport on the same day at 5:30pm. From the moment I landed in Delhi, each minute was extremely difficult as there was no certainty in how things would turn out. There was a huge influx of people at the airport, which was not surprising due to the announcement of travel restrictions that would begin the next day.

I spent almost 12 hours waiting at the airport to complete the immigration and health screening process. It was very exhausting, with no food, no idea about how long it would take to leave the airport, and a constant fear of contracting the infection due to so many strangers around me whose health conditions were unknown.

On top of this, I missed my connecting flight despite planning a buffer of 4 hours. Finally, at around 5:00 am the next day on March 22, I went through the screening process and was recommended for home quarantine by the doctors. They stamped my hand with a sign that said: ‘Home Quarantine’.

It took me a while to accept the stamp because I knew people would see it, and I wondered how they would look at me and behave towards me. But then I quickly diverted my mind and tried to focus on the fact that I had successfully passed one stage. I was very happy that I would now be able to come home and nothing was going to stop me!

All this was possible because I took extreme care and followed all the precautions to protect me from contracting any kind of infection during this time. I would like to mention that I was so cautious about all this and never allowed my emotions to rule my mind, which helped me follow the instructions so carefully and logically.

I was very fortunate to have a very big support system of family and friends during this journey. My friend was awake the whole night during my journey and kept checking my whereabouts. This helped me a lot, knowing that someone was supporting me. She also booked me another flight when I missed the connection in New Delhi.  

I continued my journey and successfully reached home at 10:30 am on March 22. I took a lot of precautions, knowing that I live in an apartment complex of around 200 flats. I was mentally prepared that I needed to be locked up in a room for 15 days.

I took extreme care - not even touching the lift door or button with my hands, which I knew was used by many others. I had already asked my kids and my husband to leave and stay elsewhere during this self-isolation period. However, I was equally worried about my parents who were staying with me in the same house. I gave myself a moral boost, telling myself that “It’s just a matter of few days and then everything will return to normal!”

I started day one of my isolation trying to engage myself and got on my laptop to forget all my thoughts and mixed feelings about staying alone in the same house. I connected with my friends, who were eagerly waiting for my arrival. They gave me a lot of strength and support. I said to myself “If things stay like this, these 15 days will pass very easily!”

But I was wrong.

My parents kept getting calls from other residents in the apartments, saying they were concerned that I kept the balcony door open in my room, and that I should not step onto the balcony. I was completely shattered and felt very bad when I heard all that. People started asking my father why he is leaving the home so many times, and he is now not allowed to go downstairs even to buy essential commodities.

A lot of guilt and helplessness came into my thoughts. I started thinking “Are these the same people who used to be so close to me and used to consider me and my family as important parts of their lives?”

That was not all - my close friends also kept getting calls from others to check if I went through a screening process during my travel home, and to know my whereabouts.

All these thoughts really disturbed me a lot. I decided to answer all the worries or issues people had and wrote a very long message in a WhatsApp group describing in detail all the precautions I’m taking and the screening process I went through. I reassured them that their safety is my priority and I’m a responsible individual.

After that, I received messages from people and calls from other friends expressing their support. I was overwhelmed with the kind of support I received from people whom I never expected to hear from. That was the day I decided “I will fight against all this negativity around me!”

This has made me even stronger.

I started concentrating on my work and thought this would be the best time to complete all the pending tasks I was struggling to complete some days ago. I planned a daily routine and I stuck to it, which also includes making sure there is some time to talk to my friends and family. This has given me a lot of assurance and motivation to complete my tasks. My supervisors were very empathetic and kept checking with me about my wellbeing continuously. Some of my colleagues rang me up on a regular basis and asked me how I was doing. I am fortunate to have such great colleagues and supervisors and had it not been for their support,  this would have become even more gruelling for me.

I’m also currently dedicating some time to work on my hobbies, like practising my singing and reading some of my favourite books. I’m also taking time to think, reflect and bring in a lot more positivity by watching some spiritual as well as factual motivational videos, which helps me reflect and rejuvenate myself daily.

The key thing I have learnt in these few days of self-isolation is that life is not always the same. There will be situations we all will need to face alone, and these situations will make you even stronger and teach you discipline and positivity.

I also thought about the many people around the world in the same situation, or even worse, but without the support system I have. I wondered how that would feel and how they would cope with their situation.

I have read a lot of stories about all the healthcare staff, aviation staff, sanitation staff, police and others who have gone through similar unnecessary negative treatment from their family, friends and society. This made me promise to myself that I will never behave like this with someone else in the future because I now understand how it feels like to be stigmatised.  

I consider myself very fortunate and would like to appeal to everyone to think twice before passing judgement or having stigmatising thoughts about someone who is going through difficult times in his or her life.

With these things in mind, I have so far completed four days of self-isolation and will complete the 15-day period on April 5. I strongly urge all of you to please comply with physical distancing but not social distancing!