An Oral History of the COVID-19 Crisis: 'An uncharted territory of travelling through an unperceived threat'

This account is part of Firstpost’s Oral History Project of the COVID-19 Crisis in India. The Oral History Project aims to be an ongoing compendium of individual experiences of the pandemic, with a focus on one significant day in our respondents’ lives during this time.

Subhashim Goswami April 15, 2021 14:45:55 IST
An Oral History of the COVID-19 Crisis: 'An uncharted territory of travelling through an unperceived threat'

Illustration © Adrija Ghosh for Firstpost

Subhashim Goswami is an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (SHSS), Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida.

I had been lucky to live in a university campus during the lockdown, with hundreds of acres to walk around, play, see birds fishing on a lake and meet friends and colleagues over a cup of tea and sometimes even at homes that trust your physical presence beyond tacitly accepted norms. There was no reason for me to leave this 'safe haven' as many had told me. Yet somehow one Sunday evening, I decided to head back to my hometown Guwahati in Assam, almost on a whim. My parents are old and I felt my parents and I would do well with physical proximity to share uncertainties rather than mere words of solace on the phone. But it was in the midst of a heightened pandemic.

Each day, the numbers and statistics got scarier. Trepidation and unacknowledged anxiety were more than an undertone through the two days of packing and taking care of an entire household to leave behind, for maybe six months or more. I would be lying if I said I did not feel a tad bit more anxious about this travel than any other in the past. Nevertheless, what lay ahead was an uncharted territory of travelling through an unperceived threat.

Read more from the Oral History Project here.

On the fated day of my travel, I woke up at an eerie hour with a mask and a sanitiser at hand to leave. On reaching the airport, the security personnel at the entry, ensconced within a huge plexiglass frame, asked me to show my ticket and identification card by stamping it on to the frame and then take off my mask for him to give one slight but certain glance between the ID and my face and then a nod for me to proceed. I realised by the end of this trip that pasting paper on to plexiglass frames is the new norm of showing documents.

Check-in was smooth, the airline staff again behind a plexiglass counter with just masks on. At the boarding gate, I was handed a packed and sealed face shield with strict instructions to wear it immediately.

The aircraft crew were all robed in head-to-toe PPE kits. For the first time, I could not see the ostensibly effervescent smiles of the cabin crew. I did smile back though, buried in my mask and observed how ‘a smile cannot be seen anymore’. I headed to my allotted seat and was reassured to see there was no one in the entire row all along to the other end. There was someone behind and in front of me, but the face shield and the mask made you feel secure, as if one were in a glass viewing tunnel underwater. Unless there is a crash, I should survive the intrusion of the unseen virus!

After landing in Guwahati, we walked into a long queue for a temperature check and then proceeded to collect our baggage with two parallel layers of marked circles to stand around the conveyor belt. After collecting bags, a woman at the exit asked each passenger about their final destination and handed out a form to fill accordingly. I was directed to a local bus standing outside, which drove us to the sprawling and fairly new sports stadium located in the outskirts of the city, turned into a testing and quarantine facility.

Upon reaching we were handed another form which asked for our flight details and personal information. I had just begun filling out the form and was startled to hear my name being announced immediately. I waited, masking my slight anxiety at the makeshift laboratory till the person behind the glass barricade in full PPE regalia put on an extra mask and a head and face cover and extended his gloved hands through two hand holes asking me to come closer for him to place a small thin cotton-tipped stick into my nose and do the same with my throat with another such stick. It took no more than five minutes. I had been subjected to the infamous COVID-19 test. My fate now lay behind reams of details on paper and computers, all recorded and noted, attached to two tiny vials of bodily fluid collected, sealed and stored away by careful and extra cautious hands. My body was finally recorded.

— A more detailed version of this narrative was published in the January issue of Society and Culture in South Asia.

Write to us with your COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown experiences for inclusion in the Oral History Project at firstculturefeatures@gmail.com

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