Coronavirus scare: Life inside a containment zone in Guwahati

Tora Agarwala

A medical team stationed at the apartment complex in Guwahati. (Source: PTI Photo)

For two days now, complains the 51-year-old businessman, a group of television reporters, cameras in tow, have been stationed outside their apartment complex. “I understand they need to be here, but can’t they take one shot and leave?” he asks, “Or are they expecting bullets to fly out of here? Or maybe they think zombies will walk out?”

The man is a resident of an upmarket apartment complex in the heart of Guwahati, Assam. On Friday night, before the Health Ministry officially confirmed the news, pictures of the building emerged on social media and local news channels: a resident from among its plush flats had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. It was the first case reported from Assam’s capital city, and also the first to have no connection to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz — to which 25 out of 26 cases of the state have been traced so far.

Many residents of the complex first heard about the patient from local media reports. As society WhatsApp groups started pinging late Friday night, their fears were confirmed when the patient himself messaged on the group: “I have tested positive for COVID-19. People who have come in my contact in the last 2 weeks, please quarantine yourselves.”

“It obviously came as a shock to us — he is a very learned and educated guy, he keeps himself active,” says a 31-year-old male resident. “I knew him personally.” He describes the complex as a “full-fledged” society, with “greenery and parking space”.

Established nearly a decade ago, the complex was perhaps Guwahati’s first “luxury apartment” — a novelty in what was back then a small, developing city, different from the Guwahati of 2020 with its gleaming new shopping malls.

Soon the complex, inhabited largely by Guwahati's upwardly mobile business communities, became a city landmark in its own right.

Firefighters spray disinfectant on a road near the residential complex in Guwahati. (Source: PTI Photo)

A containment zone

On Saturday, addressing a press conference in Guwahati, Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that over 100 people who had come into contact with the patient had been identified. The authorities suspect that the patient contracted the infection in Guwahati itself — it had been over a month since he had returned from Delhi. Of the 100, while the results of 85 samples are negative, rest are awaited.

Sarma also declared the name of the residential complex to the press, officially identifying it as a 'containment zone': no one could enter or exit the building without due authorisation.

Around Assam, which detected its first positive case on March 31, much after cases were reported in the rest of the country, there are many such ‘zones’ now: localities and neighbourhoods in different districts, with positive cases, have been sealed, as per the “Assam COVID-19 Regulations, 2020". The perimeter usually extends to about 3 km.

“These follow the Government of India and World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines,” says Biswajit Pegu, District Commissioner, Kamrup (Metro) under which Guwahati falls. “Right now, it has been sealed for 14 days, but it might even go up to 28.” As per protocol, the complex was sanitised the “moment the positive case was reported". Even the supermarket close by, where many of its well-heeled residents visit often, has been sealed.

Through Saturday morning, the residents of the 188-flat complex watched as team after team came in to sanitise their complex. Some peeked through the windows, the more daring came out to the balconies. “It felt like a war zone,” says the 51-year-old resident.

In 24 hours, the elevator was sealed, and the working staff of the building, who would clean the common areas, left. The residents are now dividing the work among themselves. “There are five blocks, four flats to a floor,” says the 31-year-old resident, who is part of the society’s executive board, “Now every morning, the common lobby is swept and wiped by the flat owners, alternately.”

A policemen checks a commuter in Guwahati during the lockdown. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

Other activities, too, have been divided by the society: water management, essential orders, deliveries, etc. Its many WhatsApp groups, which usually function as avenues to share forwards, have come in handy. “There are constant updates, announcements and reminders: whether it is about washing your hands, or anything else which is important, like where to throw garbage,” says a 48-year-old woman resident of the building, “There are also a lot of good thoughts, positive messages of hope — something to say that we are in this together, we are a community.” But not without some ‘nasty updates’ about ‘other communities’. “When they surface, I ignore them,” says the woman.

From panic to a sense of calm

While the flat members say they had gone into self-declared “lockdown mode” ever since the Janata Curfew declared by PM Narendra Modi on March 22, the containment changes a few things. “Two days back, we were all a little lenient. I would go on my daily one-and-a-half hour walk, our kids would play downstairs,” says a 38-year-old woman entrepreneur from the complex, “Now all that has changed. We feel that something is in the air. Sometimes, it is hard to believe that somebody so close by got it.” On the morning after the case was reported, the woman says she woke up with a headache. “I thought I was positive too — but then I realised it is all in my head,” she says, with a laugh.

The initial panic is slowly giving way to a sense of calm. Even on Monday morning, roads around and within the complex were sanitised. Health Minister Sarma also paid a visit to the complex. “The medical team is here, food will come to the gate, the security — dressed as per guideline — will take the food in,” Sarma told the reporters milling outside the complex gates on Monday.

In another block, a mother of a two-week-old baby, who moved into the complex less than a month ago, can’t help worry a little. “But I am trying to look at the positive side of things. Because we are sealed, we are now better off,” she says, “At least now we know that people from outside are not coming in. That is reassuring.”

The district administration is in touch with the president and secretary of the executive that runs the complex with 200-odd families. “We have also given our numbers in cases anyone wants to call for an emergency,” says DC Pegu, “We have tied up with pharmacies, grocery stores and vegetable vendors who have agreed to deliver to the complex.”

However, not everyone wants to — for the fear they will contract the virus, too. Just earlier this morning, two private hospitals refused to send in their ambulances to pick up two persons (a pregnant woman and a dialysis patient) who needed to step out for check-ups.

“I guess it is understandable. In an atmosphere where we fear our own neighbours, why would outsiders want to come in at all?” says the entrepreneur.

Her friend, the 48-year-old woman resident, says her phone has been ringing off the hook since Saturday. Often, it is concerned friends and distant relatives calling to check if she and her husband are safe. “I know it is out of concern, and hopefully all this will be over soon,” she says. But when it is, she wonders if her friends will want to rub shoulders with her. “Or, when I go to the gym, will people react? They will know I belong to the now-infamous building,” she says, “In a city like Guwahati, these things matter. And as important it is for the media to report that a case is positive, I wish they would put equal effort in dispelling rumours and in sensitising people when a case is not.”.

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