In a single room flat in Abu Dhabi, 6 roommates and a COVID patient

Christina George
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Two construction workers examine a drainage system with the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, in the skyline behind them in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Monday, April 6, 2020. (AP Photo)

On April 4, a 25-year-old migrant from Kerala, working as a technician in an electronic company in Abu Dhabi, returned to his shared accommodation to his roommate struggling with a fever. The temperature was 101 degrees Fahrenheit. The number of coronavirus positive cases in United Arab Emirates (UAE) had already crossed 3,500 by then. However, the seven roommates, all from Kerala, decided to wait another day.

With no signs of improvement, on April 6, he called all the helpline numbers set up by the Kerala government in the UAE to facilitate access to medical care. He also reached out to the embassy. The medical assistants asked him to direct the patient to one of the 13, recently-opened, COVID-19 drive-through testing facilities of the Abu Dhabi health services company SEHA. But since curfew was announced on April 5, no conveyance was available, SEHA’s ambulance facility was also not available. They managed to hire a private taxi with some assistance from an acquaintance and reached the testing centre.

Read | Over 3,000 Indians overseas infected with coronavirus, 25 dead: Govt

By now, the social distancing strategy was in place. The six roommates divided the room, which, according to him, is spacious, but small considering the group had to remain in one half and devote the other to the patient. Cramped in whatever space was available, all of them, besides waiting for the test results patiently, started cleaning the room every hour with Dettol. All of them, who share a common bathroom and kitchen, decided to take turns and clean, that too every time they used it. They separated utensils as well for the roommate awaiting results.

The roommates, who all work together, informed their company which immediately provided emergency PPE kits like masks and gloves. The Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC), a local organisation for NRIs from Kerala, arranged food two times a day for everyone in the room.

Read | COVID-19: Any changes in migration pattern from Gulf will affect 80 lakh people in Kerala, says expert

Meanwhile, another roommate started showing symptoms, he was coughing, sporadically. The fear was mounting, but the only solution was to maintain self-safety and share the room. “We divided the room using a tape and kept cleaning the room with the available resources. Even after maintaining all kinds of safety, a constant panic has been gripping among all of us,” he said.

A technician takes a nasal swab for a new coronavirus detection test at a drive-thru testing facility in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Thursday, April 2, 2020. (AP Photo)

The youth spoke to his parents in Kollam a day before the test results were supposed to be out. “I haven’t told them anything about the situation here. They will panic. I told them everything was fine here. In fact, to bring them at peace, I told them that lockdown has helped us take a break from work, but we know what we are going through,” he told indianexpress.com, the fear in his voice palpable.

On April 9, the COVID test result came positive. “The testing centre informed my roommate of the result. We immediately called the Kerala help centre. His condition was stable by now and the fever had subsided,” he said, adding that the doctors suggested the roommate stay home as the case was not critical, saying they would admit as soon as beds were available.

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Though the roommate gradually stopped showing symptoms, the six others in the room were still in fear. All of them, wearing masks, picked a corner of the room for themselves, spending time playing games on their phones.

On April 10, they too were taken for the test. They continued to maintain distance and cleaned the house every hour. Everyone in the room is asymptomatic now. However, no quarantine facility has been provided, yet.

A security guard keeps watch over hundreds of taxi cabs parked at the shopping theme park Global Village in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (AP Photo)

Another 29-year-old in the room, whose bed is the closest to the one who tested positive, said: “We are already living in congested spaces and now giving half of that space to maintain social distancing is extremely hard. The UAE government should soon set up quarantine centres because it is difficult to adjust space in these rooms.”

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in his letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 9 urged to ensure adequate food, medicines, quarantine and emergency facilities to the Indian diaspora in the UAE as there is no scope for repatriation till the lockdown ends. He added that the state government received several complaints on the inadequate isolation and quarantine facilities in the UAE. The NRIs are apprehensive that there would be an imminent community spread, he said.

However, according to a report in Gulf News daily, the Indian ambassador to the UAE Pavan Kapoor said the Indian embassy and the consulate have identified commercial and schools buildings owned by Indian nationals in the UAE that can be offered to the government, who may then convert them into quarantine centres so as to accommodate vulnerable expats living in congested accommodation.

A sign warning the public that the beach is closed next to the Burj Al-Arab luxury hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Monday, April 6, 2020. (AP Photo)

After four days of testing positive, on April 13, the roommate was shifted to the Sheikh Khalifa Medical City hospital. The next day everyone else in the room tested negative.

Also read | 19 Indians stuck in Dubai airport for 3 weeks desperate to return home

The roommates have been thinking of future challenges, of possible job losses and salary cuts. They are aware that repatriation to India will also be slow. For now, till May 3, all that they are hoping is to test negative. The roommates will go for their second COVID test in a week.