WAITING ON ATLAS
March 11: There is no doubt that the proverbial refuse has hit the fan
March 13: I leave the country
One week later
I am now a 2-hour flight away from Karachi with my husband and son. Two of my older children are almost 24 hours away, in cities that are well on their way to the dystopian siege that is our new reality. Will it be safer for them to stay where they are or risk journeying across the virus-laden planet? Can Karachi be safer, with its 22 million souls and broken systems? Unfazed by these esoteric choices, my husband makes the decision. Our trusty travel agent, the hero of the day, arranges flights that slide through closing airports. My son and I race back to Karachi hours before an impossible-to-abide-by governmental regulation is due to kick in. My husband must remain where he is. There are now four of us in our home from three different trajectories, arriving within hours of each other. And Daadijan.
We greet each other from a distance. I feel the airport on my skin and clothes. Seeing my children, who should have been away until the summer, is surreal and unsettling. But there is an incandescent sense of relief. I lay down the rules. We will all be in self-quarantine for 14 days. We will maintain appropriate distancing at all times. Everyone will stay in their own rooms. We can eat together, but far apart. And no one, no one, will be closer than 8 feet from Daadijan.
The city locks down. The lady who helps at our house sends me images of her son's lab work. He has multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (TB). A TB program provider tells her that he will take her son to Jinnah Postgraduate Medical College himself to start treatment. I tell her to lock herself in her house in all circumstances except for hospital visits. I tell her that her son will die if he gets this new disease. Unfortunately for our nation, she understands the dangers of TB.
I find out that a slew of surgical trainees are in quarantine because one has tested positive. I speak to my chief resident. She is frustrated about having to leave her post in the middle of the night, impatient with the implications but unafraid. What follows is as expected. My colleagues and our trainees find themselves in quarantine. It's a bit of a joke around the hospital. How did the surgeons get it? They are way out of the frontline. Who knows? I wrestle with guilt. I have had no exposure other than a couple of relatively empty airports. Over the next few days, I call the employee hotline to try and get someone who will say I'm okay to start work. I text my various bosses. No luck. I chose to get on that plane. Now I have to live with it.
So, what transpired during the self-quarantine and experiment with social distancing? The first meal found us all, with the exception of Daadijan, on the dining table. She ate in the seating area a few feet away. By the third meal, she was at the table too. Accident or design? The children, concerned for her well-being, make subtle hints, look to me, and then make not-so-subtle hints. Using the well-earned privilege of age, she chooses to remain.
The online New York Times crossword puzzle becomes a communal activity. By the evening of day two, as we are agonizing over a 'Monday' puzzle (since then we have graduated to the 'Wednesday" version), I notice that the four of us are packed onto a sofa that normally seats three. Of note, at 5'7", I am the shortest.
And that is that for social distancing.
So how do I fill my days? Every morning starts off with sweeping and mopping the floors. After a couple of days, I notice that the broom comes up empty and the mop water is barely cloudy. Did the virus do away with Karachi's legendary dust?!! I open long shut windows that had thought they were merely panes. The breeze, dare I call it fresh, flows through. The cacophony of silencer-less rickshaws and wailing ambulances is replaced by corvine conversations and songbirds learning to sing again. In an alternate world, where carbon emission regulations meant something, there were no fossil fuels, and we weren't breaking down things right after we made them, would the sky be clearer?
Cleaning done. The next task is keeping three teenagers fed. We settle on brunch and dinner. I find my groove again - the essential salt/mirch balance. I dabble in bread, some 'moment on the lips and lifetime on the hips' baked goods. But by and large, I stick to the comfort staples. Qeema, daal chaawal, aloo gosht. With so much uncertainty, there should be something one can count on.
We develop a routine. Every evening, just as the sun quiets, we brew a pot of tea (with an elaichi tea bag thrown in for mystery) and head to the roof. Here we play Trump until Maghrib or mosquitoes, whichever comes first. I learn how to bet on the number of hands I can make. I never knew that was a thing. I was playing for fun, but apparently, the kids were playing for pride. There is a tally of how many days each team has won. The cards are tattered and grimy, impossible to shuffle, and hard to deal. But they handle the gusts of wind well and won't be replaced.
Until this is over. And living resumes.
DISCLAIMER: Copyright belongs to the author. This article was first published in CBECs newsletter. This blog cannot be held responsible for events bearing overt resemblance to any actual occurrences. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of CCIT or AKU
About the Author
Sadaf Khan, MBBS, FACS, FASCRS Associate Dean, Undergraduate Medical Education, Associate Professor, Department of Surgery at Aga Khan University, Karachi. The writer is a Colorectal surgeon and Educator by profession. She is an observer of life and human behavior, focusing on the good and the hopeful. Every so often, she uses her writing to share her observations.