Deserted corridors with white walls; a thermal screening device staring me in the face; and doctors in hazmat suits — that’s how I thought the screening of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, now a pandemic, would look like. 

A week-long struggle with continuous cough, sneezing, on and off fever, and a not-so-sure mutual exposure to a positive COVID-19 patient landed me in Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Science (SKIMS).

But in there, the reality was way different than what a chunk of science-fiction movies made me imagine. Partly, because none of them — at least the good ones — were shot in Indian government hospitals. 

And it wasn’t my first attempt either; a day after I caught cold and felt feverish in initial March, I reached out to Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital. “Even if you have coronavirus, your test will take forty-five days,” the doctor mocked me. “By then, you would have infected half of Kashmir. Go home and take rest. Don’t worry.”

Without divulging into how the security at SKIMS almost detained me for clicking a picture of overwhelmingly crowd – either attendants or ill-patients – tussling in an erratic queue for Out-patient Department ticket — I shall move on. The scene made me realize, I shall buy a mask at soonest. The in-house pharmacy store was out of it.

Even if you have coronavirus, your test will take forty-five days. By then, you would have infected half of Kashmir. Go home and take rest. Don’t worry.

“Where are they testing for coronavirus?” I asked, leaning on the window of the pharmacy store.

“What? Who has coronavirus?” a female shouted from inside the store. “Go to the microbiology department. It’s near the blood bank.”

Covering my mouth, coughing and sneezing, with a handkerchief in my right-hand I started moving towards the second-floor, microbiology department – the only place to get tested for coronavirus in Kashmir Valley. To break it down, a lab shared by eight million people.

Inside, it was white and deserted. A couple of empty chairs in the waiting area were walled by a gate of glass in an aluminum frame; the poster on it read: Restricted Entry (with biohazard symbol). I was afraid – of touching the surface, the glass, and everything in there – but the biohazard symbol fascinated me. It was like China’s Chernobyl moment has spread its tentacle to Kashmir.

A doctor – not in a hazmat suit, but a white apron and an N-95 mask – inside the first room asked the purpose of my visit. “I have continuous cough and fever, I suspect,” I halted and rephrased to continue, “I think I might – might – have coronavirus.”

He stepped back. Waited for a few seconds, and asked me, “Why would you think so?” 

Okay. As if I needed too many reasons to not think so. Aren’t my coughs, running nose, aching back, and loosening joints, indicators – if not symptoms? I met a couple of friends with similar symptoms flying into the Valley. A chunk of first-person accounts and features were published internationally claimed that the virus is now a pandemic because people neglected the initial symptoms thinking of it as seasonal flu. Specifically, in Italy.

Maybe, I seemed paranoid to him – but, yes, I read. 

Asking me not to worry, he asked me for the OPD ticket. I didn’t have any. “Didn’t you see a doctor?” he asked me. “Who recommended you to come here?” I realized that I bypassed a long list of checkpoints before reaching to the testing facility. But wait. Do they want a symptomatic patient to stand in OPD queue, rub shoulders with everyone else – cough on their faces – and then a doctor would recommend him to get tested for COVID-19?

By now, he was afraid of me, or my cough. First things first; he asked his assistant to arrange an N-95 mask. And they were out of it. He went down and came back empty hands. 

The mask came a few passerby – patients, doctors, a plumber – and twenty-five minutes late. While I tried to put it on, one of its elastic broke free. I didn’t ask for another one and managed. The doctor had asked me everything till then – name, place of birth, occupation, work hours, and attendants. And a zillion times to cover my face tightly.

An in-house circular pasted on a wall front of me stated clearly that SKIMS was short of testing and diagnostic kit and only those admitted in wards or received under Emergency Medicine’s C-Category.

I felt like a bomb. I was a patient, supposedly, and the hospital administration – that I could see – seemed scared of me.

Within the next few minutes, two policemen came – asking in Kashmiri, if I’m the patient. “How can we give him security? What about our security – we don’t even have masks?” was all that I could overhear from their conversation. The doctor and his newly-arrived senior were angry at the cops because I had surpassed a couple of boxes in the checklist before reaching here.

Nonetheless, there I was – coughing my lungs out. The senior doctor paraded me downstairs hastily, asking about my symptoms. The ground floor was flooded with patients and their attendants as I moved past them. 

A few meters away from the emergency area, we took a sudden left – which anyone could neglect. The shady lane leads to an open compound where four policemen sit, and two of them playing games on their smartphones.

One stood guard to a locked facility. The doctor noted my symptoms and wrote down the contact details on an OPD ticket that which she bought and asked me to move inside. The guard unlocked it, moved another young mask-wearing boy out, and allowed me in.

It had an unclean aura and dirty walls. It smelt like a hospital. The heater above my head to increase the temperature made me shed a layer of upper and I moved in one of the three identical rooms with a bed and ventilator. The isolation ward was making me sicker.

I couldn’t move out either. The door was locked from inside and the guard won’t open it. “It’s an order from the administration,” he told from behind the closed door. I was reminded of a case from Jammu, where suspected patients had run from isolation wards. Maybe, it was to prevent that – but both of us were not sure of that.

Another doctor, more senior this time, called me. He asked me my symptoms again and noted down day-by-day details of my illness. “Wait there only,” he told me on the phone call. “I will consult with higher-ups and would tell if we need to test you.”

After nearly an hour inside the isolation ward, the doctor, who brought me here, came back. “Go see a physician first,” she said. “You don’t have coronavirus. It is just seasonal flu.”

I was reminded of articles, again. But I walked out. The doctor in the emergency ward asked me to undergo a flu test, put myself under home-quarantine, and take rest. “Don’t worry,” he told me, again. “Return after five days if you still have the symptoms.”

“Maybe need evaluation for possible COVID-19,” he wrote at the end of the OPD ticket and asked me to go home. 

Yashraj Sharma is a Features Writer and Assistant Editor at The Kashmir Walla.

The comment appeared in our 16-22 March 2020 print edition.

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