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Voices From the Pandemic: A Doctor From India on Lockdown in London

Valsraj Menon is a doctor from Kerala who has been treating coronavirus patients.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone across the globe and it certainly has affected me both personally and professionally.

I am now miles away from my elderly parents, with no hope in sight as to when I will be able to visit home. I am not alone in this; there are several million people affected by this around the world, and what makes it even worse is that there are limitations even if you resided only a short distance away from your loved ones in the same state. We are certainly going through exceptionally challenging times; however, the human spirit has always risen to the challenge and we continue to hear stories of faith, hope and dreams. The political leadership was overwhelmed by the enormity of this challenge. Yet many have remembered our common humanity; people from varied faith backgrounds joined hands to work together to instill courage and hope, providing a connection during the isolation.   

I want to share with you some of my own experiences during this pandemic.

I was on board a flight from India to London in the second week of March and the flight was cleared for takeoff.  Then there was an announcement:  some passengers on board would have to be offloaded due to immigration irregularities. Nearly 20 overseas tourists were removed. We were never told the reason. However, media soon flashed the news that there were suspected corona patients on board the flight; we were told that after these passengers were offloaded, those of us who remained, about 270 in all, would leave the plane and the airport would be closed.

All passengers on board the flight were kept unaware of what was happening, but relatives and friends watching the news sent us emails and texts. Finally, after the 20 were offloaded, it was decided that the flight could take off with the remaining passengers. There were mixed emotions — a real sense of fear in the passengers on board the flight and also a sense of relief that we could depart.   

“The COVID-19 crisis has been a wakeup call. Let us hope that we can all take this opportunity to look inward and reclaim our values. We certainly will be able to cherish even better some of the things that we missed during the lockdown.”

Dr. Valsraj Menon

On hearing this news, my family, friends and elderly parents were worried for my health and safety. There was a palpable sense of anxiety on board the flight.  But there was also something else: a surprising spirit of faith emerging in conversations. Only faith could help in this time of uncertainty.

When I landed in London, I was contacted by a friend whose elderly mother was stranded in India; she was one of the 20 passengers offloaded from the flight. Eventually, she was able to rejoin her family. She is now back in London, after having spent six weeks in isolation in India. What is striking here is this woman’s spirit of gratitude. In spite of everything, she remains grateful for being safe and alive. This is remarkable.  

After I landed in London, the lockdown measures were put in place. During this period, I lost two close friends — a family friend in his 90s and a doctor friend in his late 60s who had retired. He had come out of retirement to help the health service during this crisis, and he later died of COVID-19. I came to realize that one of the tragedies of this pandemic is that so many people are alone in their final days. Families are unable to go through the process of grieving and unable to visit with one another due to the restrictions and social isolation. Even now, I still have not been able to visit the families of these men.   

The disaster-planning mindset used in confronting this crisis has forced many to sacrifice some humanity — including kindness and compassion. Let me be quick to add that innovative and creative approaches, some using technology, have also been put to use. The family of the 90-year-old gentleman organized a Zoom prayer meeting which was joined by people around the world to celebrate his life. Faith organizations have also shown adaptability, flexibility and resilience to this regard. However, nothing can ever replace the human presence of the loved one.

We often hear people speak of the “new normal” and I have my reservations about this. While are all willing to embrace the good things that have emerged, we also cherish the good things of the “old normal.” We want some of that back.

The COVID-19 crisis has been a wakeup call. Let us hope that we can all take this opportunity to look inward and reclaim our values. We certainly will be able to cherish even better some of the things that we missed during the lockdown.

Let us look forward to the future with a reinvigorated spirit of faith — and look forward, as well, to welcoming the days of the “old-new normal.”

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