My Pandemic Story: Conversation of a private school headmaster and an epidemiologist

I had a sudden emotional pang to that I wanted to go home so badly to give a hug to my parents and say ‘things will be alright again’.

“The government is saying not to take school fees from the students but to continue online classes and to pay the salary for teachers.” This was my father’s first line as I said “hello” to his call today (May 27, 2020) 

My father works as a headmaster at a private school in Manipur for 44-45 years. At our conversation weeks before, he was very sad that many schools were conducting online classes but he was not able to do because many of his students and guardians do not have smart phones, laptops or computers. Somehow, his school also started conducting online classes as well as offline by distributing notes to guardians and students.

He continued, “My teachers are working so hard now. I have to pay their salary on time, they are depending on this meagre salary.’’

Every time we talk, he would always say, “I don’t think school would reopen soon.” I used to tell him not to expect that he can open the school soon, this health crisis is going to be for long. This conversation was during April when Manipur had only two COVID 19 positive cases. When Manipur was declared as green zone, my father was very hopeful that schools will be open soon. However, schools remain closed.

Then May came and the state government announced the plan of bringing back Manipuris stranded in other states. Since then the state has been reporting COVID 19 positive cases almost every day and the state is in total chaos, unable to manage large number of returnees every day.

My father’s school is now converted as a community quarantine centre. He was informed about this by the authority few hours before they were supposed to bring the returnees at school. Residents and shop owners nearby the school resisted but my father was as clueless as them.

That evening, he called me and asked, “Is there any possibility that coronavirus will be in air around the school and people who are living nearby might inhale the virus? Can they be infected this way?” He was worried that residents nearby the school might be at high risk of infection.

I told him that coronavirus cannot travel far like 30-40 meters through air which is the approximate distance between school campus and the nearest house. It can travel short distance only.  That’s why we are told not to stay very close to each other and to avoid crowded areas. I continued to explain about other modes of transmission- surface contacts and infected objects (fomites) such as clothes, utensils, masks, gloves, bucket, mugs etc. used by an infected person, need of proper waste management at school campus by quarantine supervisors, sanitizing the surfaces, to be at home as much as possible which I really had to explain elaborately as we all know how hard it is to tell parents to be at home! I went on to explaining further.

My father stopped me abruptly and said, “Too much of information.”

Yes, it was common mistake most of the experts do--explaining too much and I realized how important it is to do simple message risk communication depending on specific context and for whom we are doing the communication which is very much neglected in current COVID-19 response.

Today he asked me, “How long this pandemic will continue?” expecting to hear a positive answer from his epidemiologist daughter. Unfortunately, I did not have an answer. I said “We might have some idea about the situation in Manipur by June-July month, whether it is going to reach the community or only the imported cases. But given the way how the state is managing the situation and huge numbers of returnees every day, things can be dangerous.”

He sighed, totally disappointed by my reply. His concern is if school remains closed for months there would be no income to even pay his staffs who are working hard for online classes as schools are not allowed to take any fees from students during this time.

I tried to console him saying that now we need to live with the term that coronavirus is going to be here for long, who knows this year might end like this. So, he should not be so hard on himself.  The only advice I had for him as an epidemiologist was ‘to follow all the preventive measures not to get infected and not to stigmatised people coming back home from other states.’ And as a daughter, I told him to concentrate on planting vegetables at our kitchen garden with mummy so that at least they will have some vegetables to eat during lockdown.

My father replied with a hint of laughter in his voice, “Oh yes, your mummy sowed a new batch of mustard seeds yesterday and we caught a big fish from our pond today.”  And today’s conversation ended. This is what this pandemic is doing to all of us, everyone is struggling at their own level.

Thousands km away from home, I was smiling as well as I was feeling sad after that phone call. I had a sudden emotional pang to that I wanted to go home so badly to give a hug to my parents and say ‘things will be alright again’, to spend the summer with my sisters and brothers gossiping and laughing while eating thinly sliced green mangoes with spicy green chilies and mint.

My family and friends reached out to me when they have confusion on pandemic news. But not everyone has a public health expert as a friend or as a daughter, to whom they are supposed to call or text when they are confused by buzzing information on pandemic. Now is the time to prioritise our efforts on the accessible communication and actionable guidance for every one on COVID 19.

First Published:May 31, 2020, 8:56 p.m.