Gurgaon lab technician recalls 'uncertain' days and frantic pace of work during COVID lockdown

NEW DELHI: As the world around him remained locked in homes amid uncertainty and fear over the novel coronavirus, 37-year-old Ananta Kumar Saha would wake up every morning, wrap himself in a PPE kit and go door to door to collect swab samples and ferry them to labs for testing.

The pandemic-induced lockdown left his family separated by hundreds of miles and his colleagues and people around him were “scared” in the initial days, but nothing could deter Saha, a lab technician with the Haryana health department who hails from Malda district in West Bengal.

“It was a nation’s call for duty and I responded,” he told PTI.

“In the initial days, everything was so uncertain. No one could fathom what the virus was, let alone its behaviour. And, everyone was scared. In the health department, other lab technicians were afraid to go to private homes and housing societies to collect samples,” recalled Saha who resides in Gurgaon near here.

He claimed that in the first couple of months he worked “alone” as a lab technician, and on an average collected 50-60 samples daily.

Sometimes, the number would go up to 300 in a day.

“I used to sleep in the car or used to take some rest during day time. The routine used to be so frantic. I would literally run from house to house or society to society after a positive case of Covid would get reported. And, then I had to ferry the samples to designated labs in good time,” he said.

Asked how many samples he has taken so far, he claims, “It should be in excess of 30,000.”

Saha still vividly remembers the days of the COVID-19-induced lockdown in the country.

In this tough period, while performing his duty he faced rudeness from a few people, but he says the “positive spirit to serve humanity” overpowered the “negative episodes”.

“I was willing to go and collect samples despite rising number of cases. Our jawans fight in inhospitable terrains for the country, and this was also a nation’s call for duty, and I responded,” he told PTI.

Saha said he had to ferry samples kept in ice boxes to any of the three designated testing centres in Haryana, whichever would be the nearest.

“So, in the initial days, I used to collect samples and deposit them at PGI Rohtak, Kalpana Chawla Medical College, Karnal or the government medical college at Khanpur in Sonipat. Each centre could take at max 100 samples a day only. It was exhausting to travel throughout the day in hot summer, especially in a PPE kit,” he recalled.

After three months, a few more lab technicians “joined work” and it eased the burden a bit, he said.

“During Independence Day celebrations last year, it felt humbling that the Haryana government acknowledged my efforts and I was felicitated at a function,” he added.

The first case of COVID-19 in Delhi was reported on March 1 when a businessman from east Delhi who had returned from Italy tested positive for the new virus that had left the world puzzled and in a grip of extreme fear.

Nearly one year ago, Haryana had reported its first COVID-19 case in Gurgaon, and soon in the rest of the state that neighbours Delhi.

A nationwide lockdown was imposed by the Centre from March 25 onwards, as people were confined to their homes, while the infected ones were traced and isolated by health authorities.

Saha recalls several incidents during the lockdown when human vulnerabilities and want of empathy came to the fore at a time when many people in their own families were afraid to go near each other.

“Once I had to collect sample of a doctor who had got infected and was quarantined in a hotel. She was finding it difficult to fight loneliness and requested if I could shared a cup of tea with her. I could have refused but, then I thought, if I sat with her, her traumatised mind will get some relief. It was the only human option I felt I had,” he said.

Asked if he was scared to share a cup of tea with her, he said, “No”.

“I have never been scared, and during my job so far, I have undergone COVID-19 test for nearly 30 times, and thankfully, all of those had come negative,” the lab technician said.

Asked about his daily regimen in the initial days of the lockdown, he said, the day use to begin at about 7:30 AM and since he had to ferry samples to centres as well, it would be way past midnight on many days.

“I used to change my PPE kit at regular intervals, sometimes using 3-4 in a day. It was faith that kept us all going, otherwise the pandemic had already taken a toll on mental well-being of people, in and out of homes,” the Malda native said.

Asked if he isolated himself from his family during the lockdown period, he said, “I live alone in Gurgaon, my wife and my young daughter are back in Malda. I had met them last in October 2018. In 2019, I could not visit home for some other reasons, then the pandemic broke out. I reunited with them late February this year.”