“I had COVID-19″



  • The Sunday Times journalist Sandun Jayawardana relates his experience of being afflicted with the virus
  • His case was lumped together with the Peliyagoda cluster though he neither visited  the fish market nor bought fish from a fish monger; source is still a mystery
  • Some patients hit out at Govt. for pinning the blame on people for the second wave; many of them have lost their jobs

The call from Ragama Teaching Hospital (RTH) late night on October 28 was like a hammer blow. The doctor said the PCR test I underwent the day before had come back positive for COVID-19.

I felt a myriad of emotions as he told me matter-of-factly to pack my bags and be ready to be moved to a Government-run treatment centre.

The testing process

I had driven myself to the closest hospital the previous day after waking up with a fever. I wasn’t alarmed. But I had decided to get myself tested because I had covered Parliament debate on the 20th Amendment on October 21 and 22.

We knew on the night of October 24 that an officer from Parliament’s police barracks had tested positive. Officials reassured us that he was in charge of the kitchen and canteen and not involved in day-to-day affairs. However, since fever was a COVID-19 symptom and as the PCR results of the policeman’s primary contacts were yet to come, I went to a special section at the Ragama Teaching Hospital (RTH) and requested to be tested.

The testing regime is expected to be robust. Yet, at Ragama, I nearly fell through systemic cracks. They said I didn’t qualify under “strict criteria” guiding who should get a PCR because I wasn’t a close contact of a known COVID-19 patient.

The Government insisted there was no community transmission. And I had already been explicitly told I didn’t encounter the infected policeman in Parliament. Now, fever wasn’t enough for me to get a PCR.

This was not the fault of RTH administrators. They had to be selective about who they tested as they were permitted only a limited number of PCRs a day. There were many already at the hospital seeking the facility. They were mainly family members or close associates of infected patients and received first preference.

But a close relative–a doctor at RTH–made a request on my behalf saying she could catch the virus from me if I was unknowingly positive. This would have a serious impact on the hospital and, to eliminate that risk, they needed to test me. That’s how I underwent a PCR.

Transfer to a treatment centre

After the positive result, I was told they may come for me early on October 29. Even by the end of that day, however, I was still at home. My wife and two young children had moved into a separate room after I had woken up with a temperature. But we knew that the longer I stayed, the higher the likelihood of them getting infected, if they weren’t already.

I inquired about the delay. I was told there were no ambulances to come and pick me up. I was under the Wattala Medical Officer of Health (MOH) in the Gampaha District. That region–and Wattala, in particular–was hit by a surge of COVID-19 cases. The authorities were overwhelmed.

“We couldn’t pick up anyone last night,” the exhausted local Public Health Inspector (PHI) told me. “There are too many patients and they don’t have enough ambulances for our area,” he said. My only option was to wait.

It was only the afternoon of October 30 that the Wattala MOH office notified me of an ambulance having been sent to take me to the Matugama Divisional Hospital. When the 1990 Suwa Seriya ambulance arrived, I saw neighbours looking on nervously as I waited to climb in. Pedestrians stopped to gawk. Vehicles slowed down while passing by. One three-wheeler even turned back for a second look. I now understood the fear and stigma attached to this virus. It wasn’t a good feeling.

As Matugama is accessible via the Southern Expressway, the trip to the hospital took less than two hours. There were two other patients who had just arrived. We stood in a socially-distanced line for staff to direct us to our ward with our bed numbers. Workers in personal protective equipment (PPE) disinfected the ambulances and the path we took to the ward. The ambulance crew was also sprayed down.

The ward

Our spacious 25-bed ward was in two sections. The space in the centre held a kitchen sink, water filter and rubbish bin. One section was already full with patients who had arrived the previous day. The second had only four of us.

The ward was in great condition, thankfully. It was clean with three toilets and a shower for each section. We had to keep it tidy and clean and took extra care to do so. My fellow patients indicated that the treatment centre was only for patients with mild or no symptoms. There were, however, a few who had underlying health issues, mainly diabetes.

Our ward was full by mid next day. And by nightfall, so was the adjacent ward. There were so many patients being detected.

Each ward had a designated team leader. Ours was Nishantha*, from Kalutara. “Welcome to the Matugama COVID hotel,” he announced, cheerfully, when we arrived. A chauffeur tourist guide, he had lost his job due to the pandemic. To support his wife and three young children, he agreed to drive a friend’s fish lorry to and from the Peliyagoda fish market—and ended up getting infected.

Nishantha and several others had been taught how to help hospital employees keep everyone in good health. The ward had a thermometer, a glucose meter and test strips for those with diabetes. Dilshan*–one of two policemen in the ward–checked sugar levels and could inject insulin to a patient that needed it. This group also knew how to operate a pulse oximeter which measures the oxygen saturation of a patient.

There was a nurses’ station in the corridor to serve two wards. Nurses and medical staff in PPE attended to us from there. Communication was via a direct phone line or a speaker that relayed messages from a nurse with a microphone. Staff would also stand outside the building and speak to us.

Food and medicine was delivered on a trolley which we pushed outside when it was time. Medical staff withdrew after placing the meals on it. Then, one of us would go out and bring it in. There were separate menus for diabetic patients. There were packets with medicines, names and our bed numbers. Other items also came in this way, like tea, surgical masks, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste. On our request, staff even sent fresh flowers every morning for the Buddhist altar. There was a television, card packs, a carrom and a checkers board. Each day, we checked our own temperatures, oxygen saturation levels and the sugar levels of diabetic patients and gave the details to nurses who stood outside our ward. They were kind and considerate. We knew the risks medical personnel were taking. And, grateful for their sacrifices, we were determined not to cause them trouble or jeopardise their safety.

As I had only mild symptoms, I was given panadol and vitamin C. We also received that age-old remedy for practically everything: kottamalli, or coriander concoction, every day. They told us to use the water heater and inhale steam daily. There was salt for gargling. Patients with underlying health conditions also took their regular medication. And we were repeatedly urged to inform medical staff if we felt any discomfort.

We realised we were lucky to be at that treatment centre. Fellow patients with friends and family in certain other locations related horror stories of food shortages, unsanitary conditions, lack of basic facilities and overcrowding.

The patients

We were all classified as the “Peliyagoda COVID Cluster.” Most patients did have direct connection to Peliyagoda as they were traders who bought fish there and sold it elsewhere. A sizeable number were from around Panadura, Bandaragama and Kalutara. Some even knew each other.

There were a few from Colombo and Gampaha districts. Among us were two policemen, an electrician with the Ceylon Fisheries Corporation who worked at the Peliyagoda fish market, an employee of a service station in Payagala, a labourer from the Colombo Municipal Council, a carpenter from Homagama, a mason from Kelaniya and the owner of a small tea shop in Pettah.

One man had stepped in to help his friend and neighbour, a fish vendor who had recently fired his assistant. As he couldn’t go to Peliyagoda without a sidekick, Rohan* (from Panadura) had accepted when asked if he could help temporarily. Both were infected and were in adjoining beds.

Ganesh*, the mason, came on the same day I did. He was dropped off late in the night and had only the clothes he wore. He was transferred from a Government hospital in Colombo where he had been admitted for chest pains. He was revealed to be COVID-positive. Hospital authorities didn’t even let him collect the rest of his belongings when he was loaded into the ambulance, he claimed. He was told they would be burned. The Matugama hospital staff later sent him some new clothes. With no phone, Ganesh’s family would call Nishantha’s device to speak to him.

Dealing with isolation

We dealt with isolation in different ways. We couldn’t even step into the corridor during the first few days. Doors were locked. The main entrance was opened only for the trolley to be brought in. We took to walking up and down the ward. I had brought some books that I was determined to read.

Many of us played carrom or cards. Others watched TV or videos on their smart phones. Some older patients stayed in bed most of the day. We all followed the news, much of which was on COVID-19. The TV was on from early morning to late night.

Our main concern was our families. Some already had members who were infected and in treatment centres. Others waited nervously till the PCR results arrived. Still more expected their loved ones to be tested. The uncertainty was crippling.

Five days into my stay, the tests on my wife and her parents, who lived next door to us, came back positive. My daughter, 5, and son, 2-and-a-half, tested negative. But, with no one left to care for them, my wife was forced to take them along with her when the ambulance arrived.

She, her mother and the children were taken to the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital in Malabe. My father-in-law went to the Dankotuwa Divisional Hospital. The family was scattered across three districts.

Ganesh was also dealt a blow. Tests showed that his granddaughter, 5, was infected. He was distraught that he had unknowingly infected her. She was taken to hospital despite being asymptomatic, along with her mother, who tested negative.

The social stigma attached to the disease had an emotional impact on some patients. They were frustrated and angry at how some of their neighbours and even extended family behaved after the diagnosis .

“They act as if we got this intentionally or that it’s a sexually transmitted disease,” one told me. One night, we were startled when a patient who had been speaking quietly on the phone started shouting wildly. A rumour had spread around his neighbourhood that he had been moving around the area even after his test came back positive.

“I have children,” he said. “The moment I felt sick, I locked myself in my room. I only went out when they wanted me to come and take a PCR test.” He vowed to deal with whoever had spread the rumour once he got back.

A trader who supplied fish to various businessmen, when a customer telephoned him to ask why he had stopped taking orders, claimed he was in home quarantine but that everything was fine. “How can I tell him the truth?” he asked, after hanging up. “If he heard I had COVID-19, he would never order from me again.”

Anger at the Government

There was anger at what some patients saw as a bungled Government response to the second COVID-19 wave. Many had voted for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. Some had even actively campaigned. They now believed the Government had let them all down.

The resentment would manifest itself whenever we watched the news and heard what politicians said. President Rajapaksa’s remarks in early November–when he seemingly blamed the media and public for the current situation– attracted particular anger.

“What about all the meetings they held for the election and afterwards?” fumed one man. “What about the 20th Amendment? You watch, they’ll blame the medical personnel next. They’ll blame everyone but themselves.”

When I was admitted on October 30, the discharge criteria were for a second PCR 10 days after the first positive one. If that returned negative, another one was required 48 hours later. One could return home only if both came back negative.

A few days into my stay, however, the Health Ministry revised this, saying new research showed that patients are no longer infectious after 10 days. Therefore, they could be released into two-week home quarantine after 14 days from the first PCR. The decision was controversial, with the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) warning against discharging patients without a second test.

There were mixed reactions in our ward. Some patients welcomed the possibility of an automatic discharge after 14 days from the first PCR test. Others, particularly with family that had tested negative or who were yet to be tested, were worried. Many said their houses were not large enough to allow complete isolation from other members.

We had no say. On November 6, under a new discharge criteria, a nurse read the names of those who would leave the next day: nearly half our ward, a majority from Panadura and Kalutara areas.

They had a musical show for us that evening. A local band performed a string of Sinhala hit songs, organised by some local councillors from the Matugama Pradeshiya Sabha. We sang and danced. Even some of the older patients tried some moves in the corridor.

At discharge, each of us was given a large garbage bag to put our belongings. This was sprayed with disinfectant outside our ambulance. We got our discharge cards with a list of instructions on safety precautions to be followed during home quarantine. I was glad that everyone I knew would soon be going home.

But I would be going back to an empty house. My family were to be discharged later that week. While I reached home nearly a week before them, my 14-day home quarantine would start only after the last family member came home. So, I would be in self-isolation for almost three weeks, until November 30.

The source

I was one of the lucky ones. I still had a job and salary. There were daily wage earners with no income and no possibility of work in the near future. Some of their areas were still locked down. Roadside fish vendors contemplated whether to find other jobs as they had heard there were no customers. They returned to an uncertain future.

How did I get infected? I was asked the question so many times since my diagnosis: by the doctor, army officers, police, the State Intelligence Service and the Health Ministry’s Epidemiology Unit that did contact tracing. Did I recently visit the Peliyagoda fish market or buy fish from a vendor who had been there? I had done neither and have no known connection to Peliyagoda.

But I’m still categorised as a “close contact of an earlier patient” from the Peliyagoda cluster. They do not know who this person is.

While in hospital, news emerged that four other journalists who covered the 20th Amendment debate in Parliament tested positive. But this was a few weeks after the session. Several dozen journalists and Parliament officials who had been there all returned negative. So did the close contacts of the policeman.

During official inquiries, the words “community transmission” repeatedly came up. Nobody was certain if that were the case. After all, the Government’s position was to deny it. However, I still don’t know how I became infected and will never likely find out.

*Names have been changed  


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