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Waiting on Atlas

Sadaf Khan*
"A once driven surgeon and academic, slowly being driven insane by the pandemic," author

Playing Trump during lockdown - Image
shared by author


March 11: There is no doubt that the proverbial refuse has hit the fan
March 13: I leave the country

One week later

I am now a 2-hour flight away from Karachi with my husband and son. My two older children are almost 24 hours away, in cities that are well on their way to the dystopian sieges that are our new reality.  Will it be safer for them to stay where they are or risk journeying across the virus-laden planet?  Can Karachi be safer, with its 22 million souls and broken systems? Unfazed by these esoteric choices, my husband makes the decision. The hero of the day, our trusty travel agent, puts them on flights that slide through closing airports. My son and I race back to Karachi hours before an impossible to abide by governmental regulation is due to kick in.  My husband must remain where he is. There are now four of us in our home, from three different trajectories, arriving within hours of each other. And Daadijan.

We greet each other from a distance.  I feel the airports on my skin and clothes. Seeing my children, who should have been away till summer is surreal and unsettling. But there is an incandescent sense of relief. I lay down the rules.  We will all be in self-quarantine for 14 days. We will maintain appropriate distancing at all times.  Everyone will stay in their own rooms. We can eat together, but far apart.  And no one, no one, will be closer than 8 feet from Daadijan.

The city locks down.  The lady who helps at our house sends me images of her son’s lab work. He has multi-drug resistant TB. A TB program provider tells her that he will take her son to JPMC himself to start treatment. I tell her to lock herself in her house, except for hospital visits. I tell her that her son will die if he gets this new disease. Unfortunately for our nation, she understands TB.

I find out that a slew of surgical trainees are in quarantine, because one has tested positive. I speak to my chief resident. She is frustrated about having to leave her post in the middle of the night, impatient with the implications, but unafraid. What follows is as expected. My colleagues and our trainees find themselves in quarantine. It’s a bit of a joke around the hospital. How did the surgeons get it? They are way not on the frontline. Who knows? I wrestle with guilt. I have no exposure other than a couple of relatively empty airports. Over the next few days, I call the employee hotline to try and get someone who will say I’m okay to start work. I text my various bosses. No luck. I chose to get on that plane. Now I have to live with it.

So what transpired during the self-quarantine and experiment with social distancing? The first meal found us all, with the exception of Daadijan, on the dining table. She ate in the seating area a few feet away. By the third meal she was at the table too. Accident or design? The children, concerned for her well-being, make subtle hints, look to me, and then make not-so-subtle hints.  Using the well-earned privilege of age, she chooses to remain.

The online New York Times crossword puzzle becomes a communal activity. By the evening of day 2, as we are agonizing over a ‘Monday’ puzzle (since then we have graduated to the ‘Wednesday” version), I notice that the four of us are packed onto a sofa that normally seats three. Of note, at 5’7”, I am the shortest.

And that is that for social distancing.

So how do I fill my days? Every morning starts with sweeping and mopping the floors. After a couple of days, I notice that the broom comes up empty and the mop water is barely cloudy. Did the virus do away with Karachi’s legendary dust?!!! I open long shut windows that had thought they were merely panes. The breeze, dare I call it fresh, flows through.  The cacophony of silencer-less rickshaws and wailing ambulances is replaced by corvine conversations, and songbirds learning to sing again. In an alternate world, where carbon emission regulations meant something, and there were no fossil fuels, and where we weren’t breaking down things right after we made them, would the sky be clearer?

Cleaning done. The next task is keeping three teenagers fed. We settle on brunch and dinner. I find my groove again - the essential salt/mirch balance.  I dabble in bread, some ‘moment on the lips and lifetime on the hips’ baked goods. But by and large, I stick to the comfort staples. Qeema, daal chaawal, aloo gosht. With so much uncertain, there should be something one can count on.

We develop a routine. Every evening, just as the sun quiets, we brew a pot of tea (with an elaichi tea bag thrown in for mystery) and head to the roof.  Here we play Trump till Maghrib or mosquitoes, whichever comes first. I learn how to bet on the number of hands I can make. I never knew that was a thing. I was playing for fun, but apparently, the kids were playing for pride. There is a tally of how many days each team has won. The cards are tattered and grimy, impossible to shuffle, and hard to deal. But they handle the gusts of wind well and won’t be replaced.

Till this is over. And living resumes.


* Dr. Sadaf Khan, General Surgeon working in Karachi, Pakistan

Centre of Biomedical Ethics and Culture, Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation
7th Floor, Transplant Tower, Yaqoob Khan Road, Near Civil Hospital, Karachi 74200, Pakistan
Phone: (92 21) 9921 6957