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Kunal Ganna, 21, is unlikely to forget the call he got on 20 March at 11am. The voice on the other end told him he’d tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Ganna had returned home to Bengaluru from university in Edinburgh a week earlier, one of the many students who took the last flights out to escape the rapidly spreading virus in the UK.

“I thought my friends were playing a prank on me," he says. “The doctor said the ambulance would be at my door in 30 minutes." Suddenly, it was all too real. Ganna called his father at work, and told him he had tested positive for covid-19 and had to be hospitalised for two weeks. “He went silent. He was so shocked, he couldn’t speak." Ganna quickly hung up, packed his laptop, phone and all his chargers and left in the ambulance.

He spent 22 days in Bengaluru’s KC General Hospital, the longest he’s ever been in a medical institution, before he was discharged. But it would be another three weeks before he regained his full strength. Three months later, he’s back to his regular routine, cycling every day and working out at home.

Ganna is one of the 6.13 lakh people who have made a complete recovery from covid-19 in India. Most describe the recovery process as “weeks that feel like a lifetime" or a “rebirth", considering the fear they and their families feel, and the stigma they continue to face. To fight and survive covid-19 is to experience, sometimes within a few hours, a range of emotions from fear and dread to hope and gratitude, which push one to reflect on mortality and make one more resilient.

“It was emotionally draining. I watched Netflix and video chatted with my family, but every time I talked, I would be racked with cough. My parents banned talking and took to texting me," Ganna says.

The isolation and the wait for test results is nerve-wracking. The test results have to come back negative twice within 14 days before a patient can be discharged. “Every time the door opened, I would think it was someone with the results. I wanted to hear that word ‘negative’, so that I could go home," he says. The first set of results, after 10 days in hospital, were positive. It was back to waiting, watching more shows, and keeping his spirits up. “By this time, cases had gone up so it took 8 days for the second test results." It was negative, and Ganna couldn’t wait to go home.

“The experience made me realize how fortunate I am," he says. Once he had recovered fully, Ganna donated his plasma. “I felt I had to volunteer and try save a life," he says. Many of those who recovered have donated or registered to donate plasma for therapy. The plasma of a person who has recovered from an illness contains antibodies that could help another patient.

Dancer and choreographer Diya Naidu, 37, tested positive for covid soon after she returned from Switzerland on 16 March. “I have no words to explain how I felt the moment I got the results," she says. “I kept telling myself I will fight but I was also petrified. What if I’d spread it to others? That fear was too much for me."

She was hospitalized for three weeks, and says the doctors and nurses infused her with hope. “I was very down one day, and a nurse came to me and said: ‘I cannot hold your hand, but I am praying for you’. I will never forget that."

The initial days were harrowing and her neighbours called often, not to check on her, but to ask her to move out of her apartment. By the third week, Naidu began to do yoga and strength exercise online. “I realised that every time I got stressed, my fever and throat pain shot up. I had no choice but to calm down.’’

Naidu still complains of a nagging pain in the throat, and headaches on long working days. “We do not know how the virus has impacted the body in the long term. I have consciously slowed down. That is the lesson: Respect your body. It was a brush with mortality, and a lesson to respect and love your health," she says.

Fighting covid-19 requires mental strength, says Aditya Bhat, 25. For him, the challenge was not talking. “If I talked for three-four minutes at a stretch, I would cough and feel tired. It took time for that to pass, but I am back to normal now. I think this is a lesson I’ve learnt for life—talking less," he says with a laugh.

After a business trip to Spain in early March, Bhat knew he had probably caught the virus. He had mild symptoms when he landed in Bengaluru and chose to isolate and get tested. “When my swab test returned positive for covid, my family was devastated." Bhat was worried too, but put on a brave face to calm his family, especially his grandparents.

“I packed three sets of clothes, that’s all I could grab before I left, and wore those for 18 days in hospital," he says. He’s home now and back to his usual hour of yoga daily, “but I have slowed down", he says. “It takes time for the body to recover full strength." After discharge, one spends another 14 days in home quarantine.

Bhat will never forget the moment everyone in the ward—doctors, nurses, health workers and patients—clapped when he walked out. “It made me realise the value of life. This is no ordinary flu. I want to tell everyone, whether they’re fine right now or in hospital battling the virus, that it can be conquered if we strictly follow the guidelines our doctors and nurses tell us," he says.

For radio jockey Jimmy Xavier, it was work that kept his spirits up during the two weeks he spent in Bengaluru’s Victoria Hospital after testing positive for covid-19 in April. “It came as a shock when I tested positive because I had been careful, but I was mentally prepared because I had gained knowledge from experts I had interviewed for my show."

When the ambulance arrived, he was not upset or anxious. “No fatal thoughts, I told myself." His family had to be quarantined for two weeks, and tested. None of them had the infection. Xavier began posting thoughts on Instagram, and responses from fans helped him, he says.

Xavier was in a ward with 41 other patients, most of them asymptomatic. They had to wear masks all the time, and health workers constantly reminded them not to move masks or touch things unnecessarily as they could spread the virus. “Fear engulfed everyone and that was the time when one had to be strong, and talk others through it too," he recalls.

Xavier got into a routine during his 16-day hospital stay. “Meals were my markers. I would tell myself I would do a certain task before breakfast, one before lunch, one before dinner. I reflected a lot on how life can change when you least expect it," says the RJ who is back to doing his daily radio shows. Post-covid, he finds himself sneezing a lot more. “I am sure this too shall pass," says Xavier.

For some, the panic and anxiety can be all-consuming. After a holiday in France with his wife, techie Dhruv Chandok was back at work. He had a nagging headache on 9 March and attributed it to jet lag. “I finished the day at the office but that night I developed a high fever," he says. The next morning, he got himself tested. “The doctors said if the test was negative, I’d get an email, and if it was positive, they would come and take me to hospital," he says.

But when the lab called, it was to tell him the result was inconclusive. “I was so upset, worried, confused. I had to be to hospital till they confirmed it. I was scared of the hospital. I thought it would be horrible, like a jail. I didn’t want to be alone. But the hospital where I was isolated was nothing like what I imagined. The room was good, the healthcare workers encouraging. I was in a terrible state of mind and they helped me through it," he says.

For all of them, the first four or five days were a time of anguish. “Later, you get into fight mode. You diligently obey what the doctor and nurses tell you. When I recovered, I said I will do everything to save another life. I have registered for plasma donation," says the software engineer.

None of them checked covid updates or the news even when they were online in hospital. Sleepless nights were common, especially the day before the test results were to arrive. Many spent time thinking about family. Bhat says the real battle is against fear, and the best weapon is mental strength. “Keep telling yourself: ‘I will not die. I will fight it’. That’s what I did."

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