A Bangladeshi man in Italy talks about his lonely fight against the coronavirus
On the night of March 19, Serajul Islam's temperature soared to above 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and he struggled with shortness of breath – to the point of choking.
Aged over 50 years old, he is supposed to go on early retirement this year from work at a factory in a small Italian town called Gallarate. The reasons behind his decision were his weak heart and lungs.
That night was longer than usual for his son Nasirul Islam – the only person by Serajul's side. His mother and younger brother stayed in Bangladesh after the family's last visit about six months ago.
Outside, streets were empty with a lockdown in place in Gallarate and the weather was cool – about 14 degrees Celsius. Inside, 29-year-old Nasirul – himself with fever and breathing difficulties – pressed a wet towel on his father's forehead to reduce his temperature.
Nothing worked. So, the next morning, an ambulance was called and Serajul was driven to a hospital.
"That was the last time I saw him," said Nasirul about his father, who was kept in isolation after treatment for about 10 days until March 30.
After the hospitalisation of his father, Nasirul's solitude began with regular phone calls to check on his father's health and to his mother and brother back home in Bangladesh, assuring them that "It is just father's existing respiratory problem, not any other issue to worry about."
The word "coronavirus" would have struck them with horror when Italy was grappling with an increasing number of patients overwhelming its healthcare system. As of yesterday, the European nation had the highest number of deaths hitting 15,362 and infections reaching 124,632 cases.
The city where Serajul's family has been living for nearly 20 years is somewhat isolated from the bigger picture. It has only 54,000 people and about a hundred of them tested positive for the coronavirus.
On March 20, the hospital tested Serajul and found him positive. The general physician treating Serajul promptly called Nasirul to warn him that he was highly likely to suffer from the infection and he would be hospitalised too, if needed.
Nasirul's body had already started exhibiting symptoms but they were less severe.
"I was not worried about myself. I was worried about my father…. his health had deteriorated."
Serajul became weak and his lungs needed to be constantly fed with oxygen over five days.
"Over the phone, he broke down but I did not tell any of this to my mother," said Nasirul, who graduated in photography from Pathshala in 2016. Earlier, he had graduated in accounting from the London School and Business and Finance.
He was quiet about his own plight, trying to bridge the distance between his father and mother, a hypertension patient.
Nasirul continued, "I felt like my windpipe was being squeezed, and I spent nights trying to clear my nose and throat plus sipping hot lemon water. It was quite a challenge to prepare food on my own and clean things.
"So, when the mayor of the city called me and said, 'If you need any help, let me know,' I felt assured, better."
In the meantime, Serajul recuperated and was moved to an isolation centre where he will stay another week. If two consecutive tests return negative in an interval of 24 hours, Serajul will be reunited with his son.
It was March 11 when Serajul went off-duty for fever, cough and throat pain. Factories are open in Gallarate – those that are not labour-intensive.
It is suspected that his father got the virus at his workplace. Looking back, Nasirul thinks it is his psychological strength that gave him hope in captivity.
Nasirul is now spreading the message of optimism to his friends, relatives and whoever reaches out to him.
While practicing social distancing, he said, people can support each other. "Here in Gallarate, people are dropping cooked food at different points. My friend left a cake at my doorstep when I was sick."
He continued, "At one point [living in quarantine], you plunge into depression. The feeling of uncertainty takes over you and you feel like everything will fall apart. However, you have to believe that everything will be fine one day – and it will be sooner rather than later if we stop getting close to each other to avert transmitting the virus."