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Gundeep Singh, centre, with his roommates Manas Kaur, far left, Rasleen Kaur, Amandeep Singh, Gurliv Singh and Jaspreet Singh at Professor's Lake in Brampton.

Baljit Singh/The Globe and Mail

Gundeep Singh is a freelance journalist from Brampton who contributed reporting to The Globe’s L6P project.

When 2020 knocked on our doors, we had so many plans – long lists of New Year’s resolutions, new commitments, new responsibilities. Who knew that it would bring along an uninvited guest that would take over our lives?

For some of us, nothing really has changed – but for others, everything has changed. I have experienced both.

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When the pandemic first hit, I wasn’t affected much by COVID-19. I was already working from home for a U.S.-based NGO. My family was back in India, safe and sound, with a very limited number of cases there and everything fairly under control.

Unfortunately, 2021 had very different plans for me. Since the start of the year, I began to get news of people I knew back home being COVID-positive. At the time, none of them were seriously ill, though.

Here in Canada, I live with five other people: Gurliv Singh, Rasleen Kaur (Gurliv’s sister), Amandeep Singh, Manas Kaur and Jaspreet Singh. We all are from India, and I previously knew Aman, Gurliv and Rasleen as we had all lived in the same area in New Delhi. We all have different personalities and perspectives, yet we get along amazingly well. They have now become like family to me.

On April 1, the youngest member of our house, Gurliv, who also happens to be a bit of a mischievous character, said he was not feeling well. We thought he was trying to fool us, so none of us took him seriously. We soon realized how wrong we were the next morning, when we found him writhing with a high fever and headache. We immediately got some medication for him and quarantined him on another floor.

That same morning, Gurliv got a call from his workplace that someone there had tested positive, letting him know he should also get tested. So he did. The result? Positive.

Everyone in our house did our best to take care of him while he was quarantined, making sure he didn’t feel left alone or overly worried.

A few days later, I woke up feeling like someone was pricking my head with a hundred needles. Then it clicked in my mind: Gurliv had given me a big hug the same day he had started feeling sick.

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After that, Rasleen and Jaspreet also came down with a fever and other symptoms of COVID-19. By the second week of April, four of us were quarantining on the second floor of our house, while our two uninfected housemates, Aman and Manas, shifted to the first floor in the living room. As they had shared rooms with the others, they had to sanitize their mattresses, wash all their clothing and linens, and took all their belongings downstairs. Our living room began to look like an emergency shelter.

Both Aman and Manas looked after the rest of us for a week. They cooked special meals for us, did our laundry, arranged for our medicines – all while following protocols and handling their own work.

Unfortunately, by the end of the second week, Aman and Manas also joined the COVID-positive club. By that time, Jaspreet had recovered and started to cook for us all.

Those few weeks had a heavy impact on me. It really brought home the reality of the coronavirus. We would spend all day in our rooms just lying in bed, racked with pain, wondering about what might happen next. At the same time, we were trying to reassure our worried, helpless parents back home over video calls.

My symptoms started off mild enough: a minor headache and light cough. But soon, I began coughing so hard it was tough to breathe. As luck would have it, between my usual work and helping with reporting for The Globe and Mail’s L6P project, I had to somehow battle through my illness and get all it done – some days, I almost forgot how sick I was until one of my housemates checked in to see if I was okay. How the human body is able to function is beyond incredible.

We would usually have dinner together no matter what. It had become a kind of ritual in our house – a time to share our thoughts or worries. But while we were quarantined, we would eat alone in our rooms. It felt as if a monster had entered our home, imprisoned us and was now feeding off of us. The usually bright, cheerful environment of our house was slowly turning into a sad, depressing one.

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Then we decided that enough was enough. We could not let ourselves go down the endless spiral of anxiety and depression. We started to tease each other from behind our closed doors. All of us started having dinner together over video chat from our own rooms. While everyone was still feeling low, both physically and mentally, we took care of each other in the best way we could.

The day we all completed our quarantine, we prayed together, cooked dinner and resumed our dining ritual. It felt like we had all been through a really tough exam – and passed. Little did we know that was just the beginning of more tests to come.

The COVID-19 situation started to worsen back in India, and many of our parents were directly affected. My mother, who lives on her own in Delhi, developed mild COVID-19 symptoms. There was no one to take care of her. She is already on antidepressants and easily gets stressed. At one point, she could not even get out of bed. I arranged for a special tiffin service to deliver freshly cooked meals to her daily, but still wondered how she was able to manage by herself.

Gurliv and Rasleen’s father was also hit hard by the virus and struggled to breathe. Though there were no beds available at any of the hospitals in Delhi, Gurliv did not want his father to go to hospital, hearing about the awful conditions there. So he left no stone unturned to arrange for an oxygen concentrator for him at home.

His father recovered eventually. But sadly, this was not the case for all of us. As I write, our house is in mourning. Aman’s father had been hospitalized for more than two weeks in critical condition. His lungs had stopped working, and the doctors had been planning to try extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. But before further treatment could be administered, Aman’s father passed away.

We thought that somehow we had prepared ourselves for the news, but when it finally came, we realized just how unprepared we were. We attended his father’s last rites over video call. We prayed for Aman’s father the whole night – in the Sikh community, we believe that if we pray for the deceased, those prayers can help prevent further suffering.

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I hope I can draw on my experience, and my background in NGO work, to help others – particularly any other individuals or families who have had COVID-19 or have had to deal with family members falling ill with the virus. Medical and financial aid is important, but ensuring they receive counselling and other mental-health supports will be vital, too.

COVID-19 left me physically weaker, but mentally stronger. Having been through it myself, I can better understand the pain, confusion and helplessness felt by others who have been affected by it in one way or another.

Editing by Tabassum Siddiqui

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