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From worrying when her husband first came down with the virus to heartbreaking, long-distance news from back home in India, COVID-19 hit home in a very real way, writes Brampton journalist Vrunda Bhatt

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Outside 165 Kennedy Road South, in Brampton, where Vrunda Bhatt lives.Baljit Singh/The Globe and Mail

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

When the pandemic broke out in March, 2020, I was searching for jobs in communications and marketing, oblivious that the job market was about to crash and many people would be laid off. My husband, who works at a non-profit in Toronto, was informed that he, like so many, would now be working from home. He was pretty happy about that, given that he would no longer have a construction-filled commute all the way out to Eglinton East.

We live in an apartment building in south Brampton with my 23-year-old brother-in-law. It’s a very multicultural place, where you can count the number of white residents on your fingers. Our apartment has been home for the past three years, ever since my husband and his brother moved to this new land of Canada – a year before my arrival.

Our building has about 12 floors with 16 units on each floor. Assuming that each apartment has at least three people living in it, there are roughly 600 people living in this building alone – including kids, senior citizens and front-line workers – all sharing the common spaces, laundry area and more. The building isn’t well maintained – which became more of a concern during the pandemic, when better cleaning protocols and other attention to the residents’ well-being would have helped.

Midway through last year, in the middle of the pandemic, we woke up to a complete water shut-off in the building with no prior notice – and it wasn’t turned back on for three days straight. We were able to get some water jugs from Walmart and moved the next day into my sister’s basement. Unlike so many others in the building who had nowhere else to go, I was lucky that I had a relative’s place to go to – rather than having to pay hundreds of dollars for a hotel. The whole experience taught me how little our building management seemed to care – and I would go on to realize just how grave this type of apathy is when my husband and I got COVID-19.

This past February, my husband came down with COVID-19. I assumed it might have been from going to Walmart or the Indian store where we usually get our groceries. My brother-in-law and I tested negative, and my husband fortunately recovered within about two weeks, but I was very worried about him. We got through it together, but didn’t inform our parents in India or even many of our friends in Canada – we didn’t want to concern them.

Last month, my short-term contract with a non-profit in Toronto came to an end and I was back to job-searching again. It’s not an easy task, especially during a pandemic, and I wondered if I should maybe pack my bags and go to India to stay with my parents for a while. But then India was suddenly in the spotlight owing to rising COVID-19 cases, with flights cancelled and our video calls back home full of devastating tales of people we knew losing loved ones. Even in my social-media feeds, people only talked about what was happening there and nothing else.

So when I experienced heavy fatigue on April 25, I blamed it on the anxiety of everything happening back home, while my husband thought perhaps it was all the extra time I was spending online. But the next day, I had a high fever and started coughing. That’s when we knew I had to get tested. We booked an appointment at the Embassy Grand convention centre in Brampton. Ahead of me in line was a Muslim mother with her three children, and right behind me was a Black family of five. It occurred to me that we were all indeed in this together.

A day passed by and my results still hadn’t arrived. The next day, my husband checked online and thought it had come back negative – but he had read the date wrong; it was a previous test from February. It turned out I was indeed positive. My brain reeled with thoughts of how I might have gotten it – how could I have been infected with COVID-19 without going anywhere or meeting anyone in days?

I have to admit, I felt a lot of guilt. Did I not maintain proper sanitation methods in the house? Could we have gotten an apartment in a better-maintained or less crowded building if I had a permanent job? My family has been through a lot of health-related issues over the past eight years – maybe we haven’t prayed to the gods with enough dedication?

Even though I got my results on the 28th, I didn’t receive a call from public-health officials until the following Monday – five days later. I expressed my concerns to the caller about the lack of proper health and safety protocols at our building – and how residents were not informed of any outbreaks on site.

When my husband was down with COVID-19, we did our best to stay strong and deal with it ourselves. But when I tested positive, I lost my emotional strength. My mother-in-law could figure out just from my voice that something was wrong – but we told her I had the flu.

Unfortunately, I ended up telling my sister’s friend who lives in Canada that we had gotten a COVID-19 test – she informed my sister back home in India, and the entire family was concerned. My father is a cancer patient and my mother-in-law has severe arthritis. It was important for us to ensure they remained calm and to not cause them anxiety.

Some of our distant relatives who lived in the bigger cities have lost their battle with COVID-19. These were people I knew well – when you hear news about their deaths, you can’t help but constantly think about them or how they could have been saved. For example, a family member who lives in Alberta, who has never been back since he arrived here, lost his sister in India. The news came as such a big shock to me.

I am glad my husband and I survived COVID-19. I still think about moving given our concerns about our apartment building, but job insecurity and the high prices are holding us back for now. But I know many others share pandemic stories similar to ours.

Editor’s note: Days after Vrunda Bhatt submitted this essay, her father died suddenly in Gujarat, India, from cardiac arrest. She flew to India last month to grieve with her family.

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