MUMBAI – I was on assignment April 20 outside Mumbai, India’s financial center. My phone rang nonstop. Fellow news photographers checked whether I’d heard about the COVID-19 tests we had taken days earlier at the Mumbai Press Club. I hadn’t yet, and I was anxious.
Then I received the news: I was positive.
I’d covered the Kashmir conflict, a devastating tsunami in Sri Lanka, the war in Afghanistan and other dangerous assignments. I'd never flinched. But this terrified me.
I called my office and told them. We called off the shoot.
As I drove home, questions circled my brain: What next? What about my wife and kids? How would my mum take the news?
I spent that evening on the phone with other COVID-19-positive photographers. We decided to demand that city authorities quarantine us. We wanted to be away from our families, and we wanted to be together. Authorities said they’d put us up at a hotel in north Mumbai.
There were hurried hugs and goodbyes. My younger daughter pressed something into my hand. “Keep it with you, Daddy. We made you a good luck charm. It has special powers,” she said. They made two, the other for my wife.
In a car full of photographers, one said, “Bhai log (brothers), we don’t know what’s next. Let’s enjoy our last drive on the empty streets of the city. We may never get another chance!” We looked at each other; in sync, we stuck our heads out of the windows and took gulps of fresh air. Suddenly we were laughing. We knew that we were going to be OK — scared, worried but together.
The first day in the hotel began with a call from the on-site doctor. Any cough? Any fever? Neither. A few hours later, my wife informed me that our building had been sealed.
I got out my prayer mat and beads. I don’t know how long I prayed. When I rose, I decided to be strong and to count my blessings.
One blessing was a big tree outside my window. The green leaves dancing in the sunlight, and the birds visiting its twisted branches, brought me the comfort I desperately needed.
That evening, my wife told me that our daughters asked, “If everyone was told to remain at home, why did Daddy go out?” She explained that just as doctors and farmers and police and administrators were facing risks every day to ensure that we were safe and healthy, journalists, too, had to do their bit — to gather information about living through this unimaginable time.
By the second day, my routine was down pat. Breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner: A doorbell meant food. Every morning included a phone health check with the medical staff. Calls from friends, family and colleagues reminded me that I wasn’t alone.
On day three, I noticed an ambulance entering a cemetery and then a lonely burial. Had the person died of COVID-19? There was no way of knowing. It unsettled me. If I died, would my wife be allowed to bury me? My mother would never make it in time. I spent a sleepless night tossing and turning.
A breathing exercise the doctor sent us over WhatsApp helped. So did talking to others quarantined in the hotel. Taking pictures occupied my mind. But the image of the burial remained.
On day five of the quarantine, we were tested again — a swab in the nose and mouth.
Two days later, the frenzied calls among the photographers resumed. “Did the doctor call you yet? Mine is negative,” a colleague said. Another reported the same. Then it was my turn: no sign of the virus. We were ordered to spend the next 14 days in self-isolation.
Coming home never felt better.
“ Virus Diary,” an occasional feature, showcases the coronavirus saga through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. See AP India photographer Rafiq Maqbool's photo essay on this experience, and follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rafiqmaqbool