NESFAS advisor’s story of forging and reforging through COVID-19


SHILLONG | By Damica Marcia Mawlong

It relieved the NESFAS team when their go-to pool of wisdom, advisor and facilitator of learning, strategic thinking and change, Mr. Rathindra Nath Roy, after testing positive, came out of a 17-day quarantine and was declared COVID-19 negative.

As NESFAS takes steps to support safety in its villages from the fast-spreading virus, they took pointers from the Chennai-based, 72-year-old Mr. Roy, on his journey against all odds.

NESFAS: Please share the feeling from the point of testing positive to being declared safe and well?

Roy: I completed my isolation with no symptoms and in good health and I am happy to get back to being with the family. However, while one needs to be cautious about the increasing evidence of re-infection, the anxiety is about the unknown and the lack of understanding of this virus. I went through a range of emotions from the point of testing positive to the end of the quarantine. I was happy that I was non-symptomatic and therefore, it would be mild. I was concerned that I brought a lot of load on my family because I couldn't help do other things. One or two days after detecting that I was COVID-19 positive, I met a senior-most infectious disease specialist at Apollo Hospital and it relieved me after he explained things to me. When I was in isolation, I discovered that isolation and distancing are tough. In the sense, it is something difficult to do because we humans are social creatures.

Question: What actions did you take during the days of isolation which might help others?

Roy: First, once you isolate yourself, there has to be minimal access to outsiders into your space and even if they come, it shouldn't be without a mask and other PPE precautions.

From a personal mind space perspective, it is important to set up a routine, simple things like making your bed, taking your blood pressure, doing your oxygen saturation testing and temperatures, eating at regular times, exercising and things like that. I read a lot and I cut back on things like watching television, particularly news because I was getting my news from newspapers. Also, I have been watching this video and it has helped me with my regime to maintain good health. When needed, I would sit near the door; talk to the family and my daughter in Mumbai over the phone. So I tried to connect normally with family and friends as it is.

For building the body's fighting capacity I also took some supplements like Vitamin C, Vitamin D, and Zinc. I used a nasal spray, just a simple salt spray, to make sure that if there's an infection, it gets diluted with the saline solution so that the viral load is not high. I did a lot of breathing exercises to strengthen my lungs as they are the most susceptible to the virus. Not only am I a senior citizen, but I also have hypertension and a history of heart disease, so those are co-morbidities that the doctors worry about.

Question: Having tested Negative, what would your advice be?

Roy: Well, if you test negative, the advice is don't relax yet, because there is no reason to believe that you have got immunity. It doesn't mean that just because you have tested positive once, you can happily roam around not wearing a mask. You must wear a mask at all times when you go outside. If you cannot maintain social distancing at home, you must wear a mask. Your symptoms might continue even after you test negative.

Now, if you are non-symptomatic, like I was, or even if you have mild symptoms, the advice is as I read someplace, "Do not go to a hospital unless things are serious." If it is serious, go to a hospital, preferably a place you are familiar with and the doctors are familiar with your history saving essential time and actions. If you are old and you have co-morbidities, then unless it is an absolute emergency, don't go to a hospital because the risk in a hospital is far larger than the risk at home. It is bad enough that you can get an infection, worse, you can infect others. We must remember in a hospital, most people are vulnerable. Listen to your body as it tells you what is going on.

Question: Is mental strength an important ingredient to get through COVID-19?

Roy: If I have a one-word answer, it is absolutely as you are learning or you have to learn to deal with uncertainty, which means you, only concern yourself with what you can change and you try not to worry about what you cannot change, stop worrying about imaginary things and concentrate on how you can do things which will make you better.

It's not about being lonely, but being alone and being comfortable being alone. Few things that I did which might help people were, I stopped obsessing about COVID-19 related news. Second, I think this is a great opportunity for us to slow down, slow down in your eating, in your conversations, relax and read.

We worry about physical health problems, but we don't worry about mental health. Those who are looking after you, it is more important for them rather than for you, unless you are also conscious about what is going through in your head. But if you feel anxious, depressed, confused, then seek help. Stop being brave or embarrassed about asking for help. Just go out and ask for help. There are people who you can reach out to, like your friends and family, so they can help you. But, please take it seriously, because this is important, another thing that helped me is to be confident that things are going to change, that's the only thing you can be confident about.

Things will pass, and this also will pass. I would encourage everyone to keep a journal to write anything. It doesn't matter if it's fiction, non-fiction, poetry, your imagination, diary, and it doesn't matter. But, just write for 15 minutes in the morning or the evening, not necessarily to reflect on and worry about, but just get used to putting things down and it helps you to persist and feel good about things. Who knows, you might end up being a writer one of these days.

Question: Who was your support mechanism through this entire episode?

Roy: Family! Family! Family! Besides the family, having good friends who can check on you, support you, is wonderful. Because of my health issues, I have some wonderful doctors who are now friends. I was in touch with them regularly and they were looking after me and I knew that whether it was with family or friends or with my physicians; I was in good hands, if not the best hands, which is just perfect. It puts your mind at ease. You don't unnecessarily imagine all hell is breaking loose, and it's wonderful. There is so little information around about everything that is going on, so it helps to do some research and try to get a wide view of it so you know what you are seeing. You know how to take in information that is being put on the news or that is coming to you; it gives you confidence because it means you have done your research.

Question: Rumours vs facts. How do we ensure fear does not create a negative impact on the societal fabric? Also, how do we avoid the variables in information in our local indigenous communities?

Roy: Frankly, every individual in a community is tempted to listen to rumours and gossip and as human beings, the way our brain functions, we are not good at doing two things necessary for a crisis like this. One is deciding when there are a lot of variables. We like simple things as against complicated options.

The second thing is, we are not very good at assessing risks. For example, if you always believe those things won't happen to you, but others, then that is absurd. So, there arises the need to think, decide and assess risk better. To do this, one must avoid unnecessary spots like social media, gossip and things like that, which just confuses you and takes you along with the likes. Remember, with most social media, you are hanging out with people who think like you. It's important to listen to people who don't think like you, and that is when you learn.

As for our local communities, there is a belief that indigenous people are more comfortable with uncertainty than others. In which case, they have an advantage in a situation like this. But if you have uncertainty, one way to handle this is to take a precautionary approach, which means, if many of us can say that I don't have absolute evidence and information, therefore, I shouldn't act on it. In a precautionary approach, you take a cautious stand. For example, we don't know exactly whether a particular pesticide does damage to us or how it does and at what level. By the time we find it out, the damage would have been done. But if you suspect that there is a possibility of doing damage, then it makes sense to be precautionary.

The other thing that indigenous people are supposed to be good at, (yet I'm not always convinced about it, but I hope it's true) is what NESFAS Agroecology consultant from Mexico, Dr. Francisco May refers to, indigenous people have been living with nature for a very long time and so they observe things better than us. They make a record of it, either in their memory or by writing it down, they reflect on it and try to understand patterns; they discuss it amongst themselves and compare it with their knowledge that they already have, and build on.

This is a powerful technique of learning in situations like the COVID-19 crisis where they know little. So you observe, you listen, you reflect, you learn, you use your instincts rather than beliefs. I'm not against beliefs and traditions, but the most beliefs and traditions are dead people talking to you. What has happened in the past is what they might have seen the logic in and have made sense of it. But it's worth testing it because it happened in the past. Just because something came from the past does not mean it's right.

Question: Would you agree that a well-maintained indigenous diet could also be a supplement to enhance the immunity level of people from COVID-19?

Roy: My advice would be to eat local food because that's easily available and you know what you are eating. Eat seasonally, be diverse, and keep in mind the food groups. Eat clean food, eat right portions, because you can have a very diverse and interesting diet, but if you are not eating enough of the right things, you are going to be in trouble, so portions become very important. But overall, my cardiologist always tells me, the less you eat, the more you walk, the longer you live.

Now, unfortunately, in eating light you might fall short of some nutrient. In that case, the body shares symptoms, like for women there might be fatigue as an indicator for anaemia. Here, the body needs iron and if your food is not giving this to you, then get supplements. So please listen to your body. But your diet alone is not enough to keep you immune. Be clean, wear masks, distance, dilute your infection and take supplements, exercise, stop stressing and worrying. So, it's this combination that improves your immunity.

Question: From your every expanding ocean of knowledge please share some words of wisdom or essential lessons on personal, household and community management during these times and what would be the points of concerns we should watch out for.

Roy: Let us reflect a little on what is happening at the communities across Meghalaya and Nagaland where NESFAS and its partners are working. Our discussions with the community on eating local, seasonal and diverse for nutrition and immunity seems to have surfaced as the reality of the pandemic hit home, communities are returning to growing traditional foods of their landscapes, even going so far as reviving community seed banks. Communities in various ways are gearing themselves to respond to the pandemic and there are several who have enthusiastically supported NESFAS' scheme by contributing half the cost of the building stand-alone and retrofit accommodation that would enable vulnerable senior citizens and those with co-morbidities to distance and isolate themselves. This is very important, as the elderly are our traditional knowledge holders.

Communities are also reviving old traditions like Khaw Kham, setting aside a handful of rice each day and creating a food stock to help the vulnerable and not leave anyone behind. Some have set up mobile phone-based platforms to enable farmers to deliver groceries and services for to door. These are very positive signs of people standing up together to deal with their needs and problems, taking charge of their affairs and acting for the greater good. I hope we can nurture these seeds of hope and make sure they grow strong and continue their excellent work even after the pandemic.

The other issue is that our world has changed! Change is so difficult to achieve and yet it took a tiny invisible virus to show us we can change to survive. This is something we need to learn. Then there is the uncertainty! We do not understand what is going to happen next. Something new, unknown, constantly changing and surprising us makes it impossible to predict what is going to happen on the other side of disruption and uncertainty. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, so everyone is talking about going back to the 'old' NORMAL or, perhaps, a 'new' NORMAL!!

I, personally, don't want to go back to the old normal, as it was a lousy normal. We were over-consuming, over-indulging and overdoing everything. We saw ourselves above and beyond nature, exploiting it as if there was no tomorrow. We should be grateful that the pandemic has made us stop, pause and think and maybe change. So we have an advantage in uncertainty because if we don't know what's going to happen, maybe we can work towards making something we want to happen. A future we want!

So, I suggest we stop wanting to go back to old normal and instead come together to think through the future we want and work towards it. We won't be the only ones in history to use a crisis to pivot the Renaissance, the Enlightenment in Europe, that changed the world came, after the plague! So I'm hoping that after COVID-19, something new, something positive, something more just and sane will emerge. And maybe, just maybe, it will be the indigenous peoples of the world who will show us how to live with nature and each other, in harmony!

Damica Marcia Mawlong is a Junior Associate (Communications) at NESFAS and can be reached at