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  Life in Swine flu capital
  By Archana Sudheer Gayen  
  "LATEST news kya hai," the chemist at our local medical store asked us, referring to the swine flu pandemic that has gripped Pune. I certainly didn't expect that question from someone who obviously was supposed to know all about the flu.

Fear was evident in his eyes, spreading over the mask that covered his face. That was last fortnight; just days after the flu claimed its first victim in the city. I informed him that a chemist and a doctor were critical and on ventilator. I regretted my words immediately. The poor man was frightened, and here I was telling him indirectly that his job could cost him his life. I quickly added that they were stable, trying miserably to rectify my wrong. (Both these persons succumbed to the virus later).

This was one of the first signs of panic I witnessed across the city. It was the beginning of the storm. After 14-year-old schoolgirl Reeda Shaikh died due to the flu, it was utmost pandemonium.

If a chemist could be so scared, what about the common man? The feeling was of utter helplessness. The fact that there was not too much awareness regarding the flu made the situation chaotic. It was not a 'survival of the fittest' race. Even healthy persons were getting sick.

People were calling up one another, asking if all was fine. I got quite a few anxious calls myself. The traffic on the street also seemed to be a carrier of the virus. Talking to strangers was a total no-no. There was a sense of dread in the air.

My husband and I got ourselves a couple of masks, hand sanitisers and tissues. I don't think I have ever washed my hands as many times in my life, as I did then. I still scrub my hands at regular intervals, but the first week of the flu scare almost saw my palms parched because of the constant washing.

Now, the bedlam has subsided a bit. And, I do find things funny as well. The types of masks I saw make me smile, in spite of all the fear. There was a certain humour around it. Everyone was a little embarrassed to wear them at first. You could see the sly smile in their eyes. Some looked like penguins with long beaks, while others were no less than mummies.

Also interesting is the fact that several people take off their masks at night. It's as though the virus has taken a break from hard work in the day to rest at night.

"Maybe, it's chemical warfare, baby," my husband tells me at breakfast, adding, "it could be an experiment gone wrong." I brush it aside. However, this got me thinking of what this deadly flu had done to us.

Life was so much in routine earlier, with nothing going out of place, and here we are, wondering what went wrong. Suddenly, the 'happening Pune' is the place every person is avoiding travelling to. Students are going back to their native places. It had become notorious as the epicentre of the epidemic.

I would have loved to see Pune covered in the news, but surely not like this. Although the fear has lessened now, possibly due to more awareness, there is still a sense of insecurity. We refrain from eating ice cream now, not because of fear of catching swine flu, but wary of standing in long lines to get ourselves tested, in case we contract a sore throat. The first thing I do in the morning, after my prayer, is check the daily news for updates. Now, it's an underlying apprehension, unlike the fear that gripped us initially. My maid also got a week off, as she is running a cold and cough. Although she insists it is nothing to worry about, I can't take a chance.

A friend of mine at church got the 'regular' flu, but that was enough to freak her out. "I don't want to die so young," she wailed to herself, fearing the worst. She popped pills and ate her way to health, trying to curb her lack of appetite and tasteless mouth. My husband recently felt a little breathless and called me up from work. We both smiled later on, learning that it was the result of something stale he had eaten at work.

Till last week, everything was functioning as usual. Now, schools, malls, multiplexes are shut. People are requested to stay indoors, and venture outside with utmost caution. However, this doesn't stop businesses from rolling on.

I received an SMS from an apparel store in the city. The message read, "CUPID CLEARANCE SALE ends 13th August 9 pm. Offering you irresistible bargains. (ALL STAFF WILL BE WEARING MASKS)".

Medical stores are going in for the kill. An N95 mask that supposedly costs Rs 100-120 is being sold at a nearby chemist for Rs 285! As there is no price printed on the commodity, and as they are few in number, customers are forced to pay whatever is asked for.

I don't know how long this pandemic will last, but I hope it gets over soon, or a vaccine is released. I live one day at a time, hoping for the best. I want my life and city back. I want to be able to roam around without a mask or go for a long drive in the evenings.

I want to be able to make friends while on walks and go for movies. It doesn't look like I can do all this, at least for a few more days. I want to be able to enjoy life without fear, especially of the unknown. I long to do everything I want to, without the feeling of a virus hovering around me. But then, life is precious and prevention is better than cure.

So, I am happy to be wearing the mask and staying indoors. It's time to flaunt the mascara in my eyes, bat my eyelashes, and smile with my eyes. It's time to say a silent prayer and wait for the tide to recede.
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