«Just the thought of catching the virus left me a nervous wreck»

Coronavirus.

PHOTO: Artur Tuur Kuusi illustratsioon

An Iranian living in Estonia who was the first person to catch the COVID-19 virus in Estonia tells Postimees that he just wants his health back to enjoy his second chance at life. He also has a messages for Estonia’s only other COVID-19 patient in Tartu.

March 3, six days after Estonia confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus. I call the West Tallinn Central Hospital to inquire whether it would be possible to contact their Iranian patient. The hospital promises to get back to me.

March 4. „The doctor asked, and the patient agreed, while it will have to be anonymous and take place via email,” Liisa Suba, press representative for the hospital, writes in the morning.

I send the Iranian an email. „Salam!” („hello” in Persian) followed by my questions. I receive a long letter in reply. He does not want to talk about his family, especially his daughter who was with him on the day he was diagnosed. We exchange several letters.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas has commended the Iranian, while some even see him as a hero as initial steps he took helped avoid the virus spreading in Estonia. Therefore, let us call him Bahadur from here on (a version of the Turkish word „bagatur” that means hero, warrior, courageous). „I did all I could to protect the people I care about, it was something I had to do,” he says.

The man, who does business in Estonia, adds that others have helped him in the past. „That is why I had to do my best to protect their health. There is no reason to think of me as a hero.”

The man also has a message for Estonia’s only other COVID-19 patient in Tartu who flew from Bergamo, Italy to Riga and took a personal vehicle to Estonia on February 29.

„I have read about them in the news. I want to tell them that we are not alone. We should keep our spirits high and fight this little virus just like the nurses in this video are trying to do,” Bahadur writes, pointing to a video where Iranian medical staff, wearing protective suits and masks, are dancing.

“But above all else, I wish to have my health again and to be able to enjoy life as a gift I have received twice now,” he adds.

Iranian authorities lied

Bahadur writes that he has lived in Estonia for years. He was visiting his family in Iran with his daughter.

“When I was in Iran, the authorities said there was no coronavirus in the country. A lot of people didn’t even see the need to use a mask or take other measures to avoid infection. It later turned out that the government had been lying for weeks and hiding the fact COVID-19 had reached Iran. For political reasons,” the man says.

The first cases of the virus were confirmed in the city of Qom between February 19-24. The city lies hundreds of kilometers from where the Iranian man’s family lives.

“I left Iran for Turkey the next day to get away from the virus,” Bahadur said, adding that he was sure he was not infected at the time. “Because when I entered Turkey, officials screened everyone, looking for signs of the virus,” he explains.

Bahadur continues. “I stayed in Istanbul, and everything seemed normal. I monitored the news about the outbreak in Iran and how everyone was suddenly diagnosed. On the day I left Turkey, my family in Iran told me that three people in our city had been diagnosed. That is when I started entertaining the idea that I might have caught it myself. Even just thinking about it left me a nervous wreck. Until I started getting fits of dry cough.”

The man spent three days in Istanbul from where he flew to Riga. “I felt fine during the three-hour flight. My body showed no signs of fever,” Bahadur says.

After landing in Riga, he took the first coach to Tallinn. It was a Lux Express bus.

“Because the bus had a Wi-Fi connection, I was able to keep an eye on the news. To my shock, I saw a video of Iraj Harirchi, deputy minister for health of Iran, coughing during a press conference. It was only a few hours before he tested positive for COVID-19. I already had a similar cough by then.”

Bahadur writes that by the time the bus was nearing Tallinn, the idea that he might be infected with the virus had become an obsession.

Fear

“I was so afraid I might have it. Initially, I thought I would go home and to the hospital the next day. But later, when I was looking for a cab to take home, I started thinking about how I could infect others if I really had the virus.”

He decided not to go home and called the family medicine hotline 1220 instead.

“They told me not to go to the hospital but to call an ambulance instead. I waited outside the bus terminal and did what I was told. I was met by paramedics wearing protective suits who took me to the hospital,” Bahadur describes.

A few hours later, the man learned he had the virus. “I have been isolated ever since, forced to wait it out.”

Bahadur explained he was scared at first. “I couldn’t concentrate. I simply monitored news about the virus and my symptoms, trying to get an idea of what to expect. I knew there was no cure and that it complicates my situation.”

He continues. “I simply had to be optimistic and think positive. I concentrated on the fact that 98 percent of people infected recover and that there is no reason to be afraid.” By yesterday, 51,000 people had recovered from the virus, while over 3,000 had died.

Bahadur’s cough got worse during his first two days at the hospital. “I felt the disease make its way to my lungs. But medicine the doctors gave me took care of that.”

Bahadur added that he still has fits of dry cough, while those are not dangerous. “Like a light flu, and I hope that will soon be gone too,” his letter reads.

Single room makes you read

The Iranian says that it is not easy to be alone in a room, without receiving any visitors. “But I try to use the time sensibly – I keep busy with the help of books and articles.” Something he would not be doing so much of otherwise.

He learned that he was the first coronavirus patient and admits secretly hoping for a cure while in the hospital.

Bahadur also has something important to say. “The virus managed to spread into several countries, especially Iran, because people simply were not aware until it was too late. The Iranian government kept back information about the virus for weeks. So that people could take to the streets to mark the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution on February 11, take part in elections on February 21 and support the government,” he says of the authorities’ self-serving conduct.

Things are different in Estonia, Bahadur says. “Estonia has educated people, and the healthcare system and responsible politicians are honest about the situation and ready to take action to keep the population healthy. That is all a country needs to be able to solve whatever problem,” he finds.

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