Healing and homecoming

India’s oldest Covid-19 survivor couple is back home after a month-long fight

54-Thomas Abraham A tale of survival: Thomas Abraham and Mariamma, who are among the oldest Covid-19 survivors in the world | Aravind Venugopal

Looking at his 93-year-old grandfather Thomas Abraham, who is among the oldest Covid-19 survivors in the world, Rijo Moncy said: “Thank God, he lives in Kerala! Had he been in Italy or the United States, he would have been left to die.” Thomas had just reached his home in Ranni after being discharged from the Kottayam Medical College on April 3. His wife Mariamma, 89, was also discharged on the same day. They had spent a month in hospital.

Rijo, 26, along with his parents Moncy and Ramani, came to Kerala from Italy to meet his grandparents. But their arrival on February 29 proved to be quite the game changer for the whole state—the family brought the second round of Covid-19 infection to Kerala. Thomas and Mariamma were infected by the Moncys. “We are so relieved that they both have recuperated well despite their age,” said Rijo. “Otherwise we would have been full of guilt. They could make a comeback only because of the care and concern shown by the state government and the doctors here. We will always be grateful.”

Eat healthy, live healthy and follow everything that the government tells you to do... We will survive this deadly disease. —Thomas Abraham, Covid-19 survivor

Rijo feels that his family might have got the virus infection from the airports or the flights. “We were perfectly alright when we started our journey. None of our friends in Italy have been infected till now,” he said. “So, we were shocked when the test results came.”

Not just the family, but entire Kerala was shocked when the second set of Covid-positive patients was confirmed. It was barely a week before their arrival from Italy that the southern state had declared itself Covid-19 free. Kerala was the first state in India to declare Covid-19 patients—three medical students from Wuhan, China. But they were immediately quarantined and treated.

Rijo’s family had to take a lot of flak, too, as they had initially refused to cooperate with authorities. Pathanamthitta District Collector P.B. Nooh had to personally intervene to get the family quarantined in the government hospital. By then, the infection had spread to Rijo's sister, her husband, his grandparents and a few other relatives.

The family was trolled mercilessly on social media platforms and online channels. Even the state health minister, K.K. Shailaja, criticised the family for being irresponsible.

“I was coming to Kerala after four years and was so eager to meet everyone,” said Rijo. “We absolutely had no idea that we were carrying this deadly virus. Otherwise, we would not have visited our relatives and neighbours. My grandfather insisted that I should come to meet him at the earliest. He even emotionally blackmailed me saying he would not live long.... I just wanted to meet him, and so we advanced our trip from August to February.”

The family had migrated to Italy when Rijo was five. But he came back here for his college studies and lived with his grandfather for five years. “I am his youngest grandchild. We share a special bond,” said Rijo. “So, when he insisted that I should come, I could not say no.”

After being infected, Thomas and Mariamma had high fever, breathing issues and severe body pain. Except them, none of the other infected family members had any severe symptoms. “We were really scared for both of them... because of their age,” said Rijo. “I was feeling so guilty that we made them suffer at this age.”

That the couple survived the coronavirus is certainly a boost for Kerala's medics and administrators. “It is only because of my grandparents’ healthy life style that they survived,” said Rijo. “They only eat local food and work so hard even at this age. They both love farming. If we ask them the secret of their long life,

they would say ‘pazhamkanji [left over rice gruel from the previous day]’.”

When asked whether Thomas had any inkling of the seriousness of the virus infection, he said: “Seeing the doctors wearing masks, I knew something was serious. I have never seen people wearing masks.”

The family has to go for a medical review on April 14. “At one point of time, when we passed on infection to others and we were hounded on social media, we cursed ourselves for coming here,” said Moncy. “But now we feel so lucky that we were in Kerala when all this happened. We were amazed by the efficiency of the public health care system of the state. Compared with this, the reports from Italy are very worrisome.”

Thomas just has one advice for the world: “Eat healthy, live healthy and follow everything that the government tells you to do... We will survive this deadly disease.”