Long Covid: Dubai resident tells of struggle to breathe 12 months on

Doctors warn against complacency as they see dozens of patients with fatigue and insomnia

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 04 MARCH 2021.  Dubai salesman, Firoz Babu, has breathing problems and a host of other medical issues almost a year after he tested positive for COVID-19. The garment salesman is still on medication and often fights to breathe if he is picking up boxes or sets of clothes. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Ramola Talwar. Section: National.
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Almost a year since Firoz Babu last tested positive for Covid-19 the salesman is still struggling to breathe.

He takes corticosteroids – anti-inflammatory drugs – to manage his condition but fights to catch his breath when picking up boxes at the clothing shop where he works in Dubai.

"I don't know when life will be normal for me," said Mr Babu, 47, who is from India.

“I’m fed up. I want this Covid to finish. Sometimes I need long breaths before I speak. And I forget many things.”

I get confused and I forget. Doctors tell me it's after effects of Covid. But for how long?

An increasing number of people who had the infection report debilitating symptoms that persist long after the initial diagnosis.

Doctors in Dubai said they are treating "long Covid" patients every week, who complain of extreme fatigue and insomnia months after testing negative.

They warned against complacency by the public, saying the long-term effects of the virus are still being discovered.

Fighting to breathe

Mr Babu's troubles began in February last year when he felt a tightening in his chest and developed a fever that would not go away.

Doctors sent him home twice that month, after asking if he had had any contact with Covid-19 positive patients or had travelled from China – as per treatment guidelines in the early days of the pandemic.

When his symptoms worsened, Mr Babu called for an ambulance and was admitted to a private hospital on March 29.

He tested positive for Covid-19 and was placed on oxygen support. After 12 days and two consecutive negative PCR tests, he was discharged to the Warsan isolation centre.

Mr Babu was monitored for shortness of breath and returned home after 15 days in quarantine.

"But I still found it difficult to breathe, other problems were shivering and a rash all over my body," he said.

He has had some relief in recent months after doctors at Aster Hospital in Qusais prescribed medication and an inhaler for a bronchial condition that still leaves him wheezing.

"Before, I couldn't manage to talk. Every breath was tiring, people could not understand what I was saying. Now I have 75 per cent relief."

He also lost clumps of hair and suffers from brain fog – a common symptom reported among long Covid patients.

“I get confused and I forget. The doctors tell me it’s after-effects of Covid. But for how long?”

Mr Babu gets emotional when he thinks of providing for his teenage children and family back home in Kerala, in south-west India.

Carrie McNell in a yoga class with Allaoua Gaham, at Yoga La Vie Dubai.

Dubai resident Carrie McNell caught Covid twice when she was overseas last year, is still suffering fromlong Covid symptoms extreme fatigue, brain fog, even rheumatism. She no longer runs as she used to but has taken to yoga to help manage her condition.   

Photo: Reem Mohammed / The National
Long Covid patients have turned to yoga, physio and alternative therapies to try shrug off the symptoms. Reem Mohammed / The National

"It is difficult to work and send money home. Some people ask, 'how are you still not well?' The doctors are also studying this."

Dr Ramesh Bhaskaran, internal medicine specialist at Aster Hospital, treats eight to 10 similar long Covid cases every week.

Exhaustion is the most common symptom, sometimes accompanied with tingling or numbness in hands and feet.

He also sees three to five people a week who complain of poor concentration and memory fog.

“There has been a rise in patients who come with fatigue, poor endurance, chest tightness, headache, insomnia, anxiety, poor concentration and poor memory,” Dr Bhaskaran said.

"Patients should understand the recovery time may be much longer than what we usually expect in other viral illnesses. They need to be patient and periodically follow up with their physician who may refer them to a specialist."

The World Health Organisation said the burden of post-Covid sufferers is significant, with one in 10 Covid-19 patients still reporting symptoms well beyond 12 weeks.

Chronic fatigue

Dubai resident Carrie McNeill, 40, from Sweden, is another long Covid patient, and says she is always tired. She cannot concentrate and has stopped driving because of brain fog, almost a year after she first experienced Covid-19 symptoms overseas.

Ms McNeill became ill while in Costa Rica in February last year. She recovered, but got sick again the following month in London.

She did not take PCR tests in either country since, at that time, people with mild symptoms were advised to remain home, with only critical patients moved to hospital and tested.

In Dubai, Ms McNeill has been treated by a cardiologist, pulmonologist, neurologist and ophthmalogist, put on steroids, beta-blockers to reduce blood pressure, and a range of vitamins.

"It feels like an alien is in your body because you wake up every day and something new has happened," said Ms McNeill, who runs a sports management company.

“The fatigue feels like your body has weights inside. I have heart palpitations without moving. I thought I was going semi-crazy."

She has taken up yoga to recuperate and done away with high intensity workouts.

Dubai resident Carrie McNell caught Covid twice when she was overseas last year, is still suffering fromlong Covid symptoms extreme fatigue, brain fog, even rheumatism. She no longer runs as she used to but has taken to yoga to help manage her condition.   

Photo: Reem Mohammed / The National
Dubai resident Carrie McNeill experienced Covid-19 symptoms overseas last year and still suffers from long Covid symptoms. Reem Mohammed / The National 

Ms McNeill said she hoped more research would be carried out on long Covid to help people still suffering.

Each week, Dr Kiren Sahota, senior family medicine consultant with King’s College Hospital, Dubai, sees four to five patients, between the ages of 20 and 60, with post-Covid symptoms.

She also has patients who believe they contracted Covid-19 last year overseas, including in the UK.

Getting a test would have been impossible in the UK in the early days because of the pressure on Britain's National Health Service, she said.

“It’s a hard one. Is it Covid or is it not? Who knows, because the symptoms of Covid vary so much. For some patients there is simply no answer.”

Dr Sahota said the key was to focus on the current illness and work with multi-disciplinary teams.

“This is super new to everybody, even for specialists who are trying to give advice on everything from shortness of breath to fatigue.

"They don’t have magic tricks up their sleeve. Managing people’s mental health is important, which is suffering at the moment,” Dr Sahota said.