While a lockdown is nothing new, a healthcare system in shambles and a sluggish internet make Kashmir particularly suited for the virus to spread as India looks away.
Soon after the first patient of COVID-19 – a 67-year-old woman who had recently travelled to Saudi Arabia — tested positive on March 18, a team of health professionals and volunteers were sent to Khanyar to sanitise the area. They were also tasked with tracing the people the woman may have had contact with.
Meanwhile, police personnel began patrolling in their jeeps. With speakers, they warned people to stay indoors.
On March 22, another patient surfaced. Four days later, the 65-year-old man died.
The third patient had lied about his travel history. The fourth one is just 22 years old.
Now, 70 people have tested positive, including a 10-year-old from Eidgah Srinagar.
Jammu and Kashmir are faced with the same challenge as the rest of the world, yet the dearth of infrastructure and manpower in the healthcare sector here makes the task more challenging.
As the whole Valley is in a lockdown, memories are strong of another unprecedented lockdown, imposed after the former state was stripped of its special status and bifurcated into two Union Territories on August 5.
To ensure the efficiency of lockdown, authorities have been taking the hardliner approach that they have taken since August 5.
People have reported having been beaten up by policemen even after furnishing a magisterial permit. Tawseef, an engineering student from South Kashmir, had to see his ailing aunt in Srinagar. The district magistrate of Kulgam gave him a permit, but to his surprise, uniformed men at Khudwani stopped him and beat him up.
“I told them my aunt had just undergone a surgery and I had to visit her,” said Tawseef, who suffered multiple fractures from the beating.
Police have lodged 337 FIRs against people who have allegedly violated the lockdown. Moreover, about 627 people have been arrested in the past week.
“The incidents capture the horrors of violence against civilians in Kashmir at the hands of police personnel ensuring a lockdown. They do not have a humane approach, but with a militaristic one,” writes Gowhar Geelani, a veteran journalist and author of Kashmir: Rage and Reason for The Federal.
Dr. Khawar, one of the medicos treating coronavirus patients, said this is the exact kind of epidemic that takes people by awe. “It took me nearly nine hours to process the news that the first COVID-19 patient had been found in the Valley. Like me, people are in utter confusion. Most are not aware of the implications of contracting the disease,” he said.
Working in one of the quarantine centres in Srinagar, he said, “I see parents trying to make sure that their sick children are taken back home. They are adamant and don’t understand the necessity of quarantine,” he added.
Are people really hiding their travel histories?
On March 23, two students with travel histories to Pakistan and Bangladesh were booked for hiding their traffic histories.
Rumours have been rife that the affected have been hiding their travel histories. Journalists investigated the first patient to arrive at the conclusion and found that nothing had been concealed.
“After investigating the case, I found out that the patient had been repeatedly going to the hospitals since March 16 and had been repeatedly denied testing and was prescribed some over-the-counter medications and was further advised to practice home quarantine,” said Gowhar Geelani.
“After the health of the patient deteriorated, he was admitted to the Chest Diseases Hospital, and he passed away there, because it was very late,” Geelani added.
When asked about some confirmed cases of quarantine evasion, Gowhar said, “First of all, there is selective quarantining. People, even those who came from the COVID-19 hotspots in US or Saudi Arabia, were not even screened at the airport. Just because they are VIPs doesn’t mean they are invincible.”
The 67-year-old lady who had arrived at Srinagar on March 16 from Saudi Arabia had allegedly evaded necessary protocol at the Srinagar airport and her connections with Imtiyaz Ismail Parray, a senior Superintendent of Police (Crime) has further stirred the debate.
Imtiyaz has denied allegations against him, adding that he was not even at the airport to receive his mother-in-law. CCTV footage confirms that he was not there, but his involvement remains suspect.
“Another reason for people evading quarantine is the careless attitude of the authorities. People were stacked like cattle in the quarantine facilities at Awantipoora and Sumbal,” said Geelani.
“There were videos that went viral on social media showing that not even necessities like soap or sanitizers were available. The people were not really isolated, because in some instances, dozens of people had to stay in a single room and had to use common washrooms, which were dirty and unhygienic”.
Is quarantine safe?
Twenty five year old artist, Asifa, arrived at the Srinagar airport on March 19 from the United States, which is the worst hit country across the globe. Surprisingly, the authorities at the airport did not check her physical symptoms.
“They gave me a form wherein I had to mention my travel history and other things,” said Asifa. “I was surprised they did not check my temperature.”
Asifa was then taken to a quarantine centre, which is a local hotel cum restaurant in Lawaypura area of Srinagar. “There were people from Europe, Pakistan, Bangladesh and all of us were kept together. For three days, nobody came to the hotel, not even the doctors. We were left alone.”
“On March 23, at about 10 pm, we were told that we were being shifted. At about 12:30 in the night, we realised that we were brought to a hill-station, with three-feet snow. We were caught unprepared in the cold,” said Asifa.
“Some of us were in slippers. We were told to stay in a hut where there are only two rooms for five of us. There was no water, not enough heating, not even a bar of soap.”
After days of incessant complaining, they were given heaters big enough to keep themselves warm. Asifa shares a room with two other women who have travelled from Armenia and France respectively. “Our lives are at risk. We would have been much more careful if we were allowed to quarantine at home. At least we would have had a jar of handwash there.”
Rizwan is another Kashmiri student who had travelled to Srinagar from London on March 19. They were kept for three days in Srinagar Haj House. Then, they were taken to a local hotel in Rajbagh, Srinagar.
“Haj House was dirty. The compound was full of stray dogs. There was no water in the washrooms, toilets were defunct.”
Moreover, more than 14 beds were stacked in a single room, which were not even an arm’s length apart.”
After the first patient tested positive, the number of ventilators at SKIMS, SMHS and JVC and other district and sub-district health centres was 97. And most of these ventilators are occupied by non-COVID-19 patients. According to Census 2011, there are seven million people in Kashmir and by 2021, it is expected to be eight million.
One of the health officials from the Valley said on the condition of anonymity, “I think we are living in a slaughterhouse. We must not care much about masks and other personal protective equipments (PPEs) for doctors. If Milan, France and New York are facing acute shortage of PPEs, Kashmir, a third world region in a third world country, should not be an exception.”
“What we must do is import more and more ventilators. Since March 18, how many ventilators did the government arrange for? None,” he said.
The official also said that the level of testing was abysmal and called for more testing kits.
An official at the Government Chest Diseases Hospital, Srinagar echoed him when he said, “Testing kits are almost over, we are testing very few people right now.”
This virus is notably fast spreading.
“As many as 85% of the infected people develop mild symptoms and do not need hospitalisation. I should make a point that such cases should not be sent to the hospitals, rather isolated at home. There is already a dearth of manpower,” the official said.
Moreover, in order to spread awareness at the community level, restoration of 4G internet is vital. The sluggish internet is also affecting the medics who are working on the front.
Meanwhile, 20 villages of Pulwama, Budgam, Shopian and Nandipora and five urban pockets in Srinagar have been marked as no-go red zones by the administration. As many as 15,001 travellers and persons-in-contact are under surveillance, including 9,895 people who are under home quarantine.
Peerzada Sheikh Muzamil is an assistant editor at the Mountain Ink Magazine and a freelance journalist who tweets at @Peerzadamuzamil and Wasim Nabi is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kashmir who tweets at @Wasimnabiweets.