The COVID-19 situation in Jammu and Kashmir is on the cusp of explosion.
Mukhtar Ahmad Lone, 32, (name changed) was walking home after the congregational, late evening Ramzan prayers at a mosque in central Kashmir earlier this week when his phone started to beep.
In a heavy voice, the caller, a policeman, without offering much details, asked Mukhtar, an Islamic preacher (Imam) who leads five-time prayers at the mosque in Chadoora town, to come to the police station the next day.
Mukhtar was perturbed.
“The uncertainty and fear of landing in jail kept me awake throughout the night. But when I reached in the morning, I was relieved to see other Imams of the town there,” he said.
Amid surging cases of COVID-19, the J&K police have been organising counseling sessions with local preachers across Kashmir to ensure that the worshippers follow COVID-appropriate behaviour in the mosques.
With the Islamic holy month of fasting, Ramzan, underway and mosques in Kashmir bustling with worshippers, authorities fear there might be explosion of cases if the SOPs such as social distancing and use of masks are not followed.
“We will get to know who follows the SOPs and who doesn’t. If you don’t, we will have no option but to shut down the mosques,” Mukhtar said, quoting a senior police officer.
The COVID-19 situation in Jammu and Kashmir is on the cusp of explosion. The Union Territory registered a 300 percent spike in infections in the last fortnight.
In a meeting with the Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla on 20 April, Tuesday, the J&K administration said the surge has been driven by “inbound travellers”.
According to official data, more than 1.2 lakh visitors arrived in Kashmir since 7 December till 15 April. Last year, people who arrived in J&K via road were tested at the Kathua district of Jammu.
Another facility was set up at Qazigund region in July later to handle the increasing rush of inbound passengers to Kashmir, who were mostly labourers and skilled workers from different parts of the country.
“Both the testing facilities were not functional because we thought the situation had improved,” confessed a senior official of J&K administration’s COVID-19 task force.
In January and February, as Kashmir saw a record-breaking rush of tourists, sources said even the air travellers tested at Srinagar airport were allowed to proceed to their destinations, even though their RT-PCR test results were awaited.
“Many of them later tested positive,” another official said, prompting the Srinagar administration to issue fresh guidelines on 20 February for restricting travellers at the airport till the time their reports aren’t received.
From 40-60 daily new cases in February, the Union Territory recorded around 2000 cases for the third straight day on Thursday, April 21. If the trend holds, experts fear that J&K’s caseload will grow by 4,000 daily cases by the end of this month.
“In just three days from 20 April, admissions have nearly doubled from 88 to 145 on Thursday,” said Dr Asif Drabu, nodal officer, COVID-19 at Srinagar’s SMHS hospital where 203 beds have been dedicated for COVID patients.
On 30 March, Jammu and Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar was categorised as an ‘Orange’ zone with a rising number of COVID-19 infections. Out of the total 184 cases recorded across Kashmir, the city reported close to hundred cases, half of whom were air and road travellers.
Yet, despite evidence that travellers were behind a new surge in infections, the UT’s Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha inaugurated the Tulip festival in Srinagar and invited people to visit the garden.
The inauguration took place on a day when Kashmir reported its highest single day spike of 421 cases.
In the first seven days, the number of visitors to the garden situated in the lap of Zabarwan Hills, flanked by the Dal Lake on the West surpassed 50,000 mark, increasing proportionately to the daily number of COVID-19 infections.
The virus started surfacing in other districts of Kashmir, many of whom had fought back to report no new infections for days. Budgam district which adjoins Srinagar reported single digit cases in the last week of March which had grown to 119 new cases on Tuesday.
But the administration was unmoved, prioritising the optics of normalcy over the safety of its citizens. Even as number of daily new cases looked set to explode, LG Sinha said on 3 April that “untiring efforts” were being made to revive Kashmir’s tourism industry.
“COVID is a challenge,” Sinha said during the inauguration of the tulip festival, “but, peace has returned to Kashmir after so many decades” and the government must “cash in on it.”
“The government started venturing to demonstrate that the situation in Kashmir is normal,” said Prof Noor A Baba, a public thinker and commentator who retired as the Dean of Social Sciences at the Central University of Kashmir.
“Without a COVID-19 negative RTPCR certificate, visitors should have been never allowed to enter Kashmir. After initial successes, they (government) let things off guard,” Prof Baba said.
Poor Health Infrastructure
Speaking during a press conference this week, Atal Dulloo, the deputy chief of COVID-19 task force in Jammu and Kashmir, said as compared with last year, the situation was “challenging” for the government this year.
“When the pandemic peaked in J&K last year, we had 22,000 positive cases. This year, we have 13,400 active cases. Cases are rising by 8.12 percent. The situation is challenging,” Dulloo said.
J&K has just about 5,000 beds for seriously ill COVID-19 patients, of which around 1000 are occupied, around half of them since last week. With daily cases rising dramatically, the health sector has started feeling the heat. The administration has now directed the private hospitals to increase bed capacity for COVID patients.
Given the state of the health sector which “fades in comparison” to places like Delhi where “patients are dying for the want of treatment,” Prof Baba said the government should “rethink” its strategy and regulate the flow of visitors.
“The government needs to stop flight operations with states where the pandemic is resurging and plan for the future. It can’t be business as usual,” he said.
As the situation turns grim, the Shri Amarnath Yatra Shrine Board on Thursday suspended registration for the annual pilgrimage to the cave shrine in the Himalayas. According to officials, more than 30,000 aspiring pilgrims have already applied since the online registration started on 1 April.
The board however hasn’t called off the pilgrimage yet. “The Board had commenced registrations on 1 April, and the arrangements were on track since February, 2021 for a successful conduct of the pilgrimage which is expected to start from 28 June 2021. The decision (to suspend registration) has been taken to check any unnecessary gatherings,” a J&K government spokesman said.
“Preparations for the yatra are underway. As of now, there is no plan to cancel the yatra,” head of the administration in Kashmir and divisional Commissioner PK Pole said.
“We are monitoring the situation. Any decision (to change the yatra’s schedule) will be taken at the appropriate time,” he said earlier this week.
The 56-day yatra will end on 22 August. Last year, the yatra was cancelled amid rising number of COVID-19 cases. The crisis had brought the union territory’s healthcare sector on its knees as hospitals started running out of beds to accommodate new patients.
Then, there are concerns Muslim congregations during the ongoing Ramzan which pose another challenge for the UT administration.
Although photos of worshippers following COVID-appropriate behavior during prayers are splashed on social media, the situation is not so rosy on the ground.
“Some people believe the virus is a scare to shut down the mosques in Kashmir,” Mukhtar, the preacher, said.
“It is unfortunate. They are putting others at risk. But we can’t control each and every worshipper who comes to pray at the mosque.”
Speaking with The Quint, Mufti Nasir-ul-Islam, the grand Mufti of Kashmir, said the “communal polarisation” in J&K has eroded the trust of people in the government.
“In times of pandemic, Islam stresses on practicing social distancing. If people don’t follow SOPs, we will be giving the government an opportunity to interfere in our religious matters,” Mufti Nasir said.
Prof Baba said the J&K government must regulate the recreational and religious tourism to prevent the situation from going out of hand.
“The government might be interested in reviving the economic activity but it is doing so at the cost of public health. There has to be a plan for containing the virus but we haven’t seen one so far,” he said.