The civilian administration in Kashmir has ramped up fumigation and surveillance efforts after confirming the Valley’s first case of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Srinagar’s Khanyar neighbourhood on 18 March.
The detection was immediately followed with the imposition of Section 144, which outlaws the gathering of more than five individuals, across major parts of the Valley. Shops and schools have been shut down. Streets and public squares are nearly deserted except for the government troops enforcing the restrictions on public movement.
“Security personnel cannot work from home. We have to work on the ground,” said TJ Jacob, Deputy Inspector General of administration at the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). “We have to engage with the people, so we are taking that kind of risk.”
The Central government does not disclose the exact number of military and paramilitary troops in Kashmir, but estimates range from three to nine lakh personnel of the Army, the Air Force, and the Central Armed Police Forces, which include the CRPF and the Shasatra Seema Bal (SSB). Kashmir is one of the most heavily militarised regions in the world. The deployment of troops in Srinagar’s public squares and local markets appears to have risen further to enforce the new lockdown.
Amid the risk of becoming carriers for the coronavirus, armed personnel also continued travelling to the Valley from other parts of the country till late last week, many of them reporting back to duty after leave.
“The moment a jawan is coming from any part of India after leave, he is taken to the medical inspection room, where he is screened before being allowed in the barracks,” Mr. Jacob said.
However, as those who are not showing any symptoms could also be carriers of the virus, “anyone who is coming from affected areas, even if they are not showing symptoms, should not only be screened but also observed for 14 days,” said Dr. Nisar ul Haq, president of the Doctors Association of Kashmir. “Symptoms can appear on any of these days.”
On 20 March, the CRPF said that it has extended the leaves of its personnel who had to report back to duty in Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) by fifteen days. The Army has also announced a ban on foreign trips for soldiers till further orders, but Dr. Haq said that travel from parts of India such as New Delhi and Maharashtra, where dozens of positive cases have been recorded, also poses a risk.
On 17 March, the Army reported its first case of COVID-19 in Kashmir’s neighbouring region of Ladakh. A soldier had recently returned from a visit to his home, where he contracted the virus from his father, who had recently travelled to Iran.
By now, the novel coronavirus has spread to over 180 countries, and has infected more than 3,00,000 people, including more than 13,000 fatalities. India seems to have averted the worst of the pandemic so far. The union ministry of health and family welfare has reported four deaths, with the total number of confirmed cases at least 340. But the full extent of the virus’s transmission remains uncertain due to India’s low rate of testing compared to other countries.
On 19 March, two personnel of the SSB were quarantined in a public health centre in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district after they returned from Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. “They were showing mild symptoms of respiratory tract infection,” said Dr. Abdul Gani Dar, the chief medical officer of the district. “Their condition did not deteriorate under our observation but only improved, so we shifted them back to the facility in their base camp after two days.”
The armed forces’ camps in Kashmir have also received instructions from New Delhi which are being followed strictly, said Colonel Rajesh Kalia, public relations officer of Defence in Srinagar.
Life inside the camps, however, makes precautionary self-isolation and social distancing difficult. The personnel posted in the Valley live in close contact in barrack, where they are served mass meals prepared in the barrack kitchens. “Our kitchens are supposed to be one of the safest, because our own people are preparing the food,” said Mr. Jacob. “Something that is unavoidable may happen, but otherwise we are taking all precautions on cleanliness and hygiene.”
The troops have also been briefed to keep away from crowds and other people as far as possible, Mr. Jacob said. All battalions have given hand sanitizers to their personnel. But while many of them rely on bandanas to cover their faces, few troops on the ground can be seen wearing protective masks.
“We need to find more rooms for the troops. Many of them should not be sleeping in one barracks,” said Dr. Haq. “They also need to practise social distancing. Otherwise, this becomes a risk for the whole community.”
Kuwar Singh is a Reporting Fellow at The Kashmir Walla
The story appeared in our 23 – 29 March 2020 print edition.