“Calamity has befallen”: Of COVID-19’s toll beyond the numbers

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2020 wasn’t going well for the Joo family anyway. The family of four from Srinagar’s Hawal area was devastated by the news that 65-year-old Mohammad Maqbool Joo was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He had visited a hospital to undergo surgery to remove the gallbladder but after his cancer diagnosis had put him at the city’s Super Speciality Hospital (SSH) on 25 April.

Maqbool was admitted for Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), a procedure to examine the pancreatic and bile ducts. After putting thought into it, it was decided that his wife, Fehmeeda Bano, and son, Ali Asif Joo, would attend him in the hospital and the daughter would look after the house. 

For the next fifteen days, Asif reached the hospital early in the morning to relieve his mother. And by the evening, he would run off to his sister to stay the night with her at home. 

Mere travelling was difficult too. The streets, which had just sprung out of a military-lockdown since August 2019, were laid with barbed wires again. A novel virus — whose first cluster was detected in China’s Wuhan region in December 2019 — had reached Kashmir Valley a month ago, in March 2020. Since very little was known about the newly discovered SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, a fatally infectious disease, countries across the world were shut down to curb its spread. So did India. However, Kashmir feared that despite lockdown, amid the rising number of coronavirus cases, will the Valley’s ill-equipped hospitals be able to tackle the need? Or worse, if the hospitals become the hotspots?

On 5 May, in the month of Ramzan, Asif reached the hospital by evening, with iftaar and dinner for his mother. “I am not feeling quite well. I think I might get sick,” Asif told his mother. 

Bano advised him to go home and take a rest, saying, “You haven’t gotten sleep lately.” 

Recalling the day, Bano broke down. She said: “If I had known that I would never see him again, I would have never asked him to go home. I would have never let him go.”

On his way back home, Asif bought mutton and later told his sister to cook it for his parents the next day. The mutton was never cooked; that night, Asif was admitted to the hospital, right across the road from his father, in Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS)  hospital, for treatment of pneumonia, the hospital management told The Kashmir Walla. To safeguard the hospitals from becoming COVID-19 hotspots, the Out Patient Department was shut and only patients with medical emergencies were taken in. 

As Bano now attended the father-son duo, in different hospitals, on either side of the road, Asif’s health deteriorated quickly. On 7 May, Asif had a cytokine storm — an immune system response wherein the body starts to attack its own cells and tissues rather than just fighting off the virus — and he died around 5 pm. 

Unknown to his death, Bano reached home to check on his daughter. Then, she said, employing a figure of speech, “I saw my house in flames, devastated.”

Asif’s body was not released until 10:30 pm when he tested positive for COVID-19. It was the first death because of coronavirus, local reports quoted a physician at the hospital saying. “The other [patients] … had comorbidities.”

“Gone to some place, will return soon”

COVID19, Coroanvirus deaths, Kashmir covid, kashmir covid deaths
Healthcare workers taking a body of a covid-19 patient for burial in north Kashmir. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

Unknown to the management and the administration, as the medics at several hospitals protested for lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits, the first line of defense had been breached. 

On 6 May, Asif’s father, Maqbool’s sample was again collected for testing. Two days later, the father tested positive and was shifted to the Chest Disease hospital, another COVID-19 exclusive facility in Srinagar. On the morning of 9 May, three nurses and a sweeper later tested positive and about ten staff members were sent to quarantine.

Similarly, at another super specialty hospital, on 12 May, a 40-year-old patient, who was admitted at the gastroenterology ward of Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Science (SKIMS) for a month, also tested positive. Subsequently, forty health care workers were sent into quarantine, including twelve doctors. 

The fast-spreading virus was seeping in every locality as Kashmir sucked into the community-transmission phase of the virus. The administration was uptight too in putting a horde of people, and their physical contacts, in institutional quarantine centers. 

After Asif tested positive for COVID-19, Bano said that she and her daughter along with other relatives, who had been in contact with the family, were shifted to a quarantine centre in a hotel in the Dalgate area of Srinagar. They will be kept there for the next twenty days as Bano’s husband, Maqbool, was fighting against his breathlessness at another hospital in Srinagar, alone.

The authorities carried Asif’s body from the hospital to the local graveyard. His uncles and cousins wore the PPE kits, provided by the hospital, as they buried him.

“We were not even allowed to mourn the loss. I wanted to hug my son one last time but I wasn’t allowed to even see his face,” said Bano. Bilal Ahmad, one of Asif’s close friends, couldn’t see his body before burial. And it will haunt him forever. “Everyone has to die,” he said, “but when you see your loved one’s dead body, at least you have that satisfaction.”

On 11 May, Maqbool succumbed to COVID-19 too. 

Since then, the virus has wreaked havoc in Kashmir as well as the rest of the country. Till 28 December, more than 1,20,000 people tested positive for coronavirus in Jammu and Kashmir and 1,869 lives were lost to it.

However, amid soaring deaths and more fresh cases every day, the people have internalised the disease — and despite the administration’s blueprint for vaccine rollout, the injections are a reality away. Without that, social-distancing and following COVID-19 protocols, like wearing facemasks, washing hands regularly, and avoiding crowded places, remain the only way out. And the cases toll and the thousand lives lost to a pandemic have been confined to mere numbers.

In November, a serosurvey conducted in Kashmir found that two out of every five people in the valley have developed antibodies against the coronavirus. The survey carried out in October found the highest prevalence of antibodies in Pulwama at 43.1 percent and the lowest in Kulgam at 28.5 percent.

Now, Bano lives in her three-storey home with her daughter, where she “often wakes up in the middle of the night and cries”. “We are not able to sleep in this big house,” she said, and continued, with tears, “Since I haven’t seen their body, I swear I don’t feel that they are not with me anymore. I just feel like they have gone to some place and that they will return soon.”

Of choices and “the doomsday”

The restriction on movement couldn’t curb the spread of the virus. As it spread across the city, taking a colony down one after another, life gave 35-year-old Sajad Lone two choices: either put the life at risk or leave the job.

The ambulance driver at SMHS hospital chose the former. Lone was the duty of transporting the COVID-19 patients and, later, their dead bodies. Fixing his facemask, inside the hospital premises, he said, “Everyone was scared in the initial days. It wasn’t less than doomsday.”

Soon, the cases soared and ambulance sirens could be heard across the region, racing against severe symptoms. Every time a patient would die, Lone would get into a PPE kit, hop into the ambulance, and leave.

As he ran from one colony to another, in Srinagar, Lone had to make some crucial choices that he wasn’t trained for. For instance, he recalled, in May 2019, he took a 40-year-old COVID-19 patient, accompanied by his diabetic wife, from the Bemina area to the hospital. Due to her deteriorating health, she wasn’t able to attend to her husband and due to the COVID-19 scare, all the relatives “abandoned” too. So Lone went the extra mile to attend to the patient when he wasn’t driving others to the hospital.

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Sajad Ahmad Lone, 35, inside the premises of SMHS Hospital in central Kashmir’s Srinagar district. Photograph by Shefali Rafiq for The Kashmir Walla.

Initially, Lone was afraid of the novel crisis too. But with time, as he regularly took the bodies to the graveyard along with an attendant, if there were any, and got used to it. “It still haunts me how I saw bodies being buried in front of a couple of people,” he recalled. Death due to COVID-19 is the worst thing that could happen to someone, he added. 

And it didn’t take much time when his fear got real. After four months of ferrying patients, he contracted the virus too. However, against his fear, his family stayed put. “I took the risk for the sake of Allah,” he said. “I would think even if I die, I will be at peace.”

“We became monsters”

The abrupt lockdown in March 2019 by Narendra Modi led the government dragged the country’s poor and downtrodden people into numerous novel crises. In Kashmir too, a region whose economy was battered by subsequent lockdowns brought people to hand-to-mouth instances. Several were left stranded across the country due to strict travel restrictions.

Many NGOs and privately organised groups came ahead to extend their support and bridge the gap between public and ailing administration. One among them was the United Sikh Forum, led by 39-year-old Manmeet Singh. Serving needy since 2013, the Forum distributed basic ration needs after the lockdown while cooked for some others. 

“Then later, patients started rising and more were admitted [to the hospitals],” he recalled. “We started doing social service like transferring these patients to the hospital, taking care of their family, their COVID-19 tests, to sanitising the home.”

While he helped a few with food, there were many whom he couldn’t: as the COVID-19 crisis worsened in Kashmir, more government forces’ personnel and other stranded migrants got infected with the virus — and a few died. A paramilitary trooper, who committed suicide on 12 May in Anantnag, asked in his suicide letter to not touch his body. “I am afraid, I have corona,” he wrote. Many others succumbed to the virus.

In absence of their family, Singh’s group took the volunteer responsibility of completing final rites gracefully. Soon, his number also went viral on WhatsApp and other social media platforms. “We would cremate them as per the SOPs,” he said, claiming that till now, his group of thirteen — all from the Sikh community — has cremated fifty dead bodies. “Three were troopers, one from Anantnag, another from BB Cantt, and one was coming from the airport.” 

Singh also remembers cremating an old Kashmiri Pandit woman. Wearing PPE kits, provided by the Gurdwara Committee, he collected her ashes and immersed them in the Jhelum river, “as per their rituals”. “None of us have gotten infected [of coronavirus] due to God’s grace,” he added. 

As Singh fought to kill the stigma around deaths by COVID-19, this disease not only took both the father and son of the Joo family but also changed the course of their lives, forever.

Bano’s 25-year-old daughter, Abroo, was happily engaged to a man and had planned to settle with him in Qatar this year. But the untimely deaths pushed more responsibilities on her mother. 

“Her fiance told her that if she wants to marry him, she will have to settle down in Qatar,” said Bano. Deciding against it, Abroo had to break the engagement to stay with her mother. 

“Everyone is telling me to be patient but I can’t,” said Bano. “Only I know what has happened to me.”

2020 has finally come to an end — for once and all. The year will be infamously remembered worldwide for the pandemic as people run away from it into their hypothetical safe spaces with the virus following the trail. But thousands of families in Kashmir, and millions of others across the world, will be inevitably stuck in 2020.

Bano says a calamity has befallen her family. Their neighbors have isolated them out of stigma and fear of COVID-19. “They were scared because the hospital authorities had strictly told them not to visit our place,” she said. “In our own place, we had become monsters.”

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