When the first case of COVID-19 infection surfaced in March last year, Kashmir trembled with fear. The supermarkets were flooded by customers as the virus drove people for panic shopping before a massive lockdown was imposed.
The roads were blocked, commercial centres were shut, schools, colleges universities, offices and mosques were locked. Life was brought to an unprecedented standstill.
Thousands of infections and a year later, COVID-19 has wrecked the lives of people but the fear has evaporated into carelessness as people and administration developed a fatigue in the long war against the invisible enemy.
In March, the anniversary month of the COVID-19 in Kashmir, the region’s administration revealed a disturbing follow-up of mitigation measures as it noted that there has been “a rapid decline” in testing and a “meagre number of symptomatic cases being tested”.
One year after the COVID-19 surfaced in the region, Jammu and Kashmir clocked 1.28 lac cases and 1979 deaths. Srinagar remained the worst hit.
Evolution of fear
Burhan Ahmad was among the forty other travelers who were given COVID-19 negative certificates “without being tested” on Lakhanpur border while coming to Kashmir in February this year.
The 22-year-old resident of Srinagar’s Soura area, who travels frequently for his work, travelled by road to Punjab and back home several times. However, he saw that none of the Standard Operating Protocols (SOP) were being followed. “People were huddled together in the bus as well and no social distancing was being maintained,” he said.
During the initial months of the pandemic, testing was made mandatory for incoming travelers and people showing symptoms of COVID-19 such as cold, cough, bodyache, fever etcetera were rushed to hospitals. The incoming travelers were shifted to hotels and hostels that were being used as quarantine centres in those days till the time they [travelers] tested negative in RT PCR tests.
Meanwhile many nonprofits worked hard to help bridge the gap in the J-K administration’s response to the public health emergency as people suffered due to unavailability of beds, ventilators, high flow oxygen machines, non-invasive ventilation (NIV) machines etcetera.
The Divisional Commissioner directed all the districts to prepare an inventory of all COVID-19 related logistics like testing kits, oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators, pulse oximeters, thermometers etcetera.
However, with time, traveling by airlines has not been any different either for Ahmad, who got tested nearly ten times since the outbreak in India. And over the time, he has noticed changes in the way SOPs were being followed.
During his first travel in August last year, Ahmad would see staff and travelers at the airport wearing two layers of masks, PPE kits, face shields etcetera and felt at ease. However, when Ahmad traveled in March this year, he was not even tested at the airport. “They don’t do testing while traveling between Jammu and Kashmir although it should be there,” he said. “The virus can be anywhere.”
Ahmad said that the staff at the airport as well as the travelers were without masks, sitting together. The results of the tests conducted are seldom revealed. Feeling worried for his family’s safety, he makes sure to get himself tested at a hospital before going home.
“I feel at risk after I travel because I follow the rules but other people don’t. Till the time the whole community doesn’t fight for it, we are all at risk,” said Bhat. “I always feel that I can test positive anytime.”
The restrictions on movement after the first case of COVID-19, reported in March last year could not curb the spread of the virus. However, the lockdown was eased in recent months.
When the COVID-19 cases started declining in J-K, the administration not only opened all the public places for people but schools and colleges that had remained closed since August 2019 when the limited-autonomy of the erstwhile state was abrogated.
Guidelines were created for the smooth functioning of school and colleges while the phased reopening continued. Many even used an odd-even method. Though soon, several schools and colleges reported fresh cases of COVID-19 among teachers and students, leading to panic, chaos and even temporary shutdowns as well.
At a time when the world is battling with the deadly virus and the social gatherings have come to a sudden halt, the government also organised the Khelo India Winter Games in Gulmarg. During the event that concluded on 2 March, 1200 participants from around twenty-seven states of India and from around the world participated in the games.
In view of the recent rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in some states and spike in the number of positive cases among travelers, Pole directed that District Contact Tracing Teams shall act more proactively and trace at least fifteen contacts for each positive person to make contact tracing more effective besides breaking the chain of the infection.
To bring the situation back in grab, in December last year, Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) Mayor, Junaid Azim Mattu made it mandatory for people to wear masks in public places in Srinagar. As a preventive measure, not wearing a face mask in public places would entail a fine of 200 rupees and 500 rupees on repeated violations. The rule, however, soon floated when neither common people nor the officers wore masks in public places.
In his recent visit to Divisional Covid Control Room (DCR) Kashmir during March this year, the Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir Pandurang Pole, took a detailed review of the functioning of the DCR besides operations of COVID-19 mitigation measures in the district.
In the meeting, several important aspects including the crowd control at airports and testing process were reviewed. The rapid decline in RAT was noted and all the CMOs were directed to enhance the testing as per revised targets besides keeping the ratio of RAT and RT PCR in proportion as per the government guidelines.
During the meeting, Pole directed the administration to monitor the patients kept in home isolation on a daily basis. He insisted that the patients should be visited by the surveillance teams of the concerned districts, keeping track of the positive COVID-19 patients through regular phone calls and messaging.
However, in the recent months, a decline in the testing process has been seen across J-K. From over 1,600 cases of COVID-19 daily in September last year when the erstwhile state witnessed the peak to just around 100 cases per day in March this year, J-K witnessed a dramatic decline in the COVID-19 cases.
Unaccountability – a norm
But is the administration accountable to the people? “No,” said Nisar Ul Hassan, president of Doctors’ Association of Kashmir. “Unaccountability and promotion of wrong things is a norm in Kashmir.”
Most of the people who showed symptoms of COVID-19 did not report to the hospital, many died at home while others could not even get tested, said Hassan. “We may not be knowing the exact number of infected people or deaths. There is no population based screening being done,” he said.
The pattern and mutations in the virus can be found out through collecting data but that has not been done in Kashmir properly, he said. “We came to know about the mutated versions very late. Some of them were more infectious and lethal causing more deaths and more cases,” he said. “Candidly speaking, we don’t have the data for any disease including COVID-19.”
Hassan said that the testing process has not been so robust and the administration does not know the actual number of cases and one of the reasons for missing out on COVID-19 cases has been false negatives. “The sensitivity of RAT is just thirty percent so we can miss a lot of cases too. Then even RT PCR has the sensitivity of just seventy percent. So even in that case we miss around thirty percent cases,” he added.
However, Hassan believes that the administration needs to reach out to the peripheries and educate the people as many of them may not have access to televisions and social media. “In this part of the world COVID-19 vaccination should be made mandatory because people who remain unvaccinated due to being reluctant they are a threat to the whole community due to being unvaccinated,” he said.
Hassan said that just like Swine flu, the virus may never end but through vaccination it can be declared seasonal. “If more people go for vaccination, we may end the pandemic soon,” he added.