New Delhi:  In a first, India has locked down 1.3 billion citizens as the world grapples against the coronavirus disease. Hanging between stages two and three, the states across the country have a plethora of issues to deal with at the local front. But in Kashmir, every new issue is met with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s priority to further scrutinize the region. 

Since last year, the region has been clouded with chaos, confusion, and absolute lack of elected leadership; now, it sees growing cases of the novel coronavirus. After the biggest jump in a day, by Wednesday, Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) detected 158 positive cases. Three among them died, while four recovered.   

However, even after reiterated demands of local leaders and healthcare professionals for the restoration of high-speed internet, no chime seems to convey to the government that Kashmir severely needs high-speed communication services to spread awareness about the pandemic – that has killed at least 82,000 people around the world and the global curve is yet to flatten.

In such times, Kashmiri Diaspora – spread around the world – feels the need to empower local Kashmiris with awareness to combat the deadly disease. When Zahoor Wani, who is an Attorney in the United States since twenty-seven years, called his home, he says, he realized Kashmiris were not taking the situation seriously. “They were moving out and about as if there was no threat at all,” he says. And it made him take to his social media account to rescue uninformed Kashmiris. 

A native of Lolab Valley, Mr. Wani then planned to interview a Kashmiri doctor, Dr. Salim Kamili, who is a senior scientist at Center for Disease Control, US, about the threats, symptoms, and preventions that surround the coronavirus. 

The idea was to keep the whole video in Kashmiri. “Kashmiri is a language that is easily understood by all, even the elderly, so we scripted the entire interview in Kashmiri,” says Mr. Wani, “not one English word has been used.”

In the video, Mr. Wani interviews Dr. Kamili in Kashmiri with questions kept as simple as possible for the lay to understand. 

“[Because] the coronavirus would proliferate if the masses do not have complete information regarding the same,” says Mr. Wani. “As a Kashmiri, I’m aware of the habits of Kashmiris; the community living and how joint-family household conduct themselves, so in the wake of all this I decided to make this video as an early warning.”

But for Mr. Wani, the job didn’t end there; he was apprehended by the low-speed internet in the Valley.  The 32-megabyte interview video would take hours to download. Anticipating the gravity of the situation, Mr. Wani also wrote a Kashmiri jingle to spread awareness about the virus.

To disseminate it among the masses, he contacted a local Kashmiri singer, Aadil Manzoor Shah, to record the song so that it could be disseminated among the masses within time. The song that sounds alarming, urges Kashmiris to wash hands, maintain social distance, and remain indoors.

Another Twitter initiative – JK Scientists – has also been active in spreading information about the virus through doodles in Kashmiri, aiming to spread awareness about the ills of the virus.

Another content producing initiative in Kashmiri has been taken by Dr. Shabir Hassan, who is a Scientist at Harvard Medical School, Boston. A native of Pulwama, south Kashmir, he says, “Our hospitals are not equipped properly to deal with COVID-19 patients. Critical care facilities are very rare even at the hospitals in district headquarters.” 

He claims that of the ninety-seven ventilators in the Kashmir division, not all are in working condition. And all the functional ones won’t be set for COVID-19 patients either. Even if half of the functional ventilators are dedicated to COVID-19, he says, they would fall short for a population of 8 million. 

“Kashmir needs help with equipping health workers and patients with proper personal protective equipment [PPE], people need to be honest disclosing their travel history and also, comply with quarantine efforts,” says Dr. Hassan. “While the general public has to co-operate through social distancing and proper education, the government has to also be serious with their quarantine measures.” 

Another major challenge, which he also sees, is the slow-speed internet connectivity. “People need to be educated about do’s and don’ts in this coronavirus pandemic and internet is the best medium for that.”

And Dr. Hassan adds that he isn’t alone in this; Kashmiri expat scientists and medicos in the diaspora – “from European countries, the UK, Middle East, other Asian countries” –have written drafts, produced videos on YouTube, made podcasts, animations, illustrations in Kashmiri for the people.  “Unfortunately, most of these efforts need high-speed internet to buffer seamless,” adds Dr. Hassan.

Other than content, Dr. Hassan is also working with a few entrepreneurs, researchers, and engineers at Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), Awantipora, and National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, on the design, development, and production of novel ventilators. 

“We have a prototype almost ready, but needs to be seen how it pans out,” he says. And the low-speed internet is a barrier in this too as it keeping innovators to engineer systems to combat or at least control the virus. 

Dr. Hassan also appealed on Twitter for funds that would go directly to the purchase of PPEs for doctors and hospital staff, who are on the frontline. 

But, on the top of everything, Dr. Hassan reiterates that the government should immediately restore high-speed internet so that people can access information for better education and awareness. 

Even if one happens to validate the restriction on internet, the medical system in Kashmir is not well equipped to deal with a virus of this scale either. And this dual disability has made the Kashmiri Diaspora engage with ways and means to inform their community.

The author is a freelance journalist. You can follow her on Twitter at @tarushi_aswani

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