“Does anyone follow protocols?”: Elections in Kashmir amid COVID-19 pandemic

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The polling station in Tangnar village in the Chadoora area of central Kashmir’s Budgam district was teeming with voters on 13 December — men and women of all age groups, some of them even brought their children to the polling station. None of them, however, wore masks.

It was the sixth phase of voting in the District Development Council (DDC) elections in Jammu and Kashmir. The rush of voters in Tangnar, crowded near the entry of the polling booths and huddled in groups in the vicinity; they chatted and hugged each other, oblivious to the vulnerability of contracting the COVID-19 infection. 

At the polling station, Shazia Akhtar, a health worker with the government, who wore a full body protective suit, was tasked with checking the body temperature of voters and providing hand sanitisers to those being allowed to enter. She constantly implored the voters to wear masks.

“None of them agree to wear masks at all,” said a miffed Akhtar. “We were only given a few masks that are enough for us. We cannot provide them with masks.” In the ongoing elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing and other prevention protocols have taken a backseat as priorities have shifted to politics.

***

In the rush to reach the polling station to cast his vote, 58-year-old Mohamad Ramzan Khan, a farmer, had forgotten to wear a mask. He had heard, over the radio, that masks would be handed out at the polling stations as well, in case one did not have it. A keen listener of radio, Ramzan is aware of COVID-19 and the preventive measures announced, at least on papers — in his case, the radio.

However, when Ramzan reached the polling station in Kandora village in the Sukhnag block in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, at about 8 am, he found queues of voters but no sign of the preventive measures in place: few wore masks and there was no social distancing. There was also no one handing out masks. 

Two health workers sat in the corridors of the polling station, one of them, 35-year-old Rameez Khan, smoked a cigarette as he toyed with a thermal scanner. When nudged to check the temperature as this reporter entered the premises, Rameez said that the scanner “wasn’t working at the moment.” 

Ramzan, meanwhile, had walked past and gotten into the queue of another dozen people waiting to cast their votes in the third phase of the DDC elections on 4 December. As Ramzan joined his friends in the queue — none of whom wore a mask, fears of contracting the COVID-19 infection were the least of their concerns as they chatted while they waited for their turns to vote. “I have had fever for two days,” said Abdul Gaffar Sheikh, 62, a friend of Ramzan. “Can it be Covid?” he wondered. Rameez, however, assured him that he was fine.

Inside the polling station, set up in the Government Boys Higher Secondary School in the village, dozens of government officials were on election duty while dozens more forces personnel stood guard, armed to fend off militant attacks but not COVID-19. “Is this the facility that the government is bragging about? They are concerned with voter [participation] only, they don’t care about the people,” Ramzan said after he had cast his vote.

***

According to guidelines issued by the Chief Electoral Officer, among the measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at polling stations is mandatory sanitisation of the station, thermal scanning of all voters, and providing sanitisers and hand washing facilities at all booths. If a voter’s temperature is found above normal, those persons would vote in the last hour of polling.

But not a single person entering the polling booth in Kandora was thermally scanned or wore masks. An hour after Ramzan had left the polling station, the other health worker brought out a bottle of sanitiser, distributing it in small amounts to every voter. Some—mostly senior citizens—were instructed on the use of sanitiser: rubbing it in their hands.

“Why did they schedule elections in this pandemic?,” asked a voter, angry with the callousness of the government but determined to cast his vote because public works in his area was a much bigger priority. “People are not going to follow the measures and eventually they are going to get affected.” Referring to the inevitable crowding at polling booths, he demanded to know: “How else are we supposed to vote?” 

The health workers assigned duty at the polling booth fear that polling stations are potential hotspots owing to the crowding and the public’s general indifference to prevention protocols. “Even though we tell people to maintain distance and wear a mask,” said Fahmeeda Akhtar, an Asha worker, the requests are not heeded to. “No one will be held responsible but us if anything happens.” 

At another polling station in Qumroo village, seven kilometers from Kandora, the scenes were no different. People stood in groups, waiting to cast their votes. Here, inside the booth, a polling officer, when asked why he did not wear a mask, sid: “When the Returning Officer (RO) didn’t think of social distancing last night [during preparation for polling] when 25 of us were in a single 2 room, why do you expect us to follow the protocol now?”

The returning officer, who wished anonymity, however, said that they have followed all the preventive measures keeping in view the guidelines laid down by the election authority. “When people themselves don’t want to follow the protocol, how can we force them? We have made sure they get sanitizers and masks, what else can we do?” he said. “It is people’s fault that they take the pandemic lightly.”

The Block Medical Officer of sub-district hospital, Beerwah, Dr. Javaid Ganai, who said that they have made sure all the essential requirements are taken care of, at the polling booths. He blamed the people for being ignorant towards the pandemic. “The people have to understand the seriousness of the pandemic themselves in order to save themselves from it,” he said, adding that unless people are not educated about the seriousness of COVID-19, they will not follow any rules or guidelines. 

***

On 28 November, Nitishwar Kumar, the Principal Secretary to Jammu and Kashmir’s Lieutenant Governor, Manoj Sinha, uploaded on Twitter showing dozens of voters, both men and women, huddled without masks, in violation of the guidelines issued by the election authority.

Since then, six phases of the District Development Council elections have been held across Jammu and Kashmir — amid the COVID-19 pandemic. During each phase, basic precautions to prevent the spread of the disease seemed to be the least of anyone’s concern.

It was a similar story inside many polling booths in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, during the first phase of polling on 7 December, health workers were unaware of the guidelines. In a polling booth in Gund, twenty-five-year-old health worker, Shareefa Bano pretended to scan the voters’ temperatures by pointing the thermal scanner at them — from a distance of about four feet, a significantly long distance for accurate measurement.

When asked if she felt the temperature readings on the thermal scanner were accurate, Bano said:  “These are faulty, even if I scan closely, it will still give a wrong temperature.” She didn’t know the acceptable temperatures and said that the government had not “trained” her to use the scanner. 

*** 

The pandemic hasn’t ebbed — experts warn, and the data suggests as well — and the number of cases reported has spiked after every major festival or event with large public gatherings. Nisar-ul-Hassan, president of the Doctors Association Kashmir, said that there was a spike in COVID-19 cases but has since then gotten under control.

As on 12 December, 419 new cases — 211 from Kashmir Valley — of COVID-19 and seven deaths were reported. The overall tally in J-K rose to 1,793 deaths so far. The highest number of deaths so far, 433, was reported from the Srinagar district, followed by 165 in Baramulla and 105 in Budgam districts of Kashmir. 327 individuals have died in the Jammu district. In the last week taking the total tally to 110224 in Jammu and Kashmir, the total fatality count has reached 1119 in the valley. 

Hassan said that the situation in Kashmir was “relatively not in crisis” but shifted the onus on the public instead of the government for holding the elections amid the pandemic: “Leave aside the DDC elections, look at the markets. Does anyone follow [prevention] protocols? They don’t follow it anywhere, be it a bank or a hospital or an election. People have a [misunderstanding] that COVID-19 only affects older people.”

Additional reporting by Zenaira Bakhsh

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