In Kashmir, pandemic dents non-covid healthcare

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As a lockdown was imposed in Jammu and Kashmir to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic’s deadly second wave, premier hospitals of Kashmir stopped elective surgeries and routine patient consultations are being done over the phone.

But not everyone is able to adjust to the sudden halting of an in-person consultation. Ghulam Mohammad Wagay, a 32-year-old diabetic, was compelled to visit the Sub-District Hospital in Kreeri after he was not “satisfied” with a consultation over the phone.

“I can’t rely on online consultations,” he said. “I have to see a doctor in person so that I am also satisfied that he has examined me properly. How am I supposed to sit back at home when I am not feeling well.”

Wagay isn’t alone either. According to Aijaz Bhat, a doctor at the SDH in Kreeri, the number of patients coming to the hospital to seek consultation has decreased but not stopped. “The number has decreased by sixty percent,” he said, adding that on average a hundred patients used to walk in for checkups prior to the lockdown owing to the second wave of Covid-19.

“It’s not like we won’t see them, they have numbers and they can call the doctors anytime,” Bhat said. “But at times, patients are unable to convey their problems to doctors, they are then advised to visit the hospital… Tele-consultation cannot replace in-person consultation.”

The Kashmir Walla reached out to other doctors employed in the government’s service but none agreed to speak of the impact of ill-planned administrative policies on the general public. “I don’t want to lose my job. I can’t take the risk of talking to the media,” one doctor in north Kashmir’s Pattan area told us. 

In an authoritarian diktat issued on 7 May, the Director of Health Services Kashmir Mushtaq Rather banned the media from speaking to health workers. “All Chief Medical Officers/Medical Superintendents/Block Medical officers of Kashmir Division are enjoined upon to issue instructions to all the staff under the administrative domain to desist from media interactions,” he stated in the order.

Sartaj Ahmad, a surgeon at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, said that the six surgical units in the hospital would conduct nearly thirty surgeries on a daily basis, removing gallbladders, hernias, etc.

A patient requires to be admitted to the hospital for about a week during which a date for the surgery is given at short notice and they are operated on, he said. But since the halting of such surgeries, “We received a lot of patients where the gallbladder burst as a result of not being operated upon in the past few weeks.”

Just last week, Ahmad said, a woman in her 30s had arrived at the hospital with a gallbladder complication as her surgery had been called off. The doctor on duty had to admit her and operate on her in an emergency. “Rates of complications have increased to some extent,” he said. “Other than that, the process is going smoothly.”

“It’s difficult to make people understand that only emergency surgeries are allowed at the moment. It’s not their fault. They will obviously think about themselves,” said Ahmad. 

Out-Patient Departments (OPD) across J-K were shut down during the first wave of the pandemic as well and were reopened shortly before the spread of the second wave prompted another closure.

To meet the public’s needs, local nonprofits have stepped up to provide nursing care for patients at home during the pandemic. Meanwhile, private hospitals are open for non-Covid care but many in Kashmir, which has been reeling under successive lockdowns since 2019, are finding it increasingly difficult to afford healthcare. 

In April, 289 individuals across Jammu and Kashmir died due to Covid-19, and reports of non-functional ventilators and barely enough supplies of oxygen continue to flood the discourse even as the administration has stressed that the public should not panic. 

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