JK admin’s gamble; a delayed lockdown that devastated economy

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Instead of taking a cue from states that had begun to witness the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Jammu and Kashmir administration continued to ignore the need for a lockdown to curb the spread in the region; till it reached a devastating point.

On 25 March, the Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha administration opened Srinagar’s tulip garden, stated to be Asia’s largest. The annual reopening was also promoted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who invited tourists in a tweet.

“Tomorrow, 25th March is special for Jammu and Kashmir. A majestic tulip garden on the foothills of the Zabarwan Mountains will open for the visitors. The Garden will see over 15 lakh flowers of 64 varieties in bloom,” he tweeted.

Badamwari, another garden famous for its almond blossom, was opened after a break of two years on 21 March for tourists. The garden had remained shut owing to the August lockdown in the wake of the abrogation of J-K’s limited-autonomy and then the first wave of Covid-19.

On 1 April, J-K recorded 461 new cases of Covid-19 in a single day. Two days later, the administration launched a six-day festival at the tulip garden. Over the week, both gardens hosted music concerts by Bollywood celebrities and thousands of tourists thronged the events, flouting Covid-19 appropriate behaviour.

All through April, India’s health infrastructure was being overwhelmed by the devastating second wave of the pandemic, reports of patients dying as they wait to get inside hospitals and of shortage of oxygen if they were admitted inside was frequent.

Still, tourists from across India arrived in Kashmir largely unhindered; untested. During the week the tulip festival was held, between 3 April and 9 April — the duration of the tulip festival — Kashmir recorded 3,053 cases as against 1,770 in all of January; 1,459 in February; and 3,517 in March.

On 14 April, J-K recorded 1,086 new cases of Covid-19, the highest in the past one month when the cases had come down to two-digit figures. Over the next few days, the record was beaten again and again as cases kept rising — but the administration remained unalarmed.

By 25 March, nearly six thousand travelers arriving at the airport in Srinagar had tested positive — on the relatively unreliable rapid tests — for Covid-19 while nearly three thousand more travelers tested positive by 29 April, the day the lockdown was finally imposed.

That day, J-K recorded 3,474 confirmed cases of Covid-19 infections — 2,450 in Kashmir alone. Was the lockdown imposed too late and once it was indeed imposed, did the administration have a clue about how it would unfold?

Bad copy paste

The lockdown in J-K initially began with “night curfews” in urban centres of J-K, even as no city or town in the region boasts a bustling nightlife. A move that was directly copied from large metropolises in other states.

While the metropolises that guided J-K’s bureaucracy struggled with multiple crises, what the J-K administration failed to copy — perhaps, from countries — was the simultaneous vamping up of health infrastructure, procurement of vaccines and other life-saving medicines and oxygen.

Lockdowns had proven to reduce the spread of the virus and bring down caseload in hospitals, said Nisar Hasan, president of the Doctors Association Kashmir. “Through a lockdown, the administration comes to know the behaviour of the virus that may help the administration and people to know how they are supposed to go about it, control it and at the same time, if the vaccine is available then you may also get time for people to get vaccinated,” said Hassan.

But more than a month into the lockdown, the majority of J-K remains unvaccinated — still risking the eruption of subsequent waves of the virus, said Hassan. “When you have a new virus, you can have more waves, not just one or two but more than that because most of the population is still unvaccinated,” he said.

“We should have prepared as soon as we saw the rise in cases [in other states],” said Hassan. “We should have thought that it would come to us as well. It was a delay of a few weeks but the effect was big… The only predictable thing about this virus,” said Hassan, “is that it is unpredictable.”

So why was the lockdown delayed? Mir Mushtaq, Spokesperson of the Directorate of Health Services Kashmir, said that a lockdown couldn’t have been the first measure as the first measure is appropriate behaviour — one that was, however, missing all along.

“We are sensitized enough now to understand that the lockdown not only creates a mental stress on people but that the economy also gets a hit,” said Mushtaq. “So once a government thinks of imposing a lockdown, it isn’t an easy decision.”

“Lockdown is not an individual decision, it is national policy,” claimed Mushtaq. However, most states — even J-K, where the lockdown was announced by the LG Sinha — have announced lockdowns at individual level unlike the first wave – that claimed hundreds of lives of migrant workers left in a lurch – was imposed by Modi himself.

Mushtaq said that J-K has reached the plateau stage, a constant flow of high daily number of cases before a drop is seen, with the rise in cases no-longer being exponential. “We have achieved the peak and we will come down from here,” he said. “If all goes well I don’t think there will be a rise in cases.”

As large metropolises in the country plan to ease the lockdown, Mushtaq said that any such move in J-K should be based on how the virus “behaves in the next ten days” and not at the slight decrease in the number of daily cases.

“I think experts, doctors, government agencies will sit together, evaluate everything and then make a decision that will be in the best interest of the public,” Mushtaq added.

Economy on ventilator

On 1 May, Jammu and Kashmir recorded 3,823 new cases of Covid-19, of which 2,601 were recorded in Kashmir. About a week later, on 7 May, the cases broke the record of the past one year with 5,443 new cases being recorded; 3,575 had tested positive in Kashmir and 1,868 in the Jammu region.

The immediate casualty of a lockdown has been the region’s businesses and economy, and a spike in the number of people losing their livelihoods, even if temporarily. Kashmir is currently under its third major lockdown — extending more since 2019.

With businesses barely recovering from the losses of the previous two lockdowns, the third lockdown has further crippled trade and pushed Kashmir’s economy to a precarious situation. The month of May has been devastating with the public locked inside their homes and no sign of respite in their economic condition.

The number of daily cases reported in the region has also remained constantly high; the figures are considerably higher than the numbers reported in the month of March, when it was assumed that the pandemic had ebbed. On 28 May, Jammu and Kashmir recorded 2,803 new cases of infections out of which 1,794 were from Kashmir.

The lockdown has brought several thousand families associated with all sectors – be it hoteliers, transporters, daily wagers, street vendors, or orchardists – on the verge of starvation, said Mohammad Yasin Khan, President Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation (KTMF).

Each day of lockdown causes an economic loss of ₹150 crore, said Khan. A month-long lockdown, therefore, could cause a loss of ₹4,500 crores. “This involves various sectors including general trade, transport, service sector, industries, road vendors, labourers etcetera,” he said. “If the lockdown continues, the business sector will be destroyed.”

“Big businesses can still be in business, but the small businesses have been completely crippled and are leaving trade [as a profession]. They aren’t able to even find daily wage work with [employers] reluctant owing to the threat of Covid,” he said. “There is only 2-4 percent who are associated with the business even now but 90 percent of people who are in the general trade, transport, horticulture etcetera, are suffering.”

The fallout of lockdown is devastating, as is the impact of its non-imposition. “If they want to unlock now, there should be a significant drop in cases. There should be at least a 10 percent drop for the first week and more than that in the next week. Also the testing and results should be real,” said Hassan of the DAK. “Then this drop should be sustained.”

The urge to lift the lockdown with a slight decrease in cases, however, would possibly be as devastating. Hassan warned: “Education and economy can wait but [saving] lives cannot.”

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