coronavirus, kashmir coronavirus, bhat burhan kashmir, kashmir
A doctor reading a report outside H1N1/COVID-19 ward at CD hospital in Srinagar. Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla

In March this year, when Jammu and Kashmir was locked down, ostensibly to curb the spread of COVID-19 just after its outbreak, a group of friends got together to help bridge the gap in the J-K administration’s response to the public health emergency.

Amid the nationwide lockdown — allowing movement to only categorised essential services — a group of friends formed a group on Facebook that they called the “Coronavirus Watch J&K” to spread awareness of the deadly virus and to help the needy–from providing oxygen concentrators but also distributing food packets.

What started as an awareness group on Facebook then joined hands with a Srinagar-based non-profit, Social Reform Organization (SRO), to give a structure to the aid-giving process. “We started providing [oxygen concentrators] to those in need in order to lessen the rush in hospitals,” said 47-year-old Aafaq Sayeed, an active member of the group.

Soon, the cases started spiking rapidly and the streets remained deserted. Many people organised on social media platforms, including personal texting apps like WhatsApp, to raise SOS-alerts, mobilising support such as blood and plasma donation, evacuating people left stranded by the lockdown. 

Mr. Sayeed’s group, too, started plasma donation through a WhatsApp group which has now been shifted to a website due to the huge response of people. “We receive the requests of donors as well as recipients there only,” said Mr. Sayeed. “We have around fifteen field volunteers who are working on plasma donation. They coordinate and bring together the recipient as well as donor. As on this date, we have provided plasma to around 150 people.”

The team of volunteers and social workers has raised lakhs of rupees in donations so far, to boost the oxygen concentrator procurement. The group, and other non-profits like them, have filled in a critical vacuum left by the bureaucratic response of the J-K administration towards the pandemic.

In the initial months, another Srinagar-based non-profit, Athrout, had donated six ventilators to the J-K administration, which, however, refused accepting it for unstated reasons. It is still unclear–owing to lack of transparency from the administration–whether sufficient ventilators were procured during the lockdown.

Plasma Donors Kashmir is another group founded by two 22-year-old Kashmiri students in July, this year after one of their friends lost his father to COVID-19. So far, the volunteers have helped put hundreds of patients in touch with donors. 

“We get the patients in touch with donors through our network of volunteers in all districts of Kashmir,” said Amaan Mir, a co-founder of the initiative. According to Mr. Mir, 90 per cent of the work has been involving the awareness of people about plasma donation. 

“The biggest problem that we have been facing is that people do not understand what plasma donation is,” said Mr. Mir. “People clearly say that they do not want to hear a word after we tell them about plasma donation. People are scared about being in touch with anything that relates them to COVID-19 again.”

He added: “We are forced to get people in touch with our plasma donors. They tell them about their own experiences and try to convince them that plasma donation is safe. People fear that they might get contaminated again.” 

The pandemic reportedly broke out in China’s Wuhan in the last week of December 2019; soon, it started spreading across the globe and country after another locked down. It reached Kashmir three months later. 

Although, the administration and society have completely failed in containing the virus; so far, J-K has recorded more than 78,000 cases while 1,231 people have succumbed to the virus.

Now, the pandemic has also been normalised as people have hoarded the streets — unmasked. This internalisation of the pandemic is visible in every aspect of our lives that the world thought would change forever: no social distancing. This, undoubtedly, led to a dramatic spike in the tally of the COVID-19 cases — far, far away from the downward slope of the first wave. The second is yet to come.

But hit hard by the lockdown, the ailing economy has forced the administration in Kashmir, and the government in the rest of India, to reopen the streets. With its internalisation, the efforts of the nonprofits have fallen out of social media trends in Kashmir.

As the harsh winter approaches, they still will be just as crucial as they were in March when the first case of COVID-19 hit headlines in Kashmir.

The comment originally appeared in our 5 – 11 October 2020 print edition.

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