The novel coronavirus scare around the globe has made organizations to take precautionary measures and send their employees back home – and practice physical distancing to stop its deadly spread. I was in Myanmar and the international organization, where I work as a peace-psychologist on wider peacebuilding, was doing every bit to make sure everyone is healthy and safe.
While the country was yet to have its first positive case for COVID-19 – contributing towards mitigating the risk, the organization gave me a choice of relocating temporarily regionally or abroad. I happily chose my home – Kashmir in India.
On 20 March, at about 2 pm, I landed at Srinagar International Airport – via Kolkata and Delhi (I was thermally-screened for temperature at the Kolkata airport). As expected, most of the staff in Srinagar was wearing a face-mask – not gloves or protective gears; there was no hand sanitizer at the arrival gate or the hall.
Back in Yangon, I had been sanitizing everything every hour, even when I didn’t go out for about two weeks. Washing everything, including the packed-food from the market, gadgets, and hands had become the daily norm.
Right past the baggage belt at the Srinagar airport, people stood in chaotic queues –much crowded like a fish market –for thermal screening. Owing to the shortage of resources and infrastructure to deal with many people, I was hoping for a thorough medical check-up, so that passengers would be filtered as per their symptoms for further quarantine.
After collecting the self-declaration form and temperature check (not recorded in writing for individuals), a health officer/doctor told me that I may have to be quarantined. I had expected that as an international passenger.
If anyone was actually carrying the virus – many of us would have been infected by now.
I agreed and – to help them make the best possible decision – added that I have been self-isolating and working from home for about two weeks now in Myanmar. My organization strictly works in accordance with the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, for individual and community safety. We had shifted to working online, stocked food, and physically distanced/isolated ourselves already. After some confusion, he asked me to talk to the head doctor. The head doctor asked me to present a certificate of quarantine, and thence – a roadway to home.
I arranged the certificate from my organization at the soonest. When I presented it to the said doctor, he didn’t know what to say. He rebutted from the responsibility and said, “Go talk to the CISF team or the tehsildar.”
Thence, I was sent back and forth to talk to at least six to eight health officers/doctors but none made a decision.
Finally, a health official took a call – “According to the new guidelines, you have to be quarantined again.” It took them only four hours.
During my hustle, I saw many students coming from Bangladesh and other places leaving the airport – a few with fake college IDs and others with inside connections.
Things seemed unfair and I started asking questions to the doctor. He didn’t listen and behaved very rudely; almost got egoistic the moment I asked him why didn’t he simply make a decision of quarantining me four hours ago?
By now, I and the others had been stuck there in the airport for some hours. If anyone was actually carrying the virus – many of us would have been infected by now.
As a peace-psychologist, I understand the risks, and have always worked for the community’s safety and peace. Amongst other things, I have been voluntarily providing psychosocial, mental health and emotional wellbeing support for COVID-19 stress, panic and anxiety too, to many in Myanmar, Kashmir, and globally; and I am responsible enough, both as a citizen and as a professional, to be honest about where I was coming from. Hence, I had no issue with being quarantined and had come mentally prepared, keeping the safety of society and mine in mind. But where and how I was going to be quarantined were the real questions.
A day before this, I had seen pictures and read narratives of people who were quarantined in Haj House, marriage halls, where more than four-five girls were sharing one unkempt room, with no proper arrangements for cleanliness, medical support, water or food; and were later shifted somewhere else. In the marriage halls, girls and boys, had been staying all under the same roof.
I had more questions for him: “What if I get sick by staying in a poorly managed quarantined facility with a group of other girls in close vicinity, who will take the responsibility?” “I’m not on holidays; I am still working-from-home and would need my space to keep working. Where will I be kept?”
I had the right to ask. But no one responded.
Despite some being very kind, overall, instead of taking an informed decision based on their knowledge and capacity, most doctors seemed more worried about their jobs than helping people understand the measures/decisions empathetically. I understand that this is not completely their fault – this is partly the result of an institutional failure, a system which has conditioned people to avoid ownership, responsibility, and accountability; rather than doing what it correct, necessary and in everyone’s interests.
So, I took my luggage and went towards the gate where buses – very unclean – were taking everyone to some unknown places. Meanwhile, many other airport staff clearly told me, how the system is messed up and the local authorized team is not handling things properly at the airport, as they don’t even screen people properly – they were only looking at people’s IDs – whoever could convince them that they came from Delhi or Mumbai, were let out. I wondered as if, domestic sectors were virus free zones.
Quarantine in Kashmir
I sighed. Exhausted, frustrated, angry, and hungry, I went towards the gate where two people were compiling data (names, father’s name and residence) of people being quarantined. In the buses, people were sharing seats and no seat was left now. I was asked to adjust because they didn’t want to take another bus. They asked a guy sitting in the back to sit close to the driver’s seat so I could fit in. I kept asking the address of the place we were going to. Everyone – including the doctors at the airport, police, staff, kept saying they didn’t know. Two police officers were asked to accompany us in the bus – they too wearing only basic masks. When the driver asked them to hurry up a bit rudely, some of the police personnel outside dragged him down and beat him up a bit. All this happening, while students in the bus are already stressed, horrified, and crying.
After some time, we finally left, still unsure about our destination – it felt like we were criminals and were going to be secretly hanged, and so they weren’t telling us when and where – just giving us fake hopes that things will be fine. I could understand why people lie and want to skip being quarantined in Kashmir. Quarantining in Kashmir is another level crazy, scary, and depressing. Some girls kept crying; their families worriedly kept following the buses, just to make sure they know where their children were being taken.
This is very important. There’s an underlying problem here. Quarantining is an important step for everyone’s safety and in mitigating risks of a pandemic that has consumed so many lives globally already. But how it is done is crucial and here, it is clearly scary for people. Can’t blame parents or children entirely either. If more awareness, proper guidelines, and clear information, about every step was given to both people coming in and their families, there will be less fear, panic, and chaos. Not to forget, that the current way of quarantining is adding to the already existing mental health issues, fear, stress, and anxiety here. Mental health, emotional wellbeing, psychological support is equally important in this whole process.
We ended up in the Institute of Hotel Management, but after half an hour, were asked to get back into the buses because only males were going to stay there. Later, the bus reached a hotel nearby located in a close-knit neighborhood. Before we could enter, neighbors started protesting that they didn’t want ‘COVID-19 infected’ people in their area – kind of understandable because again, so much of unawareness about COVID-19 plus quarantine centers can’t be hotels in a hustling bustling neighborhood.
Police had to use strict measures – only way used to deal with things here. The fight apparently went on for a while and one person or two were even taken into custody for misbehaving I heard.
At around 8:30 pm, the man in the hotel lobby recorded basic data – names and residence –and gave us rooms randomly; mostly two people in one room and three in some. My first reaction was: “we got lucky that at least we only have one more person to share the room with, unlike so many others out there.” But my logical brain soon reminded me how it still is not useful. Sharing the same bed, same quilt, same soaps, and washroom with the other person is never a good idea for quarantine. And since, no proper data about symptoms was recorded so no one could decide who should be staying with whom. Randomness is the order here since forever. If one person out of the two people staying together is completely healthy and the other one has flu or any infection, can you imagine how both are going to suffer now?
I felt sorry for the poor hotel staff too, who weren’t even informed or given any guidelines; only few of them were wearing masks – they later told me, all of them didn’t have proper masks when we came, so had to use their handkerchiefs as they weren’t even given any prior notice and official order by the government. Police had apparently come at night and told them they need rooms for three days.
Obviously, the hotel staff, who were about to go back to their homes in far-flung areas for some time, couldn’t object (such violation of rights at every level). The staff was being as helpful as they could – worried for us and themselves. They were only given more masks, gloves the next day. After we settled in the room, cold as it can be in this early spring season in Kashmir, normal restaurant food was served, with no specific attention to details of nutrition or ingredients (only serving vegetarian food doesn’t make it healthy when it is cooked as normal restaurant food). But that’s not even important here right now – we were all asked to eat together in the hall upstairs. Some girls were not even wearing masks anymore. Again, I understand and am reemphasizing that this is a collective responsibility and every single person has to act very mindfully.
I had to ask my friends and family to drop off the basic toiletries, warm clothes, handwash, blankets, disinfecting liquid/alcohol-rub to clean my suitcase and other items of any possible germs and all the surfaces in the hotel room.
Next day, a couple of doctors came merely wearing a mask. They only asked everyone to inform if we had developed any symptoms; no individual history taken (was later done on the third day) – neither there was any basic medicines available at the facility. Instead, we were asked to buy upon prescription.
For decision-makers, this seems more of a logistical issue – of putting people in detention centers – the only known way to them of dealing with people here.
I requested one of the doctors to at least provide sanitizers, masks, handwashes, and not let people eat together in dining halls, but instead in their own rooms. She tried to ask the hotel people who did what they could – gave us separate plastic bags to dispose-off any garbage, provided us one sanitizer and one mask each (I think from their own money). But we were still asked to eat in the dining hall, now floor-wise. One hotel staff person was wearing proper gear throughout; others were given gears only on the third day. In general, they all looked as helpless as us.
While I understand that we can’ expect first-world facilities here, I sit concerned about how the loopholes in the current system can be corrected keeping limited resources and bandwidth in mind because we simply don’t have the time to take chances. I am restlessly trying to ‘work-from-home’ amidst all the chaos and with 2G internet; mostly unable to keep my commitment of even providing virtual psychosocial, mental health and emotional wellbeing support through sessions, counseling and online activities to my organization in Myanmar; and trying but struggling to do the same for people here and in other parts, as I share my room with a young student from Bangladesh on holidays, and can’t maintain any confidentiality like this.
Meanwhile, as I hear even more horrifying stories of other people who have been quarantined in worst unclean places, I feel grateful. But that doesn’t reduce the risk this process is putting everyone’s life into. For decision-makers, this seems more of a logistical issue – of putting people in detention centers – the only known way to them of dealing with people here. Or how during sports tournaments, they get people from different districts and put them into youth hostels or nice hotels together, providing presentable food. This is not what quarantine means!
Ufra Mir is a peace-psychologist and the founding executive director of her own NGO, Paigaam: A Message for Peace. She is also co-director of The Kashmir Institute.