In the first week of May, a 32-year-old man from Srinagar’s downtown died of COVID-19, making him—at that time—the youngest to die of the disease that has claimed thousands across the world. In Kashmir, nine had died of the disease so far then.
The young man had contracted the disease in a hospital where he had been tending his father, a cancer patient. Days later, his father had also contracted and succumbed to the disease that has spread like wildfire. The four member family now comprised of just two.
The death of the father-son duo had aggrieved all, the relatives driven by emotions had visited the bereaved family in droves. Overwhelmed by emotions, they had given a toss to all guidelines, including the most important one of social distancing.
As the news spread about this, authorities began tracing the mourners. Tests of a number of relatives returned positive, this lead to rumours of other relatives having caught the disease too. Among them one being the family of Hamid Ahmed of Srinagar’s Lal Bazar area leading to a panic in the neighbourhood.
The stigma and ignorance associated with the disease has added to their agony. Thus began the meetings and conspiracies of getting the family quarantined. “It was getting shameful, every now and then the members of gamily ventured out of their house,” a resident of the area recalled. “Neighbours would run away or act weird, as if the family was a time bomb waiting to go off if they came in contact with them.”
The resident added that many locals had approached him, a government employee, to get Mr. Ahmed’s family quarantined. “Whenever I had an encounter with a neighbour, they would tell me to use my contacts and get the family quarantined,” he said. “I was cursing myself for working in the administration.”
Residents of the neighbourhood, he said, “somehow thought I would be the “devil” who would get them quarantined, despite them not getting tested”. Meanwhile, it was only after this that the residents locked the neighbourhood mosque after keeping it open even during the initial days of the lockdown. “They pressurised the president to lock the mosque, because the relative of Covid-19 relative had entered the mosque,” said another local, Tajamul Alo. “It was to show him that people wanted him to stay at home and it was dangerous for him to venture out.”
Mr. Ali said that the locals later had also managed to get the family quarantined for a month. “It was a punishment for a family who had been in mourning over the death of two of their close relatives. But the ignorance of the residents had taken over humanity,” said a remorseful Mr. Ali.
When health officials reached the area, Mr. Ali said, a fight had ensued between the owner of the house and their neighbours. “The owner is health worker himself and had been on the COVID-19 duty,” said Mr. Ali. “He told them he was aware of the protocol and he would not put life of anyone in trouble, but the locals were adamant and were angry which lead to a fight.”
Mr. Ali sided with the aggrieved family against the rest of his locality. “Somehow I felt his ordeal, so I went against the locals who boycotted both him and me,” he said, adding that he was sleepless for two nights after this. “I did not have his contact number, so I threw a chit with my number on it to his home and asked him to contact me in case he needed anything.”
The next day the head of the quarantined family contacted Mr. Ali to express his gratitude. “He was extremely happy with the gesture,” said Mr. Ali, a businessman by profession.
Last week the Lal Bazar family completed their quarantine, it also coincided with the 40th day of his relatives passing—an important commemoration of the deceased—and so he had organised a feast at his home, inviting the same neighbours who had boycotted the family.
Interestingly all of them turned up, said Mr. Ali. “This time they did not care about the protocols associated with the disease nor did they complain to the authorities. Instead they enjoyed the feast,” he said in disbelief. While the hypocrisy might be debatable, the fact though remains that a lot has changed in Kashmir since the onset of the disease in early March. Today, people are more aware of the disease and the administration has eased down the lockdown as well.
Till now over 6700 people have been infected with COVID-19 in Jammu and Kashmir, and 94 people have died to the disease. And the stigma attached to the disease still persists among the population. The World Health Organisation has insisted on not treating the patients differently and instead show empathy towards those who have been infected.
While it remains to be seen how penetrative the pandemic in Kashmir will turn out to be, the fact on the ground on remains that one needs to be more empathetic towards those infected, since predictions suggest that 80% of global population will be infected with it. Which could include those who are indifferent towards COVID-19 positive patients.