Tourists and tulips bloomed in Kashmir. Then came COVID-19.

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When the unprecedented wave of the coronavirus was grappling India, two weeks ago, tourists thronged Kashmir’s hotels and parks. While the administration flaunted the figures, the staffers at the Valley’s famed Ahdoo’s Hotel were complaining of breathlessness.

At first, a staffer with the room service department showed symptoms. Then, Hayat Bhat, who administers the hotel, said that one after the other of his staff followed with symptoms: coughing, breathlessness, and fatigue. Three days later, seven staffers and the owner of the hotel tested positive for COVID-19 and the summer capital’s famous hotel was shut. 

“It must have come from tourists, obviously,” said Bhat, who is currently attending to his COVID-19 positive parents at home.

Travelers and tourists, who arrived in Jammu and Kashmir during the first three weeks of April, account for 21 percent of the total infections recorded. The endorsement by the administration and the central government helped to pump the tourism in Kashmir.

But compounded by the apprehensions of the presence of new variants of the coronavirus, the loosely checked inflow of the travellers and tourists — via road and air — has also endangered the already ailing healthcare infrastructure of Kashmir. 

Unchecked, therefore uninfected

In the last month, two tourists — one from Maharashtra and the other from Gujarat — died of COVID-19 at Srinagar’s Chest Disease Hospital. Both had tested negative when they arrived at Srinagar airport, where each traveler is subjected to a Rapid Antigen Test (RAT).

This is a similar pattern of events as the unchecked travellers, who tested negative at the airport and later turned out as spreaders. RT-PCR test, considered more reliable than the RAT, has provided false negative results too. One of the staffers at the hotel, Bhat told The Kashmir Walla, also tested negative for COVID-19 in the RT-PCR. “He didn’t come positive through RT-PCR even after having symptoms,” said Bhat. “We had to go for a CT scan.”

Meanwhile, thousands visited the much-advertised Tulip Garden and several state-sponsored cultural events in different parts of Kashmir.

Experts fear that the new variants are behind the drastic surge that have plunged India into a Covid-19 hell. Twitter India is submerged with SOS texts for oxygen, bed availability, antiviral drugs, and an ambulance to travel the dead. 

Dr. Souradipta Chandra, Consultant Physician, Helvetia Medical Centre in Delhi, told a news agency that he believes that “there are double and triple mutant varieties and due to change in structure, RT-PCR tests are unable to detect.”

In Kashmir, a dozen travelers told The Kashmir Walla that they didn’t receive the reports of RAT after being tested at the airport. Then, they were allowed to arrive at hotels or reach their residences in Kashmir, without the confirmation of being uninfected. 

Free passage

Twenty-one-year-old Kashmiri journalist, Bhat Burhan was returning home after covering the COVID-19 crisis in Delhi, when he underwent a RAT on the arrival at the Srinagar airport on 20 April.

After a long stick with a very soft brush on the end was inserted up his nose and twirled to take out his swab, Burhan still awaits the result. “I didn’t get [reports]. None of us did,” he said. “So, I left.” Burhan said that many travelers like him entered Kashmir without confirmation of being infected or not — exposing the population to new deadly mutants. 

For a night, Burhan isolated himself at home but the paranoia stayed with him. The next morning, he visited the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital in Srinagar for RT-PCR. He tested negative and has not shown symptoms so far.

So far, a United Kingdom strain, Brazil, and South African variants, and a double mutant of the virus have been reported in Delhi. The tourists and travelers arriving in Kashmir are possible carriers of new strains. 

In Kashmir, a lesser-known variant of SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) called N440K mutation was detected in a sample sent for genetic sequencing last week.  

The J-K administration said on 22 April that samples are being sent to the INSACOG on a regular basis to monitor the virus’s mutating patterns. “We have received the reports of close to 118 samples that had been sent for sequencing. One of these has been found to have the mutation,” a government official told a news agency.

J-K has been recording a near-constant 2,000 cases per day for the last week. However, only 381 samples have been sent for genome sequencing — among them, 118 samples have been received — a figure too low to understand the spread of the new mutant cases in the region.

Too little, too late

As March neared an end, the Kashmir division was struck by the second wave of the pandemic, which has since resulted in a drastic increase in cases, rapidly overwhelming the region’s limited healthcare facilities.

Like other parts of the country, the J-K administration also imposed a night curfew — a hollow measure that many fear ineffective in Kashmir, a territory that turns into a ghost-town post darkness anyway.

Currently, the total number of COVID-19 cases is 160775 and so far 2,156 have died in J-K since the breakout.

After the spread of the new variants, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the UAE restricted air travel from India. The World Health Organization also red-flagged the deadly spread. The WHO’s emergency director Mike Ryan said that “India must control mobility and mixing to reduce a surge in infections.”

At last, after thousands of new infections and deaths, on 25 April, the J-K administration decided to shut all the parks. The travellers to Kashmir have been asked to verify the validity of their tests with their airline operators. 

Meanwhile, Bhat wonders about the what-ifs. “It [shutting the hotel] could have been avoided if [the administration] would have told us that any of the tourists were positive,” Bhat lamented. “Or they would have given them reports at the airport only.”

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