Why was Kashmir’s second wave not preempted?

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On 8 April, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha ordered the imposition of nighttime curfew in eight urban centres of Jammu and Kashmir that were “affected by the recent COVID spike.” As per the order, the curfew will begin at 10 pm till 6 am.

The eight urban centres include the erstwhile state’s two largest cities Srinagar and Jammu, where by 10 pm the streets have always been deserted. Even Srinagar, with more than a million residents, has no bustling nightlife to boast of.

In reality, no urban centre in the entire region does – not even its tourist resorts. What then prompted the Governor to impose a curfew only during the night and its effectiveness was questioned by many in Kashmir.

If the administration was simply following the practice in other states, then it begs the question of why did it not consider that a second wave could also be coming in J-K? Signs of the second wave emerged exactly a year after the outbreak in Kashmir but the administration’s priorities then and now continue to be different.

Absurd orders

The spike in the number of cases of COVID-19 being reported across J-K – Kashmir is currently reporting the most cases, a majority of them concentrated in Srinagar – comes a little more than a month after confirmed cases of infections had dropped to a record low since the outbreak of the pandemic.

It seems that the brief period of lull, during which a number of infections dropped to single digits and no deaths reported for about two weeks; it prompted the scaling down of COVID-19 dedicated facilities, including wards, in Kashmir’s hospitals.

However, even as other states were reporting massive spikes in the number of cases and tourists from these states continued to arrive in Kashmir, there were few to warn of impending danger if immediate steps were not taken.

Just four days before the announcement of the night curfew, Srinagar’s Tulip Garden, once famed but that has now acquired infamy among the local residents, witnessed a massive rush of visitors witnessing the long lines of hundreds of thousands of tulips bloom.

The impact of a steady arrival of tourists from COVID-19 hit states remains to be seen.

The J-K administration has also sought to further promote tourism in the region. It has given permission to hold several events – music concerts, fashion shows, and state-sponsored tourism promotions – allowing large numbers of the public to gather.

In February, when the numbers were still low, the administration reopened schools. This was followed by several students across Kashmir reporting infections and schools were shut down on a case basis. Simultaneously, private coaching centres where large numbers of students are usually crammed inside unventilated halls with no scope of social distancing.

The world over has witnessed subsequent waves of the pandemic and the same was expected in Kashmir. But did the administration deliberately turn a blind eye – to go on with the charade of political normalcy or out of sheer incompetence?

Even as curfews, self-observed and state-ordered, are in place during the nights, the day witnesses places of worship open; crowds in the markets and public transport, often without masks; restaurants and café owners mocking logic by putting up notices declaring that masks are mandatory but still allow customers to dine in; and tourists from all over India continue to pour in.

The absurdity of the administration’s approach to the public health emergency, in a region where healthcare infrastructure is in shambles and seemingly on its tipping point already, was rightly questioned by Kashmiris online but those in charge of the administration of the region seemingly only thickened their skin with each passing day.

A lost year

The lockdown of the previous year saw little enhancement of Kashmir’s medical infrastructure. If anything, more and more doctors and health experts have chosen to remain silent as bureaucratic incompetence or wilful negligence continues to worsen the situation.

Kashmir’s medical infrastructure has only degraded in the past year and there are reports of hospitals nearing their full capacities already. Despite making tall promises, the administration has failed to make significant additions to J&K’s response capacity.

The imposition of the night curfew just days ahead of Ramzan has led to murmurs of what exactly is the administration intending to curb. While tourism is allowed unfettered during the day, will late-night prayers in Ramzan’s last week be curbed? While both are an equal danger, Kashmiris are apprehensive of selective targeting.

The administration has also now ordered the shutting down of schools and private coaching institutes. Hospitals have halted patient consultations and elective surgeries. But the month of Ramzan has begun and prayer goers across the Valley risk infection as they gather for prayers in masjids.

Even as cases continue to rise, the administration is also seemingly intent on allowing the annual Amarnath Yatra in which, according to the J-K administration itself, an estimated six hundred thousand pilgrims from all over India are expected to arrive in Kashmir. 

Another Hindu pilgrimage that was allowed unrestricted, the Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand has so far resulted in five thousand confirmed cases of infection. The Amarnath Yatra in Kashmir is likely to become another super spreader hotspot of the disease. 

The chaos and ignorance that plagued Kashmir at the time of the outbreak continue to plague it today. A deep sense of mistrust of the administration among the public and its indifference towards public opinion and concerns isn’t helping bridge any gaps.

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