Photo: Kashmiri women walk past a barbed wire set up as road blockade by Indian paramilitary soldiers during lockdown in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, May 3, 2020. (AP Photo/ Dar Yasin)
Shakeel Ahmad (not his real name) had just returned from Jammu to be with his elder brother undergoing cancer surgery at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital. But little did he know that he was Covid-19 positive. For four days he was by the side of his brother at the hospital along with his two siblings. On May 6, as the doctors got to know of his condition, they immediately wanted to contact his brothers but couldn’t due to the fresh communication blockade imposed by the administration in the wake of the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo in Beighpora in South Kashmir.
The brothers live with their families in two separate localities in Srinagar. One of the two is a banker and attends office regularly. With the authorities unable to contact them on phone, they were left free to mingle with more of their family members – in the case of the banker, with his colleagues and customers at office.
It’s now two days since ordinary Kashmiris are once again without mobile internet and calling services, much like the sweeping communication clampdown following the revocation of Article 370 last August. Only BSNL post-paid phones are working. This has been done in the midst of a pandemic without any thought about the havoc it could wreak on the ongoing efforts to counter the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The blackout has disrupted the entire process that starts with tracing Covid-19 “suspects” and quarantining them at a government facility, and ends with testing them for the infection. And once the test of any quarantined person is positive, they are moved to isolation wards in hospitals where they are also asked about the people they might have come into contact with in recent past. Thereafter the process begins afresh.
“Much of this exercise depends on contacting people on phone,” said a nodal officer in Srinagar who is a point of contact between doctors posted at quarantine centres and the district health office. “It is no longer possible to contact anyone. The effort has come to a halt.”
Contact-tracing, she said, has become more complicated. “Now, we can reach only those contacts whose address a Covid-19 patient knows. Others, we have no way of reaching,” the nodal officer added. “If the communication gag continues, it will raise the risk of a wider community transmission.”
But the authorities seem in no mood to budge. The snapping of mobile internet and phones, an official said, is “a precautionary measure” and will remain in force until the situation shows a visible “improvement.”
Later, Inspector General of Police of Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, told media that the communication restrictions were important to maintain law and order. “Communication gag is important, otherwise rumours could have spread, old videos would have been circulated to instigate people. When the situation comes under control, the gag will be lifted,” Kumar said.
However, he added that the protests and stone-pelting over Naikoo’s killing was “a localised affair” as it was limited to the areas around the site of encounter.
As things stand, people are now ignorant about the situation on the ground. “We don’t know what’s happening. (There’s) no way of knowing whether the situation has improved or become worse. It looks to me, (there’s) absolutely peace in Srinagar,” said Abdur Rashid, a resident of Rawalpora, Srinagar. “The government has made itself the judge of what’s peace and what’s trouble. People don’t matter.”
Easy and frequent recourse to the communication gag has also triggered angry reactions on social media.
“Deeply pained and anxious over this fresh communication blockade. How the hell can we continue reaching out to those in need? How can someone ask for help? How can you shut mobile network and internet amidst a global pandemic? HOWWWW?” posted Javid Parsa, a well-known restauranteur, on Facebook.
Over the period of the Covid-19 lockdown, Parsa has been helping the poor and the needy with essential supplies. He has now taken to social media to see if he could still reach the people in need of help.
“Any working BSNL number from Magam area? Urgent,” reads his last post on Facebook asking people for help. This got some quick replies, and, eventually, he got the number.
Other than the coronavirus-related work, the communication blackout has also impacted the treatment of medical emergencies. “Ok, so we had to send back patients who came for emergency surgeries… however urgent it was, we sent them back… Oh did u ask why? Didn’t I mention we had no phone connectivity to call our OT staff and no way whatsoever to know if they were ok!! (sic),” wrote Shazia Shafi, an eye surgeon, on Twitter.
Meanwhile, healthcare workers are trying their best to trace the contacts of Shakeel Ahmad. His family, and those of his brothers, have been moved to quarantine facilities in Srinagar. But in the absence of phones, it will take them days to physically reach all the people and their families.
And it’s just one case. There will be scores of other such cases, considering that an average of 20 new cases are reported in the Valley every day. With confirmed cases of the coronavirus touching 800, Kashmir – with its population of 7 million versus the number of Covid-19 patients – is among the worst coronavirus-affected places in India. “Despite more than a month of lockdown, the authorities are far from flattening the curve. Now, with suspension of means of communication, the effort to reach the potential Covid-19 suspects has come to a halt,” an editorial in Kashmir Observer reads. “Prolonging the communication gag, as was done after the withdrawal of Article 370, would be tantamount to playing with the lives of people in the time of a pandemic.”