Kashmir: Surviving COVID-19 under military boots | Coronavirus pandemic
In April and May, due to the Indian government’s criminal mismanagement of the COVID-19 response, the number of coronavirus cases in India surged. News from India-controlled Kashmir is disturbing. This highly militarized area was severely blocked before the pandemic began and is now struggling.
As Kashmir’s medical system is overwhelmed by thousands of new cases, the number of infections and deaths reported every day is breaking grim records. The public health response was paralyzed by insufficient equipment and insufficient staff in medical institutions.
Hospitals in this area can provide 450 intensive care units for 12.5 million people, which means one intensive care bed for every 27,000 residents. In an area of ??400,000 people in northern Kashmir, due to a severe shortage of well-trained medical staff, six ventilators could not be used during the surge in patients.
In Kashmir, there is one doctor for every 3,866 people, which is far below the Indian average of 1 to 2,000. In contrast, the region does not lack military infrastructure and personnel. It is known as the most militarized area in the world, with one Indian soldier for every 14 residents.
Due to oxygen shortages, Kashmir also lost people-the government continues to deny this. During the surge, people only need to turn on social media to see the alarming scale of shortages of oxygen, hospital beds, and medicines. People’s desperate plea to save their loved ones is heartbreaking. However, the government continues to insist that everything is under control.
To make matters worse, it was New Delhi’s triumphant prediction of Kashmir’s normal state that took precedence over people’s health, which triggered the surge of coronavirus in the region. In early April, when the second wave of coronavirus had begun, the Indian authorities in Kashmir organized a crowded cultural festival and encouraged unregulated tourism from India and elsewhere.
Without proper testing or quarantine systems, more deadly variants of the virus have slipped into Kashmir. According to local doctors, these new variants are more contagious and exacerbate the severity of the disease. As a result, by the beginning of May, the number of active coronavirus cases in Kashmir had increased by 700%.
The blockade was quickly announced, but in a militarized space like Kashmir, it was more like a siege, with roads and intersections blocked by barbed wire, armored vehicles, and paramilitary personnel. Doctors, paramedics and reporters reported being attacked at these roadblocks.
This is the third blockade that Kashmiris have had to suffer in the past two years. The first started in August 2019, when New Delhi cancelled the special status of the region against the wishes of its people and lasted for six months. A curfew was imposed, the Internet and mobile phones were cut off, businesses were forced to close, schools and universities were closed, and life was completely stopped under the complete control of the Indian army. Soon after some of these restrictions began to relax, COVID-19 hit the country and imposed another lockdown.
These three blockades destroyed the local economy. According to estimates by business groups, Kashmir’s economy has lost approximately US$5.5 billion in the past year alone. Another US$2.4 billion was lost during the 2019 lockdown, which weakened the economic resilience of the people of Kashmir and their ability to cope with the subsequent COVID-19 lockdown.
However, the social support culture of local NGOs and volunteers is still strong and can be mobilized to provide people with medical and economic assistance. They had to work in a rather hostile environment, where the Indian authorities set up various obstacles to stop their efforts. For example, in early May, the local government ordered a ban on the supply of medical oxygen to non-governmental organizations, which made the work of volunteers trying to help patients unable to breathe extremely difficult.
Making people fully aware of the pandemic is also a major challenge in Kashmir. This is because Kashmir doctors are prohibited from talking to the media, and people have to rely entirely on information released by local authorities. In some cases, the reliability of this information is questionable. Most importantly, during the coronavirus surge, the Internet in certain areas of Kashmir continued to shut down, preventing some Kashmir and Kashmir medical professionals from obtaining the latest information on COVID-19-related research.
The inability to access the Internet also prevented some Kashmiris from registering in the national vaccination system. The inability to access the online portal is one of several problems that plagued Kashmir’s vaccination campaign, and the severe shortage of vaccines is another.
As of mid-May, 2.8 million jabs had been made in the area, but a large part of them had not targeted civilians. The priority was the security forces and the police, most of whom had already received two doses at the time.
Many people in Kashmir also worry about the thousands of Kashmiri political prisoners being held in Indian prisons under terrible conditions. With the pandemic sweeping state prisons in an increasingly serious manner, the Indian government has not announced any plans to release political prisoners.
Due to the censorship system, it is difficult to estimate how many prisoners have contracted the virus, but some tragic cases have surfaced. In early May, the 78-year-old popular political leader Ashraf Sehrai died in prison. His family insisted that he had been suffering from COVID-19 for some time and had not received proper medical care.
However, for those Kashmiris who have survived the COVID-19 surge and the latest lockdown, the future also looks bleak. The Indian government has learned nothing from the super-spreader incident permitted in the spring, and now plans to conduct the annual Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage from June to August. The event attracted more than 500,000 Hindu pilgrims to the remote areas of Kashmir with fragile ecology.
To ensure safety, the Indian government will also mobilize tens of thousands of soldiers to station in residential areas along the route leading to the pilgrimage destination. The influx of a large number of people will undoubtedly put the local population at risk of a surge in infection again.
Kashmir will have to face the new wave of COVID-19, with insufficient hospital equipment, shortage of manpower, and shortage of oxygen and medicine. Kashmiris may have to go through another debilitating military blockade, which will bring them closer to the edge.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.