On Kashmir's Covid-19 frontline, animals are dear companions
Sometime during the second wave of the pandemic, Qazi Mudasir got a distress call from a family in Jammu and Kashmir’s capital city Srinagar seeking emergency medical attention. The entire family had tested positive for Covid-19.
As soon as he hung up the phone, Qazi immediately donned his protective gear, collected his first aid kit, and rushed to the family’s aid. The city had been locked down as cases surged, almost overwhelming the region’s healthcare infrastructure.
When Qazi reached the house, he found the patient lying on the veranda – motionless but tied with a leash. After examining the patient, whose family was inside, he administered medicines and stayed for about an hour till his patient felt better.
Qazi, 37, is a veterinary doctor responding to an SOS call for a sick dog.
In the broader region where the pandemic has wreaked havoc – images of countless funeral pyres and dead bodies floating in Indian rivers had shocked the world
Even though he doesn’t treat humans, Qazi is no less a Covid-19 warrior, attending to 40-50 animals, largely pets, brought daily to the Central Veterinary Hospital in Srinagar, the region’s main government-run medical facility for animals, amid the pandemic.
There have been few cases of Covid-19 occurring in animals and little evidence of it spreading through them but animals still require medical attention in life-threatening situations amid lockdowns and pre-existing medical conditions.
In the broader region where the pandemic has wreaked havoc – images of countless funeral pyres and dead bodies floating in Indian rivers had shocked the world – and overwhelmed healthcare, doctors like Qazi are providing critical medical attention to animals, who are often neglected and abandoned by owners unable to care for them.
“I was able to save a life by taking a risk,” said Qazi, who helps allay the anxieties of pet owners by providing consultation over the phone when he is not in the hospital. “There is no better feeling than saving lives.”
Looking for warmth
As the pandemic continues for a second year with signs of fresh resurgence, Qazi observed a further increase in Kashmir’s pet population that he attributed to reasons such as anxiety, loneliness, and boredom. “We used to receive around 20 pets daily in 2018,” he said.
After August 2019, when a lockdown was enforced for months as New Delhi unilaterally revoked the region’s limited autonomy, “we started receiving about 30 pets,” said Qazi, adding that in 2021, after the pandemic’s outbreak, he receives about 50 pets daily.
Globally, a surge in animal adoptions was witnessed with lockdowns to contain the spread of Covid-19, which was declared a pandemic in 2020, being enforced by several countries, including Western nations where such mass restrictions were largely unthinkable.
Kashmir, however, is no stranger to lockdowns – and the coinciding trauma of violence.
A 2015 study conducted by Medecins Sans Frontieres and Srinagar-based Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS) found that 99.7 percent of Kashmiri adults have experienced a traumatic event during their lifetime.
The study further found “a very high prevalence of mental distress” in 1.8 million adults or 45 percent of Kashmir’s adult population. Since then, mental distress among Kashmiris has only intensified, according to Zoya Mir, a Counselling Psychologist at IMHANS.
Health experts speculate the high levels of mental distress as having contributed to the practice of keeping pets in Kashmir, where frequent and prolonged lockdowns have been a part of life for three decades, to find some solace.
The psychological need for warmth can be fulfilled through pets, said Mir. She often suggests her patients, who seem open to the idea, adopt pets as they can help in controlling anxiety and mood swings.
The bond between pets and their owners, Qazi believes, has helped many with improving their mental health
“During the lockdowns of Covid-19, there was a boring routine. In that situation rearing and loving pets really helped a lot of people,” she said. “The warmth given back by the pets helps in dealing with depression.”
In his decade-long career, Qazi has witnessed how the choice of pets diversified in Kashmir – besides cats and dogs, a large number of pets consist of rabbits, love birds, bourgeois, parakeets, turtles, and several varieties of fish.
The bond between pets and their owners, Qazi believes, has helped many with improving their mental health. His youngest client has been a six-year-old girl who was gifted a cat after losing her own father had pushed her into depression.
“Her mother told me that she [girl] used to constantly ask for her father so her mother decided to get her a cat,” said Qazi. “She is slowly overcoming her depression. Her anxiety issues are under control now.”
‘Every life matters’
Owning pets is a trend that has picked up in recent years in Kashmir that is predominantly Muslim, where living with animals is frowned upon, and marred by a decades-long conflict that has consumed thousands of human lives and scarred countless more.
Living under the constant anxiety of their own wellbeing and energies spent in making the loss of human lives and rights abuse by the government accountable, the welfare of animals doesn’t figure prominently in public discourse.
Growing up through the violence in Kashmir, Qazi became conscious of the helplessness faced by animals. “Unlike humans, animals don’t talk. They cannot even show the signs of pain,” he said. “Every life matters, be it an animal or a human.”
Coming from a family of doctors, Qazi’s affinity toward animals prompted him to choose veterinary medicine. He has been working for more than a decade now, attending to sick animals all through the pandemic as well.
But the pandemic aside, even political instability and frequent violence have not deterred Qazi from attending to animals in need of medical attention. “During curfews and shutdowns, we used to reach the animals through our emergency ambulances,” he said.
The most difficult part of the job, Qazi said, was breaking the news of losing pets during medical intervention. “The reaction of pet owners on losing their pets can be devastating,” he said. “The situation here when a pet dies is exactly the situation you see in any other hospital when a human dies.”
Zenaira Bakhsh is a journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir. She is a features writer at The Kashmir Walla, writing on health, gender, culture, and the conflict in Kashmir.
Follow her on Twitter: @Zenairaaa