As the pandemic rages in India, Kashmir gasps for air
Perched in the privileged comfort of university accommodation in London, my attention constantly wanders off to the mobile phone on my desk. I pick it up, refresh my social media feed, and check my messages while desperately hoping that nobody else back home in India-controlled Kashmir has fallen victim to the coronavirus pandemic.
In the past few weeks, India has seen a massive surge in coronavirus cases and a criminally mismanaged public health response. The news from India-controlled Kashmir is no different: Infections and deaths in the region - over which India has sustained a decades-long military occupation - are breaking grim records each day, and Kashmir's healthcare system remains woefully inadequate.
For a population of 12.5 million people, Kashmir has an intensive care capacity of only 400 units, one for every 31,000 residents. In one district in northern Kashmir, for its 400,000 inhabitants, there are just six ventilators available, and they remain non-operational due to the shortage of trained medical staff. Only one doctor is employed for every 3,866 people. This inadequacy is, in part, a symptom of the occupation and the Indian government's neglect. Compare this resourcing with the concentration of military infrastructure in Kashmir: Known as the world's most intensely militarised zone, one Indian soldier is deployed for every 14 residents.
"Only one doctor is employed for every 3,866 people. This inadequacy is, in part, a symptom of the occupation and the Indian government's neglect"
Multiple deaths as a result of oxygen shortages have been reported from the region. While the regional government denies reports of these shortages, desperate calls for help have flooded social media. One user tries to arrange a hospital bed for their parents, others are desperately searching for prescribed medicines while someone else needs medical oxygen. This crisis could have been averted, but India’s triumphalist projections of normalcy in Kashmir, where New Delhi's rule is widely opposed, took precedence over people's health.
In early April, when the second wave of coronavirus was already underway, the Indian authorities in Kashmir organised crowded cultural festivals, and encouraged unregulated tourism, from India and elsewhere. With no proper testing or quarantine regime in place, more lethal variants of the virus slid into Kashmir. According to local doctors, these new variants are more transmissible and intensify the severity of the disease. Consequently, by early May, Kashmir had recorded a 700 percent increase in the number of active coronavirus cases.
In the coming months, the Indian government also plans to conduct the Amarnath Yatra, an annual Hindu pilgrimage that draws in more than half a million people to ecologically fragile, remote areas in Kashmir. Apart from the pilgrims, the Indian government mobilises tens of thousands of troops - ostensibly to provide security - and stations them deep into neighbourhoods en route to this pilgrimage destination. This, undoubtedly, puts the local population at further risk of infection.
A lockdown has now been announced in the region but, in a militarised space such as Kashmir, it resembles more of a siege, with roads and intersections blocked by barbed wire and armoured vehicles. Doctors, paramedics and journalists have been assaulted at these roadblocks, manned by heavily-armed paramilitary and police personnel. Kashmiris are no stranger to military lockdowns and sieges, and the region is now under its third lockdown since August 2019, when the Indian parliament formalised the annexation of the territory and put it under a strict military curfew for months.
As a result, Kashmiris have developed a culture of social support, consisting of local NGOs and volunteers which remains robust and has already provided medical and economic assistance to people. However, a highly suspect and militarised government bureaucracy has mobilised swiftly to undercut the crucial work that these volunteer organisations are performing. According to a recent government diktat, the volunteers - denied free access to medical oxygen - now need to navigate multiple, infamously glacial, bureaucratic hurdles to be able to help the patients who cannot breathe.
"A lockdown has now been announced in the region but in a militarised space such as Kashmir, it resembles more of a siege"
As they valiantly battle the pandemic with inadequate resources, health workers have been barred from speaking to the media by the regional administration. The residents and journalists in Kashmir will have to solely rely on the information meted out by inaccessible state bureaucrats who possess little experience in public health management. Expecting plain truths and demanding accountability; a basic expectation during a ruthless pandemic can invite harsh retribution.
This censorship is made worse by the frequent, local internet shutdowns, which have been a consistent feature of Indian repression in Kashmir, even before the pandemic. Apart from hindering people's ability to connect with each other, these shutdowns prevent doctors from accessing dynamic scientific information regarding the coronavirus.
Moreover, as the vaccine rollout proceeds at a snail's pace, the internet bans may also prevent the residents from registering for a jab. In any case, even as the Indian government opened up vaccines to all adults from May 1, many of my friends and family members in Kashmir have been unable to get vaccinated due to massive shortages in stocks.
In contrast, most of the Indian soldiers deployed in Kashmir have already received both doses of the vaccination.
Another group suffering the consequence of the pandemic in Kashmir is the numerous political prisoners, including the elderly, who remain locked in jails, huddled in unhygienic conditions. At least 4,000 additional people were detained on the eve of the region's annexation by India in 2019.
Owing to censorship, it is hard to estimate how many have been released since then or even the number of prisoners who have been infected by the virus. As the pandemic rips through the jails with increased intensity, the Indian government has not specified any plans to release its political detainees. Last month, Ashraf Sehrai, an elderly prisoner and a popular political leader died due to covid. His family maintains that Sehrai was ill for some time and had been denied proper medical care.
While one of the worst crises of post-independence India intensifies, it's worth emphasising that people in India-controlled Kashmir, who are always on the receiving end of the country's violent state structures, are facing it with even greater obstacles in their path. An inadequate healthcare system and heavy militarisation make Kashmir more susceptible to the worst manifestations of this unforgiving pandemic.
Umar Lateef Misgar is a graduate student at the University of Westminster and a freelance journalist focussing on Kashmir.
Follow him on Twitter: @misgarr
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