Late last year I came across a mysterious disease spreading from China. As the days went by, the Chinese regime imposed an unprecedented lockdown that drew widespread criticism from the media. I comforted myself thinking that it would remain restricted to China but little did I know that the disease would reach my doors in Srinagar, Kashmir, and trespass inside. 

My first COVID-19 scare had occurred when the disease spread through Iran, where my cousin studies medicine. Sanctions led and imposed by Western countries and the poor health care facilities in the country led to thousands of deaths every day and thousands more being infected. We were relieved when she, along with other students, was evacuated from Iran and landed in Rajasthan, where she spent over a month in quarantine.

Then, in March, my family in New Delhi was to return home, where I had stayed back with my uncle. The first case of infection in Kashmir had been confirmed just days before my family was due to arrive in Srinagar, it eventually meant that I did not hug my mother whom I was seeing after four months. It pained both of us.

It was also a time when misinformation and partial information about the disease had made all of us paranoid, social media made things worse. There was still confusion about whether domestic travelers were at risk of the infection or not. The administration was only quarantining travellers from abroad despite cases rising in different cities across the country. 

I decided to dial the government-run helpline number to clear my doubts. “My parents returned from Delhi a couple of days ago, do they need some extra care?” I asked the receiver on the other end of the phone. “There is nothing to worry about, this disease is a myth,” the receiver reassured me, also suggesting that I cook and eat chicken.

While the answer had not convinced me, my father had developed a sore throat. I was anxious. The curve of fear was only rising back then and we knew very little about the virus. As such, visiting a hospital was the last thing we wanted to do. Somehow I gathered the courage and went to the hospital with my father. We waited for his turn at the newly designated COVID-19 clinic where construction work was going on. As he went inside the clinic, I waited in the compound. 

The place was somber, men and women in protective suits dotted the hospital compound, vehicles carrying hospital equipment suggested that the place was gearing up for a war. I suddenly felt afraid and returned to my home — informing my father over the phone — to join worried family members. “He is getting tested for COVID-19 and will have to stay at the hospital till the results arrive,” I told them. Those 24 hours that we waited for the test results were the hardest of our lives. Every second seemed like a year and sleep was hard to come by. 

I wonder what would happen if my father tested positive, will our house be fumigated, what will be the reaction of everyone who will come to know about it. There was a chance all of us might have been infected as well. We will be ostracised. I thought of every possibility until the results came. Thankfully, he tested negative but spent eighteen days in quarantine and things went back to normal in the family.

That, however, changed late July, when one of my uncles suddenly fell ill. We endearingly call him Lala. I did not visit him for about a week, thinking it was a routine cold but my fear that he might have contracted COVID-19 was also one of the reasons for not visiting him. However, my parents and siblings would visit him daily.

Our dinner talk revolved around Lala’s health, he had complained of backache and exhaustion. “Lala is not doing well,” my father said during one dinner. The next day I visited him; he was lying on a bed in a large room and all the attendants, members of his family, maintained distance and wore masks. However, nobody in their wildest dreams had thought that it could be COVID-19, this was further assured after two leading doctors who had seen him and checked his heart ailment had said that it was due to “some blood infection”.

Lala’s failing health disturbed me, it also reminded me of all the COVID-19 cases and that his symptoms matched. As soon as I reached home, I headed to Lala’s house to check on him. Nothing had changed, his health had neither improved nor deteriorated. I checked his oxygen level with an oximeter that we had bought. It showed the reading at just fifty-five. After this, I was sure that he had been infected. I told my cousins to shift him to the hospital, which we did at that very moment.

He was administered oxygen at the emergency section of the hospital where patients with other ailments were being treated. It looked like a hell hole, the perfect breeding ground for coronavirus. His condition showed no improvement and, after some efforts, was shifted to the COVID-19 ward. For the next ten days, my cousins attended to him, in shifts. During this period one of my cousins, his wife, and his mother had also tested positive.

Lala, meanwhile, lost the battle to the dreaded disease on the tenth day of his hospitalisation. Just the night before, my cousin (his son) was optimistic about Lala’s recovery. “His oxygen level is not improving but his body language is,” he had told me over the phone. “I am hopeful God will heal him.” 

“I hope so too, but please if you don’t mind can you tell me if we are prepared for his last rites. How are we going to bury him in case he dies,” I asked him back. The thought had popped up in my mind after reading and watching the family members of other infected patients crying in agony over the burial of their loved ones. Nevertheless, the discussion had ended inconclusively and I went to sleep.

The next morning, I woke up to the wails of my aunts and other family members. In my heart, I knew Lala had passed away but somehow I did not want to believe it. As I left my house, I saw locals in my area gathered outside my house and my cousins in mourning. Lala was 70 but healthy. It was too soon for him to be gone.

As I witnessed my cousins writhe in the pain of losing their father, I took it upon myself to make sure that no one else gets infected. We had three patients in the house and there was every chance of them contracting the disease to others. Also in my mind was the burial of my uncle that we wanted to carry out decently.

It was heart-piercing to see my family members lie on the ground and mourn the loss of our uncle as they maintained distance and wore masks. Those scenes are something I can never forget: there was no physical touch when you needed it the most. The disease had rendered us helpless, “I was ready to spend millions for my father, but money can’t bring him back. This world is nothing,” my cousin told me as he broke into tears.

Nobody came forward, neither our relatives nor our Mohalla locals despite being a closely-knit locality. Only my couple of friends and one good Samaritan came and made sure the burial was dignified. We lost our loved one, but one positive out of his death was that none of the family members later tested positive for the virus. This despite the fact that we made sure to recite the Quran and follow other rituals.

The Kashmir Walla needs you, urgently. Only you can do it.

We have always come to you for help: The Kashmir Walla is battling at multiple fronts — and if you don’t act now, it would be too late. 2020 was a year like no other and we walked into it already battered. The freedom of the press in Kashmir was touching new lows as the entire population was gradually coming out of one of the longest communication blackouts in the world.

We are not a big organization. A few thousand rupees from each one of you would make a huge difference.

The Kashmir Walla plans to extensively and honestly cover — break, report, and analyze — everything that matters to you. You can help us.

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