In Kashmir, a man’s desperate search to save wife

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Rifat Ara and Khurshid Khan promised to be together, in life and death. In their three decades of marriage, the 65-year-old Ara stood by her 68-year-old husband. The pandemic couldn’t keep them apart either. 

As Ara now gasps for breath in a Srinagar hospital, Khan runs around to find an elixir of life: Remdesivir. And the couple is on their own now.

For the past four days, if Khan isn’t taking Ara’s samples for tests, he sits by her side at the Chest and Disease hospital in Srinagar. Ara has been on oxygen support. Khan has been tending, leaving him no time to check his own oxygen saturation level.

Last week, Khan, a retired government employee, Ara, a homemaker, and their 14-year-old daughter tested positive for COVID-19 in Srinagar. Now, Khan has been assigned a herculean task by the doctors: find Remdesivir, an antiviral drug, to help Ara’s fight.

“The hospital doesn’t have it,” Khan told The Kashmir Walla, in a tired voice. “I searched throughout Srinagar … in Karan Nagar and Lal Chowk, I can’t find it anywhere.”

In the past few days, Kashmir’s Twitter space has submerged in SOS alerts, hunting for the drug as the unprecedented second wave of the coronavirus rattles the region. As government institutions fall short of vital supplies, the crisis has spilled over onto social media platforms. 

In India, it has turned into a public display of mourning and embarrassment for the government. People have relied on crowdsourcing through the platforms to secure oxygen, ventilator beds, and antiviral drugs. Distressed Khan too was then advised by a relative to send an SOS text on Twitter. 

But Ara’s health has been deteriorating at a fast pace. When her oxygen saturation plunged t0 82 on Monday evening, Khan said, a patient next to her bed helped her out. “That patient shared half of her dose with my wife,” Khan said. “But the doctor has asked me to procure more.”

Dr. Nazir Chaudhary, the Medical Superintendent at SMHS Hospital, told The Kashmir Walla, “We are out of supply (of Remdesivir) for the last three days, today is the fourth day.” He said there is no update on when the supplies will be available. 

G. H. Yatoo, the nodal officer for COVID-19 at Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) Soura, also said that the Valley’s largest tertiary care center has exhausted the supplies of Remdesivir. “There is no alternative to Remdesivir,” Yatoo said. “The suppliers are not sending, we have even placed new orders but haven’t received anything yet. What can we do?”

To fight the scarcity of the drug, India stopped its export on 11 April. Yet the hospitals in Kashmir have run out of the drug, multiple doctors told The Kashmir Walla. They have no clue either where to find it, said Khan. “Doctors didn’t say where to bring it from. … they told me everywhere is a deficiency,” Khan said. “They say just get it if you can arrange on your own.”

The experts said that despite knowing that the second wave was inevitable, the administration in Jammu and Kashmir didn’t guard up. After the abrupt spike in the infection, several hospitals have closed the out-patient departments and restarted online consultation for the patients. 

The erstwhile state has recorded a near-constant 2,000 fresh cases per day for the last ten days while the death toll has crossed 2,150 since the pandemic began.

The administration has taken a few measures to curb the virus too: it has imposed an 8-hour night curfew, shut educational institutes, and public parks. But many fear the measures came in late.

Meanwhile, Khan is struggling. His health, he said, has deteriorated too as the situation gets scarier. “I haven’t been able to check my oxygen [saturation] since morning. There are a lot of patients, this ward [in the CD hospital] is crammed,” he sighed. “All the wards are full. The moment a bed gets empty, it is filled by a waiting person. Patients just keep coming in.”

Majid Jahangir, a Srinagar-based journalist and former correspondent of The Tribune, raised an SOS alert for his cousin too. “Can someone help with Remedesivir? It is for a cousin admitted in #Baramulla #Kashmir,” he wrote on Twitter.

Like Khan, Jahangir hasn’t had any luck so far. “He is very much worried,” Jahangir said of his cousin, who is tending the patient. “We are trying to find [the drug] because doctors have recommended it. It is difficult to find right now.”

Loneliness has compounded Khan’s grief. Khan and Ara’s 14-year-old daughter, who is also suffering from COVID-19, is at home, tended by an elder cousin. “Somebody has to take up the responsibility. It has to be done by someone, there is no other option,” said Khan. “My wife is sicker than me so I’m here.”

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