‘We will continue to fight’: Profiles from Covid-hit Kashmir

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The streets in downtown Srinagar’s Nawakadal are deserted. But there are signs of activity near a drug store, in the premises of Athrout. “You will have to return these,” Rouf Ahmad, a volunteer at the non-profit, tells a man as he hands him an oximeter.

Athrout is among the many nonprofits working to fill the public’s needs as the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic sweeps Kashmir. More than 300 died in the first week of May and nearly 4,000 tested positive everyday, overwhelming healthcare infrastructure. 

Blindsided, while the administration invited tourists, desperate Kashmiris are now turning to non-profits for securing essentials for their families. Showkat Dar, who was handed the oximeter, is among them.

With twenty-five volunteers working around the clock, Athrout alone is dealing with nearly 800 queries for meals, oxygen concentrator, oximeters, sanitizers and masks, on a daily basis. 

Overlooked dilemmas

Dar suspects that his wife, Ulfat, 35, contracted the virus on a recent hospital visit for their three-year-old son’s checkup. Then “she started complaining of body ache but continued the household work properly,” he said, “but it worsened in a day.”

Ulfat tested positive for Covid-19 at Srinagar’s JLNM hospital. The couple was faced with a dilemma overlooked by the administration: Ulfat is not critical to be hospitalised but their single-storey home with three rooms and a single washroom is shared by nine.

“My mother (70) is also ill,” said Dar as the couple sat outside a hospital, unwilling to return home and no relative willing to give them shelter out of fear of getting infected. “Social distancing is not a possibility.”

A few hours later, Ulfat’s brother took the couple in. Dar stays by his wife’s side, staying awake through the night as she writhes in pain. “Whole world has collapsed under coronavirus and now it has hit my family too,” said Dar. “I’m proud of myself because I never left her alone.”

Dar has been working as a door-to-door salesman in the city for over a decade but back-t0-back lockdowns since August 2019 have broken his back. “A friend suggested that I come to Athrout,” he said, standing in a queue, awaiting an oximeter, sanitizer, and masks. “I’ll be grateful to them for taking care of us.”

Though Ulfat is stable, Dar has been spending his nights in fear. “My son hasn’t seen his mother for a week. Now he complains: ‘My mother is bad, she doesn’t come to see me’,” he said. “Sometimes he says that someone has locked up his mother and we should rescue her.”

Vulnerable volunteers

Rouf Ahmad, who runs around in Athrout office, taking SOS calls and navigating the help for others, consoles Dar. Even though, he said, Athrout prepared for the second wave, the demands have overwhelmed their stock. 

Ahmad said that the non-profit had procured 400 oxygen concentrators — all handed out to patients. “The waiting list is now ninety-six,” he added, pointing towards a teenager, who stood in a line. “His father’s number is now ninety-seven.”

The social media groups in Kashmir are abuzz with SOS calls, people demanding basic facilities like food. And it takes up nearly all the week of volunteers like Ahmad to deal with these.

However, his work also includes arguing with families to return the equipment for others. “There is a lot of panic. People see what is happening in India and then start panic calls to us,” he said. “I have had fights with people to get the oxygen concentrators back — they keep it for future use.”

The tireless work, which includes direct interaction with distressed people, has taken a toll on his mental wellbeing too. He was never trained for this, said Ahmad. “We don’t know for how long it will go on like this. Even after [the pandemic] ends, many issues like poverty because of it will linger on. And we will continue to fight.”

But the widespread infection has not evaded the volunteers either. In the ongoing second wave, at least five volunteers of Athrout have been hospitalised after getting infected by Covid-19, which has directly impacted their work.

‘Oxygen Sarai’

As the patients bundle with a drastic rise in the Covid-19 cases, the major hospitals in Kashmir have run out of intensive care units for people. The oxygen beds are running low too.

So when Farhat Qadri, the wife of Shabir Qadri fell sick of Covid-19, the couple had nowhere to go. “When her saturation kept dropping till 85″ Shabir took her to the JVC hospital, in Srinagar’s outskirts on Thursday. 

The hospital denied admission, but referred her to a 100-bed facility, Oxygen Sarai, barely 600 meters away, run by the administration, supported by Athrout. In a long, empty hall of Hajj House, beds are lined up neatly. The NGO provides oxygen and hot meals, while the directorate of health will take up medical care. 

“We are just proving oxygen support to patients in a clean environment. This is not a hospital, we will not take critical patients,” said Bashir Nadvi, the chairman of Athrout. “Patients with mild symptoms or recovering patients can come here.”

Other volunteers were still bringing in more resources — water bottles, sanitizers, and oxygen masks — as they prepared for the arrival of other patients. One of the young volunteers, walking around in the facility, sighed: “We thank Allah that she (Qadri) is the only patient here for now. May Allah keep it this way.”

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