Who informs J-K’s COVID-19 response?

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On Sunday, 4 April, a large crowd of visitors gathered at the gates of Srinagar’s famed Tulip Garden, jostling to enter on the second day of a six-day long festival organised by the Jammu and Kashmir administration.

There, J-K’s New Delhi-installed Lieutenant Governor Manoj asserted that peace had returned to Kashmir and that the administration is “committed to take tourism to new heights amid the challenges of Covid”.

“The Prime Minister recently stated that people of India and the rest of the world must visit Kashmir and its Tulip garden. So, the PM himself is the brand ambassador of tourism promotion of Kashmir,” Sinha had said. “We are hoping for a bumper tourism season in Kashmir this year.”

On the same day, the erstwhile state recorded the highest number of COVID-19 cases in a single day: 573 – 451 were detected in the Kashmir division, 208 in Srinagar alone.

The administration closed schools again too — but only for students and not the teachers and only for two weeks. Since schools were reopened, several students have been infected and many schools across Kashmir shut over fears of further infections.

Amid a rise in infections and the fear of mutant viruses entering into Kashmir, should Kashmir brace for a tourist season or the fresh wave of the coronavirus pandemic? The administration’s stance was summed up by prominent Kashmiri cartoonist Suhail Naqshbandi in a cartoon titled “two lips”, COVID-19 for the natives, and tulips for outsiders.

Fresh wave, stale ignorance

The much-hyped tulip festival comes after J-K reported more than four thousand cases in March, twice as many as it had recorded in February. Simultaneously, a string of public music events have been organised, many of them by the Indian Army, across Kashmir where COVID-19 prevention protocols weren’t followed.

Despite the spike in cases, doctors remain on the margins of informing the public discourse but the Jammu and Kashmir Hoteliers Club felt confident in offering their medical expertise. “Given the fact that vaccination has arrived,” said Mushtaq Chaya, the club’s chairperson and owner of several luxury hotels, “in this context the situation is not so bad as it is being presented.” 

Chaya, whose epidemiological qualifications are questionable, also opined: “Of late due to the consistent hard work and massive tourism promotion by the stakeholders and government, the number of visitors visiting Kashmir has shown encouragement… The government must not make hue and cry over the upsurge in the COVID-19 cases.”

Tourist arrivals have increased with the onset of spring but enforcing COVID-19 prevention protocols seemingly isn’t a concern, as evident from the crowds converging at the Tulip Garden and elsewhere.

Yet there are no words of caution on the threat of unchecked tourism from Kashmir’s medical community, even from self-styled “associations”: the two Doctors Association Kashmir, whose habit of dishing out frequent press statements is an epidemic in itself. 

This time, however, one of the association’s president Suhail Naik instead shared the Mayor’s Twitter invitation — perhaps normalising reckless tourism?

Falsely projected as Kashmir’s economic backbone, the tourism industry accounts for only about 6.98 percent of J-K’s gross domestic product. The industry has been politicised over the years owing to its dependency on a peaceful situation (read uprising free) – an attempt to leverage peace in Kashmir.

Last March, just days before the outbreak, the J-K administration had invested its resources in organising a mega winter sports event sponsored by the Government of India in Kashmir’s ski-resort Gulmarg. At that time, the urgency of the event could be understood in the context of New Delhi abrogating J-K’s limited autonomy six months ago.

“Beware and cautious … Indications of second wave beginning to come.. Maharashtra/Kerala starting to heat up again … TAKE VACCINE whosoever get an opportunity and TAKE PRECAUTIONS…” tweeted chest disease specialist Naveed Shah on 18 February.

A few days later the good doctor issued a rebuttal – to his own statement. Media reports quoted Shah as having said that there was no indication of a second wave. The doctor, who has been at the forefront of treating COVID-19 patients, however, didn’t delete his tweet.

Tourist footfall is likely to grow as J-K Chief Secretary BVR Subrahmanyam has also reportedly directed his administration to prepare for six lakh pilgrims to the Amarnath Yatra in June this year.

As was the case then and now, as can also be inferred from Governor Sinha’s statement, these events were to project normalcy, with the help of Kashmir’s six percenters – even at the cost of the public health. 

A committee of medical experts comprising Kashmir’s top doctors exists to formulate J-Ks COVID-19 response but its suggestions put forth and how has the administration implemented those again remains hidden behind an iron curtain.

“Kashmir is, perhaps, the only place on planet Earth with multiple COVID-19 protocols,” tweeted media researcher Rouf Bhat, “first for educational institutions, second for religious gatherings, third for funerals and fourth—an exceptional category—for hill stations, gardens, music concerts and political gatherings.”

Silence of the doctors?

On 1 April 2020, the J-K administration threatened health workers with punishment under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code for criticising the bureaucratic administration’s protocols for containing the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time – and seemingly even today – bureaucrats were in-charge of handling the public health emergency. 

Since then, prominent Kashmiri doctors, who had vociferously criticised the administration on practices that had no basis in medical science, have gradually fallen silent. 

There remains little scope to question the administration on the rationale behind its measures, be it the reopening of gardens or schools to the medical infrastructure in place to brace for a fresh wave of the pandemic.

“I don’t speak to the press,” the Director of the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences A G Ahangar shouted at another reporter of The Kashmir Walla when we tried to reach him to know the measures in place to cope with the second wave of infections.

Ahangar had earlier said, in an interview with a select media, that the pandemic was under control and that “we have a resilience to defeat corona.” Why then must we go for vaccines, many must have asked but Ahangar doesn’t speak to the press.

Enjoying impunity, government officials have always seen those seeking accountability with contempt — Kashmir’s medical community is no exception. Health workers needn’t become whistleblowers but do they have a moral obligation to inform public opinion on an impending disaster?

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