Jammu and Kashmir: COVID-19 information blackout by Indian govt hitting Kashmir hard

22nd Mar 2020
Jammu and Kashmir: COVID-19 information blackout by Indian govt hitting Kashmir hard

By Nusrat Sidiq

 

SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir, India (AA): Anxiety and fear is gripping residents of Indian-administered Kashmir after the first coronavirus case was found in the region’s main city, Srinagar, yesterday, yet a lid is still being kept on information.

The confirmation came after government spokesman Rohit Kansal tweeted the news and called on the public to take safety measures to stem the virus’ spread and stay indoors.

But the people in the region are questioning how they can access any information on the pandemic when the government has restricted internet access.

“How will you get informed about this pandemic which has struck globally when you do not have access to information?” Zaffar Mohiudin, a medical student, told Anadolu Agency.

“Here the government is more concerned about so-called security and terror activities but is less concerned about the health and safety of the people of the region. It is high time for the government to restore high-speed internet in the region so that people can have information.”

Kashmir, a disputed region between India and Pakistan, was thrust into a digital black hole last August after India’s government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and downgraded its statehood into two federal territories.

The move came with a strict military and communication clampdown, and it was only last month that the government in the region restored internet but with restricted speed that makes accessing anything next to impossible.

Mitigate risks of COVID-19

Amnesty International India has asked the Indian government to immediately restore full internet services to the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the group said that Indian government must lift internet restrictions so that people in the region have full access to health- and safety-related information.

“The situation in relation to the coronavirus is constantly evolving. To ensure its full communication to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, the government of India must urgently lift internet restrictions in the region and ensure real time preparedness of the people against the spread of the virus. The responses to coronavirus cannot be based on human rights violations and a lack of transparency and censorship,” said Avinash Kumar, the group’s executive director.

Invoking provisions of the harsh Disaster Management Act (DMA) 2005, Srinagar District Magistrate Shahid Choudhary had a tough time arranging for isolation of around 1,200 COVID-19 suspects, mostly the medical students returning from Bangladesh on Friday and Saturday. There were chaotic scenes at Srinagar airport as many of the incoming passengers resisted the authorities’ action of lodging them at different hotels and hostels. They wanted “either home quarantine or better lodging”, according to the Indian news website, The Quint.

By the evening on Saturday, 21 March, much of the tension had receded as the DM used force to takeover 64 hotels and hostels to provide to the students what they called “the best possible accommodation”. “We are now fully satisfied that all of us have got the best facilities, clean and well-equipped hotel rooms”, Zahid Altaf, the MBBS student who returned with a group from Dhaka, told The Quint, conveying his “bahut bahut shukriya” to Choudhary and others on the job.

As the students found themselves being whisked away in buses and crammed in tens and fifteens a room at some ill-equipped dirty hotels on Friday, they protested. Police baton-charged them and their parents. Among the protesters was the retired judge of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Rashid Ali Dar whose daughter studies medicine in Dhaka. “Students were boarded on buses like cattle. Ten to fifteen of them were put in a single room. That’s just reverse of the quarantine. We fear all those who returned negative from abroad will now contract the infection”, Mr Dar said.

Volunteer lockdown

The pandemic has stirred new fears, with people not wanting to venture out of their homes.

“This time people in the region are voluntarily going for a lockdown because they know the situation is grim,” Adfar Hussain, a political scientist, told Anadolu Agency.

After the government this week said it would impose restrictions following confirmation of the first case, Kashmiri social media welcomed the decision.

Iqbal Manzoor, a social media user, tweeted, “Please act immediately. We want complete shutdown of the valley. We cannot afford the damage later. Shut down the public transport and markets. We’re ready to cooperate.”

Journalist Hakeem Irfan said this was the first time in 30 years he saw restrictions imposed for reasons other than the ongoing political conflict, while another journalist, Masrat Zahra, wrote that Kashmiris are experts in self-quarantine.

Shoddy healthcare

The Jammu and Kashmir region so far has confirmed four coronavirus cases, with over 2,000 people under observation, but what is concerning people more in the region is the badly equipped healthcare sector.

The primary healthcare centers and district hospitals in the region are not very advanced in terms of infrastructure and manpower, and due to the large flow of rural patients into city hospitals in the region, the fear of an outbreak of the virus is looming.

“In case God forbid this virus spreads, it will be a catastrophe for the region,” a doctor at a hospital in Srinagar, who did not want be identified by name, told Anadolu agency.

He said the tertiary hospitals are already overloaded with patients and more isolation and treatment centers are needed, far from residential areas.

He added that there is a dire need for life-saving equipment and ventilators in the region.

“If there is outbreak, it would be hard to stop it,” he warned.

Coronavirus, a global pandemic, has already prompted authorities in the region to declare an epidemic in Jammu and Kashmir. All educational institutions have been shut. Business and public transport have been restricted.

As a precautionary measure, a ban has also been announced on the entry of foreign tourists. The government ordered the closure of all major gardens, hotels, and restaurants in Srinagar, and also restricted religious gatherings and suspended interstate bus services.

Letter from Kashmiri scholars and civil society

To mitigate the crisis, the Kashmir Scholars Consultative and Action Network, an interdisciplinary group, wrote a letter to the World Health Organization seeking an immediate intervention in lifting sanctions on high-speed internet in the region.

In the letter, the scholars group said that despite the region reporting multiple cases of COVID-19, the Indian government has criminally barred eight million residents of the region from accessing reliable and updated information by keeping restrictions on high-speed internet.

Apart from keeping the people of the region under information lockdown, health professionals and workers in the region are also not able to receive any advice or information regarding the pandemic, it added.

“The negligence of the Indian state towards Kashmiris can be explicitly seen as criminal and in fact, genocidal,” the group charged.

Kashmir Civitas, a civil society and advocacy group, called on the World Health Organization to press the Indian government to lift the communication siege and give Kashmiris access to the latest health updates.

Moreover, the Indian government is worsening the situation by avoiding testing at the entry points to Jammu and Kashmir and locking up citizens without adequate medical preparation, it said.

Disputed region

Jammu and Kashmir is held by India and Pakistan in parts and claimed by both in full. A small sliver of Kashmir is also held by China.

Since they were partitioned in 1947, the two countries have fought three wars – in 1948, 1965 and 1971 – including two over Kashmir.

Some Kashmiri groups in Jammu and Kashmir have been fighting against Indian rule for independence or unification with neighboring Pakistan.

According to several human rights groups, thousands of people have been killed in the conflict in the region since 1989.

Additional news report from The Quint

[Photo: Concertina wire is placed by Indian forces to restrict the movement of public in Srinagar,Kashmir on March 19,2020. Photographer: Faisal Khan/AA]

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