Kashmir’s ill-equipped health system and government’s push for tourism led to a COVID crisis

31 May 2021
A Kashmiri doctor in a protective suit takes a nasal swab sample of a nomad to test for COVID-19 in Kashmir’s Budgam, on 18 May 2021. The current spike in cases in Kashmir is, at least in part, because the administration encouraged an influx of tourists in an attempt to portray Kashmir as having returned to normalcy.
Dar Yasin / AP Photo
A Kashmiri doctor in a protective suit takes a nasal swab sample of a nomad to test for COVID-19 in Kashmir’s Budgam, on 18 May 2021. The current spike in cases in Kashmir is, at least in part, because the administration encouraged an influx of tourists in an attempt to portray Kashmir as having returned to normalcy.
Dar Yasin / AP Photo

In the first week of May, Qazi Idrees, a 29-year-old government employee, was making desperate calls to get a ventilator supported ICU bed for his father, Qazi Aftaab. Aftaab was admitted at JVC Medical College and Hospital in Srinagar, which was severely understaffed and under-resourced. “When my father required high-flow oxygen, they kept him on low-flow,” Idrees told me. “They asked us, as our father’s attendants, to give him injections,” Idrees said. “How could we? It’s a sophisticated set-up and what if we did anything wrong, who would be responsible? They even asked us to do suction by ourselves, how could we do it, what are the doctors there for?” Qazi Aftaab died of COVID-19 on 17 May, along with 73 others in Jammu and Kashmir. His case is emblematic of the critical shortage of oxygen, drugs, healthcare staff and hospital beds of Jammu and Kashmir’s health systems.

Amid this public health crisis, as COVID-19 cases and deaths have been rising dramatically in the region, the territory’s administration has been creating hurdles for local NGOs and civil-society organisations that have been filling in the gap, providing essential oxygen and drugs. Several doctors and local leaders told me that the current spike in cases in Kashmir was, at least in part, because the administration encouraged an influx of tourists in an attempt to portray Kashmir as having returned to normalcy. On 4 May, when Aftaab was admitted at JVC medical college, 4,650 people tested positive for COVID-19 in Jammu and Kashmir.

Idrees told me he had initially been glad when they had been able to find a hospital bed for his father, something that became increasingly hard as cases in Kashmir surged up. But as he discovered, the hospital was struggling with its limited resources, and said that the doctors were using the same amount of oxygen in regular oxygen beds and in intensive-care unit beds. “Initially they moved us to a bed, which they said was an ICU bed, but they used the same 60-litre oxygen machine. They even told the district commissioner, who had called them on our behalf, that we were provided an ICU and the patient is stable. It was a lie. No care is being given to patients.”

Idrees also learnt that families were expected to procure the drugs and manage the patients themselves. He said that when his father was finally admitted to an actual ICU, it had only two nurses, who did short shifts, and had no doctor after 9 pm. “They provide no care as they are supposed to,” he told me. “This is a wretched disease. It affects you mentally even if it is your kin who has it. If somebody were sick normally, your relatives and others would come to the hospital, we’d get some moral support. That’s not the case with COVID; you worry about your father, then about yourself, about catching the infection, and then you realise that you are on your own, nobody is coming to help.” Shafa Deva, the medical superintendent of JVC medical college did not respond to queries.

There has been a historic lack of medical infrastructure in the region, where the Indian government’s concerns over security have often outweighed its concerns over public welfare. In April 2020, medical professionals voiced concerns about the capacity of the region’s medical infrastructure to manage a crisis such as COVID-19. The same month, the Jammu and Kashmir directorate of health services published a circular threatening prosecution against outspoken doctors.

Adil Rashid is a Kashmir-based journalist who has worked previously with Outlook.

Keywords: Kashmir Valley oxygen Amarnath Yatra Article 370 COVID-19
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