“It has been observed that some of the Government servants are publically criticizing the efforts of the administration to combat the Pandemic of COVID-19,” read a circular issued by the Jammu and Kashmir directorate of health services, on 1 April. It continued, “Hence forth strict action will be initiated against such elements, who resort to such uncalled for reporting to the media.”
The circular threatened prosecution under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, which could carry sentences of imprisonment for over six months. The gag order was aimed at the frontline health workers in Jammu and Kashmir who were increasingly vocal about the lack of essential equipment. The gagging of health professionals not only endangers their lives, but also weakens the state’s ability to understand the crisis and control it efficiently. While intolerance to criticism has been visible in several states across the country during the pandemic, Kashmir’s history endows it with a more severe meaning. The Kashmiri public, which has been in a complicated, often hostile relationship with state machinery, might also begin to lose faith in the state’s attempts to combat COVID-19 if these continue to be marked by hostility towards health workers.
Despite its small size and relative isolation from mainland India, Kashmir had one of the most severe outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country. As of 12 April, Jammu and Kashmir had the highest number of COVID-19 infected people per 1000. According to the website of the union ministry of health, on 24 April, the number of positive cases stood at 427, including 5 deaths. The number of people enlisted for observation has surpassed sixty four thousand.
“The order was dictatorial and authoritarian in nature and is aimed to suppress genuine concerns of healthcare workers to hide their own shortcomings,” a doctor from the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, who wished to remain anonymous, said. Several doctors told us that the government’s response to the contagion was being seriously weakened by the silencing of doctors, adding that medical professionals were increasingly given a smaller part in advisory roles and decision-making to deal with COVID-19 in Kashmir. The administration also did not grant doctors the option of speaking at daily press-briefings about the crisis by the administration. “During the swine flu epidemic, it was director health services and the director of SKIMS who used to issue press briefings,” Mohammad Yousuf Tak, the convener of the JK Doctors Coordination Committee, said. “And common people had more faith on them in comparison to current bureaucratic briefings.”
Since 18 March, when the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Kashmir, doctors began posting on social media that the state’s health system lacked the equipment to deal with a largescale health crisis. “What we are mostly concerned about is the shortage of medical supplies and essential equipment,” a young doctor at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. “We are provided with PPE kits”—personnel protective equipment—“in very limited quantities; sometime almost negligible,” he added. A report in the Economic Times said that over fifty healthcare workers, including doctors and nurses, were either quarantined or isolated after they had come into direct contact with COVID-19 positive patients in Jammu and Kashmir.