Before all hell breaks loose…

The pandemic is out of control, but there may still be some time left with J&K administration to plug the loopholes
Before all hell breaks loose…
A health worker collects sample of a person for COVID-19 testing. GK photo

Jammu and Kashmir is, without an iota of doubt, back to square one in its 'fight' against Covid19. Rather, the Union Territory today is in a worse shape that it was a year earlier. So while the figures of Covid are rising alarmingly with each passing day, the coalescence of politics and complacency is only making things worse. And in such a disturbing scenario, one question that stares in the face of both the government and the people—URGENTLY—is: should we act promptly to plug the loopholes or watch all hell breaking loose in just a few days from now?

But before addressing this secondary question, the primary question requires some thought with a sense of seriousness. What is it that brought us back to this point? The UT was, in the months of January and February, doing quite well. There weren't many [in comparison to what we see today] positive cases of Covid19 being reported. And it looked, prima-facie, that things were fairly under control. Things took an ugly turn only ever since the administration opened up the doors—without any restrictions whatsoever—to Kashmir's tourist spots, including gardens and parks, for festivals that drew mass gatherings which threw the SOPs governing Covid19 to the wind. While this was, unarguably, done to show that Kashmir is 'as normal as anything' for tourists and visitors to roam around in its open skies, it came at a heavy price, like it came for the people in several states outside J&K where mass election rallies and religious festivals were allowed to lead the country to what an editorial in The Guardian recently called "a living hell." And from merely 172 cases being reported in J&K on March 25 to 461 on April 1, the virus spread like wild fire to reach 2204 cases and 13 deaths on April 21. It continues on more or less the same scale since.

The problem wasn't opening of tourist destinations to enable people associated with the sector to earn a decent livelihood after continued disruptions since 2019. The problem was to reopen these places for mass gatherings without any cap on the number of tourists visiting each place every day. It was a free-for-all situation. The problem wasn't tourism promotion either. The problem was to allow tourists to visit Kashmir without a valid 24-hour RT-PCR negative test reports or without undergoing any RT-PCR testing either at the Srinagar airport or along the Srinagar-Jammu highway. The problem also was the mistrust at the public level that followed this official recklessness: that while officials led from the front to endorse a Tulip Festival in Srinagar and a snow festival in Gulmarg—and publicly inviting people to join them with their families—several government authorities were tweeting requests for people to prefer staying indoors and adhere to the Covid-appropriate behaviour. Even today, there's an irony of sorts at play: while offline classes in schools and colleges have been shut, the teachers are asked to give online classes from their institutions rather than their homes where they are otherwise much safer. So while it was a free-for-all situation, the people, at their level, followed the suit: thronging gardens and parks in groups to click selfies and enjoy the environs. And, on a given day, the Srinagar mayor, who has now called for closure of gardens, led from the front to click a selfie, a day after he threw open invitation to the people to attend the Tulip Garden festival. The mayor's tweet, to be precise, read, "As the Tulip Garden in Srinagar opens for visitors tomorrow, as the Mayor of Srinagar I welcome you, your friends and your families to Srinagar! We are a city with a heart and a warmth that beckons! Srinagar awaits your arrival!" And the day he clicked the selife, we had 573 cases and three deaths reported in the evening Covid bulletin released by the UT administration. So when any official today calls for closure of gardens and parks, it makes little sense. It's easy and convenient to make such a call when there are no potential visitors to these places in view of the holy month of Ramadhan and the frightening Covid situation across India. It is pure attention-grabbing. The officials, including the mayor, could have led from the front to pitch for closure of gardens and parks when it was needed the most. But when the idea is to let politics take precedence over the people, expecting such wise calls is expecting too much. And as I write this piece, we still have gardens and parks officially open for visitors.

Back to the secondary question: should we sit silently and watch all the hell breaking loose or act fast to plug things before it's too late. We are running short of time. There are some things that must be done with a sense of both seriousness and urgency, beginning with imposing strict restrictions on incoming travelers to Kashmir. No traveler—even if a VIP—should be allowed into the Valley—either by road or by air—without a prior 24-hour valid RT-PCR negative report. Any traveler found testing positive should be urgently quarantined and isolated. The administration must stop all indoor gatherings, including meetings, conferences and all other indoor gatherings, to help remove mistrust in the public that certain gatherings are being allowed while certain similar gatherings aren't. All teachers, both in schools and colleges, should be permitted to give online classes from home to ensure their safety and minimise the indoor gatherings in their institutions. All gardens and parks should be closed urgently, even if temporarily. The government must also constitute a team of top doctors, including members from community medicine and epidemiology, to discuss an urgent roadmap on containing Covid19 in the UT. The team must be allowed to hold a daily evening press conference to transparently reveal the Covid scenario to the public alongside suggesting urgent measures that need to be taken by the people to contain the second wave, which is only expected to worsen by the mid of next month. Engagement with hardcore experts is vital to addressing the pandemic.

A cursory look at how all hell has broken loose in several Indian states should give us a clear idea on why we—the government as well as the people—must urgently do what we are supposed to do to contain the second Covid wave, which is not sparing the young, let alone the old and those with co-morbidities. Delhi and Mumbai are prime examples, where things have gone way beyond any control—where hospitals, including some reputed ones, are running short of beds and oxygen, where crematoriums and graveyards are running short of space to cremate or bury the dead, where even some of the best private health institutions have crumbled under the weight of inflow of Covid patients. And if Delhi or Mumbai like places can crumble, we can only imagine the fate of J&K if things are allowed to reach the point of mass hospitalization. Banking on a merely few ventilators and fewer beds in tertiary-care hospitals—coupled with terribly dismal facilities in peripheral hospitals—could be anything but sane.

Any overconfidence, any politics, any complacency is going to cause a catastrophe that will be only next to impossible to control if things are allowed to go out of hand. Cases across J&K are expected to rise considerably in coming days, if mathematical models by top experts are anything to go by. This calls for sagacity, both urgent and serious, at both public and governmental levels. No hashtags, no cheerleading of babus, no tweets are going to stop the raging fires. Only wisdom and seriousness at all levels can!

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