As I write this piece 2204 people have tested positive for novel coronavirus in Jammu and Kashmir with 13 deaths. On April 20th, two thousand thirty (2030) people had tested positive and there were 8 deaths reported. By the time people read this piece the number of positive cases included the casualties would go further up. If we assume only a 10% surge in COVID positive cases daily, in 30 days the number would be very huge. If we are not able to break this chain, I believe by May end things will become very much difficult and complicated for people and authorities both. Out of 13 people who succumbed to this deadly virus on Wednesday, ten belonged to Jammu division and three from Kashmir which takes the total death toll to 2084. The number of active COVID 19 cases has risen to almost 15000 in J&K, out of which 6300 are reported from Jammu and 8700 from Kashmir. Ironically minors and young boys and girls are also getting infected now which was not the case last year. Ten minors including a four year old boy and a ten-months old baby have reportedly tested COVID positive on Wednesday evening.
Foreign COVID 19 strains in J&K
Health Secretary Atal Dulloo on Wednesday in a press briefing said that there were 28 foreign variant cases reported in the Jammu division while no case of the foreign variant was reported in Kashmir. He further said that there are some 600 dedicated COVID ventilators in J&K with only 48 occupied currently. Duloo said that 6000 category-I COVID beds are available with the hospitals including 10,000 bulk oxygen cylinders and 3,500 medium-sized cylinders. He said that the government was in a process of installing 36 oxygen generation plants with 23 to be made functional at the end of the week that will help in adding 2,000 more oxygen beds in J&K.
Situation on the ground
Greater Kashmir Journalist Zehru Nissa in her detailed piece published on Wednesday reported that mere 6% total COVID positive cases were admitted in hospitals in J&K. She has quoted Government's media bulletin of April 18th which said that 441 patients were admitted in hospitals of Kashmir for treatment of COVID 19. In Jammu, the number of admitted patients was 261. The total number of active cases in J&K stood at 11467. Last year the number of admitted cases was much higher. In November 2020 more than 12 % COVID 19 cases had been admitted in hospitals of J&K. As there has been a lot of awareness generation about this viral disease , people have realized that without any serious symptoms like breathlessness, it was better to keep patients at home. From this detailed report and constant feedback this author gets from the people in different districts one can make out that even after 1 year since the COVID 19 pandemic took the world in its grip Govt of J&K has not been able to create better health infrastructure which includes enhancing the oxygen infrastructure in Govt run hospitals. Official figures quoted by Zehru Nissa in her report shows that across Kashmir, excluding those in tertiary care settings, 80 patients were admitted as on April 19th 2021. If Indoor Stadium operated by Govt Medical College (GMC) Baramulla is taken out, just 39 patients are on oxygen support. If District Hospital Pulwama is excluded the figure comes down to 21. Patients admitted in 12 hospitals under the Directorate of Health Services Kashmir were merely 21? Out of 130 plus patients admitted in SKIMS , 60 % were supplied low oxygen flow, the facility which could be availed in any ordinary Govt hospital. If that was done around 80 serious COVID 19 infected patients could have been accommodated at SKIMS.
Role of PRIs
At a time when the situation seems to be alarming across Indian states I believe Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) can play a great role in controlling further spread of this disease. The PRIs have emerged as frontline warriors in the fight against COVID-19 in many states last year. Prime Minister Modi in his address to members of Panchayats last year on the National Panchayati Raj day (April 24th) said that panchayats across India were playing extremely critical roles in containing coronavirus spread. Kerala state had set up an example in this regard as it has a long history of decentralization and both primary and secondary healthcare system having been placed under the purview of the third-tier institutions of Panchayati Raj system. Panchayats in Kerala are on the forefront of coordinating with the government in tracing, organizing health checkup camps, sanitation, social distancing messages among others. Apart from this panchayats in this south Indian state have been playing a lead role in sustaining agricultural activities by ensuring the labour supply and availability of critical food supply chains in villages.
In J&K Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) from gram panchayat , Sarpanches , Panches to recently elected District Development Council (DDC)members can be roped in to ensure maintenance of physical distancing at public places, ensuring all the people above 45 years of age are vaccinated and to make sure people walking around village wear masks. In J&K I remember last year , only masks were provided to members of panchayats. I would suggest they should be sensitized about their role in pandemics as well especially in the ongoing crises. Naveen Patnaik Government in Odisha last year adopted a novel people-centric approach to contain the COVID-19 pandemic . The Govt of Odisha had extended full support to all gram panchayats to take the lead in dealing with the emerging situation at the grassroots level. The role of gram panchayats, which was strengthened over the years, became crucial as people from Odisha working in neighbouring States started returning during the lockdown. The panchayats managed that huge rush of people.
Panchayat members have only been used to gain political mileage in J&K. Their services could have been used for public good especially during the disasters , emergencies and pandemics. Like Govt teachers Panchayat members could also be used to create awareness about COVID 19 vaccination, some indeed do it but this is not institutionalized. The panchayat members have not even been sensitized by the authorities at the helm about the role they can play in pandemics or disasters. They can be of great help in breaking the chain of COVID 19 infection. In addition for each district hospital and several sub district hospitals, the Government has set up several oxygen plants in the last 1 year but they have reportedly not been installed or made operational. How much time does it take to make an oxygen plant operational ? In the past also oxygen plants have been installed in Govt hospitals, but they were made functional within months. Why this delay now?