Experts say there are many reasons for the rapid COVID surge in Kashmir, like complacency, carelessness towards the disease, new mutant variants, influx of tourists, free passage and policy paralysis.
On March 1, 2021, Jammu and Kashmir had 63 active COVID cases, with a 98.7 per cent recovery rate.
But as the second wave hit the region, April turned out to be the deadliest month with 289 people dead – 700 per cent surge and new 45,123 active cases.
Amid this viral spike, Kashmir valley has one ICU bed for 50,000 people.
Reportedly, bereft of key drugs like Remdesivir (an antiviral drug used to treat COVID patients) and vaccines, the premier Kashmir hospitals are finding it hard to tackle the growing viral rush.
While the administration is playing fireman, experts attribute the rapid COVID surge in Kashmir to complacency, carelessness towards the disease, new mutant variants, influx of tourists, free passage and policy paralysis.
“We record an estimation of 45 deaths and 3,000 new cases per day,” said Dr Qazi Haroon, project manager in the National Health Mission J&K.
“If we as a society would have behaved responsibly we could have overcome the pandemic easily.”
A majority of people, Dr Haroon said, did not wear a mask till the second wave gripped the valley. “Hardly anyone was using sanitisers. Even when people come to the hospital for vaccinations, they don’t maintain social distancing.”
“Some people,” said Arif (name changed) one of the volunteers working on the frontline, “apprehend hand sanitizers as something which is formed by alcohol and being Muslims they consider applying it as a major sin.”
“A few days before,” the volunteer says, “I was frequently using sanitiser while travelling in a crowded local bus. The bus driver yelled at me, ‘Astagfirullah, wen rood sharabei yuath mathun bakayat’ (I seek forgiveness from God, do we have to use alcohol now).”
Commenting on the belief, Dr Maqbool Dar, who heads Psychiatry Department in Government Medical College, Srinagar, said that little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
“Using sanitisers is a basic precaution and such mentality lies with those who aren’t conscious of either medical science or religion,” Prof. Dar said.
However, a senior doctor in the Health Directorate Kashmir believes the recent tulip garden festival in Srinagar registering 2.30 lakh footfalls including 80,000 tourists spiked the graph at the time when India was gripped by the several mutant variants of COVID-19.
“These tourists travelling by road or air were allowed to enter the valley after a Rapid Antigen Test which is 40 per cent efficient unlike RT–PCR (Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction) which is 99 per cent accurate,” the medic currently donning the gears of frontline warrior said.
“But unfortunately the new mutant variants like Brazilian, UK and Indian (B.1.167) have different genome sequencing that surpasses the RT-PCR test and can only be detected by HRCT (High- resolution computed tomography). So how can we identify who is infected or not.”
According to the study published in Lancet— the world’s best-known general medical journal—the new mutant variants use aerosol transmission which means that the virus particles can travel for long-distance and can remain suspended in the air for hours.
After the study was published, the Doctors Association of Kashmir appealed to people for urgent change in safety norms.
“To prevent airborne transmission of the virus which is now considered to be the primary route of spread, indoor ventilation is a significant measure,” DAK President Dr Nisar-ul-Hassan said.
Something similar happened lately when Kashmiri journalist Qazi Shibli was reporting that 15 non-locals from Assam have travelled to Kashmir while violating the lockdown protocol and have settled their tents in the Ganjiwara area of Anantnag town.
In the evening, Shibli’s oxygen level dropped and he was tested positive for COVID despite maintaining protocol.
Dr Saleem Khan, head of department Community Medicine, said the health workers are not sure which type of variant is currently consuming lives in Kashmir, but it’s more virulent and that’s why the transmission rate is huge.
“All the samples are taken to the national level and as of now, they say only one variant is active in J&K. But it’s affecting all age groups, including children, young people and also those who were recovered last year,” Dr Khan said.
“All I can say that the environment for the transmission was very much favourable.”
Reportedly, the double mutant variant was detected in India on October 5, 2020, but the system did nothing for three months. There were no red flags shown despite knowing its severity.
It was only in January this year, New Delhi set up the Indian genomics consortium through a network of 10 labs but it was already too late to act. There was policy paralysis – refusal to act – failure to act.
Scientists who were working on genome sequencing reportedly said that the government ignored the warning of new variants. It was conveyed to a top official who reports directly to the Prime Minister of India.
“The new mutant variants are very different from the first wave,” Dr Zubair who works in the COVID ward in the SMHS hospital said. “It decreases the oxygen level of infected patients rapidly causing more mortality.”
Pertinently, when the first COVID vaccination drive was started in Kashmir on February 12 this year, it was reported that 83 per cent of healthcare workers including doctors, nurses and paramedical staff avoided the shot.
“There were doubts among people but as I constantly work in the COVID ward – I have perceived there are fewer deaths among those who had taken the jab,” said Zubair.
Lately, mass gatherings and state election rallies became super-spreaders in India which also reached Jammu and Kashmir.
Recently, former J&K minister and BJP leader Thakur Puran Singh died due to COVID-19 after attending the world’s largest gathering Kumb Mela in Uttarakhand.
In Kashmir, many people still believe that Coronavirus is a hoax. There is a very thin line between being careful and careless – erasing that line has always proved fatal.