With the novel coronavirus infecting as many as 4281 people in India (at last count), Jammu and Kashmir has reported among the highest per capita COVID-19 incidences in the country.
Since 21 March, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the union territory has jumped from just four to 108. Two confirmed cases, including one patient with underlying diseases, have died so far.
The number of people under home and hospital quarantine and isolation, mostly travellers and contacts of confirmed cases, has also risen during this period, from a few hundred to over 33,500, as per official data.
Sensing the looming disaster, the administration has taken over dozens of properties across the region, and converted them into quarantine centres for probable cases.
“We have tested merely five percent of the suspected patients so far. The situation is likely to get worse before it gets any better,” a senior doctor at Chest Disease hospital, which is at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19in Kashmir, said, requesting anonymity.
‘An Unusual Story of Medical Negligence’ Amid COVID-19
Since the first case was detected on 18 March, J&K reported the highest number of cases in a single day, that is 19 cases, on 4 April. Among them is an elderly patient from south Kashmir’s Shopian, who had returned from a holy pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, and completed the mandatory hospital quarantine.
Once home, his family said, he started developing symptoms. After two days, doctors said that he tested positive for COVID-19.
On 28 March, the administration was shaken by the reports of a family of six fleeing the premier Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Hospital (JNMH) in Srinagar.
The family, part of over 28,000 under observation in J&K, was put under hospital quarantine after the head of family tested positive for the infection.
By the time the runaways were traced, during which they are feared to have come into contact with nearly a dozen people who have since been (reportedly) traced and isolated, an unusual story of negligence at the hands of doctors began to play out.
“The serving medical superintendent of the hospital was retiring in two days, and as such, he didn’t take the matter seriously. The family was demanding separate rooms; the two children of the man were scared to death after knowing the condition of their father and they were looking for assurance,” a source at the hospital said.
The administration was, however, quick to respond. It immediately ended the contract with a microbiologist, who had reportedly refused to see the family in the absence of proper PPE, while another doctor, Dr Safia Gul, was put on notice.
“I was off that day. I don’t know what happened at the hospital,” Dr Gul, a medical officer at JNHM, told The Quint.
‘Shoot the Messenger’
On 7 March, Dr Balwinder Singh, President, Doctors Association, Jammu, was transferred from the city after he demanded adequate protective equipment for medical staff handling the patients with COVID-19 like symptoms.
Last month, in the midst of the looming crisis, doctors and paramedics at Srinagar’s SHMS hospital staged a token protest against the non-availability of masks and sanitisers and protective gears.
In the days that followed, doctors and experts took to social media, demanding adequate facilities for the doctors, who are at the forefront of this pandemic, to ensure they don’t contract COVID-19.
A day before the SKIMS Bemina Hospital was to be converted into a designated COVID-19 Centre, doctors and paramedics staged a protest there accusing the authorities of providing sub-standard PPEs to them.
Though the hospital administrators have repeatedly claimed that they have adequate PPEs, sanitisers and face masks to ensure the protection of frontline health workers, the issue is yet to be settled.
On 1 April, the Directorate of Health, Kashmir issued a warning to the medicos against speaking out publicly over their vulnerability and lack of facilities.
“It has been observed that some of the government servants are publicly criticising the efforts of the administration to combat the pandemic of COVID-19, which is against the service conduct rules,” the letter noted.
“Henceforth, strict action will be initiated against such elements who resort to such uncalled for reporting to media. Any person disobeying any regulation or order made under the Epidemics Diseases Act, 1897 shall be deemed to have committed an offence punishable under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code [IPC] (45 of 1860).”
Crippled Infrastructure & Plight of Healthcare Workers
In Kashmir, which has around 7 million population (2011 Census), there are around 100 ventilators, highlighting the dearth of life support systems in the region. As against one doctor for every 2,000 patients in the country, J&K has one doctor for every 3,866.
A senior doctor at a city hospital termed the concerns raised by the medicos genuine. “In this battle against the unseen enemy, the doctors are the ones who come in contact with the infected persons and hence need to be protected adequately and as per the notified standards,” said the medico.
A doctor has already tested positive for the virus while two more medicos who were treating patients with COVID-19 were reportedly put under observation.
Lack of facilities at the quarantine centres set up across Kashmir also hogged the headlines during the past week.
In one instance, a woman fled a quarantine facility in Srinagar after dogs entered the wards of the hospital.
“After a massive uproar on social media, some facilities, such as better meals and cleaner beddings are being provided at quarantine centres,” said a doctor at the Chest Disease Hospital, a designated COVID-19 centre.
On the ground, however, it is the sudden spike in the cases over the past two days that has raised concerns. Of the total cases, more than 33 percent were reported during the past two days, prompting the doctors to suggest intensifying the battle against coronavirus.
Aggressive Testing in J&K?
“It is imperative to start aggressive community testing of COVID-19 in J&K during contact tracing and active surveillance in the containment zones and among high risk strata,” Dr Muhammad Salim Khan of Government Medical College Srinagar said, suggesting the use of mobile testing labs.
According to a media report, 6.8 percent of the total 1342 tests carried out in J&K so far have come out positive, a number higher than most states across India.
The number is being inferred by some doctors as ‘alarming’, while others describe it as the outcome of aggressive testing carried in the Union Territory.
“The coming few weeks are crucial and will make it clear which direction the curve takes. I hope I’m proven wrong,” said a doctor.
(Jehangir Ali is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets at @gaamuk. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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