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Covid Priority

It is vital to have Covid19 appropriate behaviour. But it is more important to retain Covid19 as the key priority in the governance policymaking. Right now vaccination is the only way-out, writes Riyaz Wani

Relatives and volunteers carry the body of a Covid-19 victim from the ambulance for last rites at a cremation ground in Srinagar, on Tuesday 25 May 2021. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Jammu and Kashmir still continues to record the Covid-19 cases in the region of 3000 which is three times more than the peak last year. An average of over 50 people are dying every day, more of them surprisingly in Jammu, even when more than double the region’s cases are witnessed in Kashmir. This has pushed the healthcare infrastructure to the breaking point and further rise in infections could create chaos akin to the one being witnessed in New Delhi.

In a proactive move to pre-empt the crisis, Lt Governor Manoj Sinha last week directed the healthcare officials to add 1050 more oxygen beds in the Kashmir division to ensure immediate treatment for the people requiring hospitalization. And to further ensure a sustained oxygen supply, the LG instructed the officers to ensure all newly installed oxygen plants have a backup buffer stock of oxygen cylinders.

Sinha also stressed expediting the inoculation drive calling for the programme to be completed on a “war footing to reduce the mortality rate”. He issued instructions for the introduction of vaccination in each municipal ward. And to this end, more mobile vans are being deployed. These vans are already operating in 36 municipal wards.

The administration, at the same time, is blamed for aiding the all-encompassing second wave in its bid to project normalcy in Kashmir following the withdrawal of J&K autonomy on August 5, 2019.  People are sore that thousands of tourists and the locals were allowed to visit Srinagar’s famous tulip garden and the cultural festivals, music concerts, fashion shows were organized – all part of a coordinated effort to show things are hunky-dory. This, at a time, when the second wave was fast spreading through some other parts of the country from where the tourists were coming.

Family members mourn the death of their relative who was afflicted with Covid19. The photograph was clicked outside the cremation ground in Srinagar on May 25, 2021. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Crushed Economy

The administration has already imposed the lockdown but this has so far made little redeeming difference. The cases are witnessing an exponential rise, even though there has been some decline from the peak. This has come as a double whammy for the region: on the one hand, the rising infections is leading to more fatalities and on the other, the lockdown is again hitting the economy, which was going through a nascent recovery.

The genderqueers displaying the contents of the food kits distributed to them by the army on May 25, 2021 in Srinagar. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

According to an estimate by the local business bodies, Kashmir’s economy has so far suffered a loss of over Rs 50,000 crore. Its fallout on the ground has been grim: thousands of people have lost their jobs. Sectors of the economy like tourism, handicrafts, hotel industry, IT, transport etc have been crushed. People have been forced to shut down their old unviable businesses and start new ones.

Since December 2020, the economy was on the recovery path, much of it a result of the revival of tourism after a 15 month-long slump in the sector due to successively extended lockdowns – one was the security siege following August 5, 2019 revocation of Article 370 and another the first Covid-19 lockdown that began in March 2020.  Over one lakh tourists have visited Kashmir in the period which temporarily buoyed up the hotel industry and the handicraft sectors.

The situation has now suddenly gone back to square one. The tourist arrivals have reduced to zero again.

Lockdown Dilemma

The opinion about lockdowns has been divided in Kashmir. There is a section of the population, which is against the measure as it leads to unsustainable economic losses.

A Clear Picture: The deserted business street of Residency Road Srinagar on Saturday, May 22, 2021. Authorities have imposed a lockdown to prevent the escalation of the Covid19 infections. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Government should resist the temptation to go for yet another extended lockdown. Considering its disastrous fallout on the economy, lockdown is a bad word. It is not possible for people to remain in a perpetual state of paralysis. This has already wrought havoc with the economy. More so, in Kashmir, which is under lockdown for around twelve months in the last two years.

But the administration which initially was reluctant to impose the lockdown has been left with no option but to resort to the draconian measure. The lockdown is regarded as a handy and immediate tool to reign in the runaway infection. But the government has so far little to show for the three weeks of lockdown: the infection curve is wildly fluctuating. And no one believes it will flatten anytime soon.

The administration, however, is pressing on with lockdown in the hope that the reduction in public movement and the gatherings will go a long way to pre-empt fresh infections in near future.

Vaccination

Besides, the ongoing vaccination is also expected to reduce the impact of the disease going forward. The third phase of the Covid19 vaccination drive to cover people in the 18-45 age group has already begun in a phased manner. In the initial phases of the vaccination, 75 per cent of health workers, 78 per cent of front line workers, and 38 per cent of citizens above 45 years of age totalling 15,25,604 people have been vaccinated.

People wait for their turn to get vaccinated against Covid19 during a drive at a park in Srinagar, on Tuesday, May 25, 2021.
KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

However, lockdown doesn’t produce results on its own. It needs to be augmented by aggressive vaccination, aggressive testing including that of incoming travellers. Besides, there has to be robust sequencing to be abreast of what virus we are dealing with.

Vaccination in the shortest period possible is the only long-term solution to the current crisis, as also underlined by the top US public health expert Dr Anthony Fauci in a recent interview with The Indian Express. He has advised the Indian government to scale up the manufacturing of Coronavirus vaccines both domestically and globally to fight the deadly contagion. This shouldn’t be a problem given India is the largest vaccine producing country and any shortfall within the country could be made up by imports. But the vaccination of all has to now be the priority of this government. And the sooner it accomplishes this stupendous task, the better for the country and also for Kashmir.  There will be a corresponding decline in the number of daily infections and in turn the hospitalizations. We should take a lesson from some western countries which by prioritising vaccination are already on the way towards normalcy.

But, meanwhile, Kashmir Valley has run out of vaccines. In the last week, there was zero vaccination in ten districts of Kashmir for three successive days. This should be a cause of deep concern at a time when the Covid19 has spread like a wildfire and more people are dying as a result. What’s more, the infection is no longer only fatal for the elderly people with co-morbidities but attacks with equal vehemence the healthy young people. Last week again, the age of the youngest person who died due to Covid-19 was just 23.

At a time when the administration was expected to double down on the vaccination, the exercise seems to have all but halted.  More so, at a time when due to the virulence of the second wave, people are coming forward to get jabs. The vaccine hesitancy that had earlier held back the inoculation drive has now given way to a frantic rush to get vaccinated. And understandably so. The vaccination is now the only credible defence against contagion.

Contentious Orders

As the devastating second wave rips through Jammu and Kashmir, the administration has passed two orders that are believed to detract from the fight against the pandemic: In one case, the government set up a state task force headed by an ADGP level officer to scrutinize the alleged ‘anti-national’ employees and terminate them without a probe. Six employees have so far been dismissed and they can’t even take recourse to the court.

Lieutenant Governor, Manoj Sinha chairs Administrative Council meeting

The terminated employees include three government school teachers, a college professor, a police officer and a revenue official.

In the second-order, the government has issued an order directing all oxygen manufacturing units within the jurisdiction of district Srinagar to stop the supply to any Non-Government Organisation (NGO) and to any private society with immediate effect.

It further states that oxygen supplies to private persons, societies, and NGOs would be facilitated only with prior approval of the district magistrate. The order has come in for severe criticism for making the intervention of the NGOs and volunteers which have been helping patients since last year, difficult.

If anything, the steps like these show the government’s misplaced priorities. It has to focus its attention on the stupendous challenge on hand. Any further rise in the cases could plunge Kashmir into deeper chaos. So, the government can’t afford to divert its attention to imaginary problems.

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