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COVID-19 crisis prolongs Kashmir lockdown

Dharvi Vaid New Delhi
April 10, 2020

Indian-administered Kashmir has been under a security lockdown since August 2019. When New Delhi finally started to ease measures, the region was hit by coronavirus, jeopardizing Kashmiri's long-awaited freedom.

Security personnel wearing facemasks stand guard along a deserted street during a one-day nationwide Janata (civil) curfew imposed as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus
Image: Getty Images/AFP/T.Mustafa

Barely weeks after New Delhi eased some restrictions on movement and communications in Kashmir, the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the region, putting it under a strict lockdown once again.

While lockdowns are not unusual for Kashmiris, the situation now poses a new threat to them.

Rights organizations fear the authorities could use the coronavirus outbreak to further curb civil liberties.

"A public health emergency is not an opportunity to bypass accountability. The use of unlawful and arbitrary detention along with limited internet connectivity and medical facilities only add to the panic, fear and anxiety caused by COVID-19," Avinash Kumar, executive director of Amnesty International India, said in a statement.

Read more: India's new residence law triggers fury in Kashmir

Slow internet speed slows doctors' response

Internet connectivity was only restored in the region last month, but a ban on its high-speed access has continued.

"The situation is difficult for everyone, but while people [in other parts of the world] can stay connected in these testing times and derive support from each other, we don’t have that luxury," a student in Srinagar told DW.

Many doctors also complain that slow internet is a hindrance to their work; basic tasks such as downloading WHO guidelines can take several hours.

"We need uninterrupted internet to fight COVID-19. We are required to stay in touch with the WHO, CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) and download their guidelines. We are missing out on a lot of information," Dr. Suhail Naik, president of Doctor's Association Kashmir, told DW.

Read more: Kashmir cautiously optimistic as India turns the internet back on

Staying home 'unbearable' for students

Aliza Zahoor, an 18-year-old student, was looking forward to going back to school after missing class for several months. But the coronavirus outbreak has forced her to stay indoors for an indefinite time. Zahoor says the thought of staying at home again is "unbearable."

While some schools in Kashmir are offering online classes, most students can't access them due to the slow internet.

"A video lesson normally takes up to an hour to download. You can imagine the severity of the situation. A single video does not cover the whole lecture," Zahoor complained, adding that she is worried about her university exams next year.

"Elsewhere in India, students can interact online and learn new things. We are being denied that right and it's not even a security clampdown this time?" she said. School teachers also paint a bleak picture for the academic year.

"These students have seen too much: a prolonged lockdown in 2019 and now the pandemic. When they finally started to feel better, COVID-19 happened. It is taking a toll on their mental health," a Kashmiri teacher said.

The Supreme Court of India on Thursday ordered the Jammu and Kashmir administration to restore higher-speed 4G internet service, accepting a plea that the 2G internet was not sufficient to conduct online classes.

Read more: Kashmiris feel 'alienated' 6 months after India 'annexation'

Inadequate medical facilities

Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir have designated 11 hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients. So far, the region has reported around 160 coronavirus cases and four deaths.

Kashmiri doctors have slammed the authorities for not providing them with adequate medical facilities and protective gear. Responding to these complaints, the Directorate of Health Services in Kashmir said it would take "strict action" if doctors continued to criticized the government's efforts to combat COVID-19.

"Criticism is being muzzled in Kashmir. We praised the administration for its early COVID-19 response, but we have the right to criticize if we see gaps. While it is our job to save lives, it's the job of the government to ensure that we can perform our duties safely," stressed Dr. Naik.

Health officials say that Kashmir has faced huge problems in the past, but the novel coronavirus poses an existential threat. The region cannot afford COVID-19 complacency, they say.

Read more: Why the world is hungry for a coronavirus drug made in India

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