The black clouds of coronavirus are prevailing over Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh, and with two positive cases of COVID-19, the alarm bells have started ringing for the government. Ajaz Rashid writes a detailed report.

When an elderly woman in Jammu and a 15-year-old girl from Ladakh tested positive for the deadly coronavirus, it sent a chill down the spine of people across the two newly-created union territories.

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Pic Credit: Basit Zargar

The novel coronavirus had come home.

Soon the authorities, who until then thought it was just like the Ebola or H1N1 influenza, whose impact was more in the world far away from us, realised that the first two positive cases were not just a warning but that there was a war to be fought.

When the elderly woman tested positive for coronavirus in Jammu, she became the first confirmed case of the novel virus in Jammu Kashmir.

An official in the Health and Medical Education (H&ME) department said the woman, which is the first positive case of coronavirus in J&K, was admitted at the isolation ward of Government Medical College and Hospital, Jammu.

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People wear face masks as a precaution against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Srinagar, Pic Credit: Basit Zargar

The woman, who had a travel history to Iran, was among two suspect patients declared “high viral load cases” by the administration over the weekend.

“Her test result confirmed of having coronavirus,” the official said.

And when the 15-year-old girl from Ladakh tested positive for coronavirus in a Jammu hospital, making her second confirmed case of the novel virus, the alarm bells started ringing.

Mission Director, National Health Mission (NHM), J&K, Bhupinder Kumar said that one more coronavirus case had tested positive in a Jammu hospital.

“She is from Ladakh. She has been tested at Government Medical College and Hospital, Jammu. She was in close contact of the already positive case,” he said.

“Earlier, she was traced and was isolated in the hospital,” he said.

Soon the government appealed the passengers with travel history to COVID-19 affected countries to report to health authorities in order to curb the disease.

Rohit Kansal, Principal Secretary Planning, who is also J&K government spokesman, wrote on Twitter that 400 people were under surveillance in Jammu.

As per the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India’s recent advisory, all international passengers entering India are required to furnish the duly-filled self-declaration form to the health officials.

“Immigration officials undergo Universal Health Screening at the designated health counters at all points of entry,” the advisory said.

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Pic Credit: Basit Zargar

The GoI has requested all states to take urgent action to track and contact all such people who have come to India since February 21.

“All such passengers shall be examined and necessary action will be taken to either advise them self-monitoring or home quarantine for a period of 14 days,” it has requested to all the states. “If the contact history is suggestive of contact with suspect or confirmed cases, states are requested to shift those passengers into quarantine facilities to be created in each state where these passengers can be kept under quarantine for a period of 14 days.”

On January 31, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the deadly disease a global health emergency and warned countries to step up preparations.

The WHO declared the coronavirus pandemic expressing deep concern about “alarming levels of inaction” in the fight against the spread of disease.

According to WHO, COVID-19 that originated in China’s Wuhan spread in 123 countries across the world, infecting nearly 2 lakh people and killing nearly 5000 persons.

As per WHO, most of the cases have been reported in Italy, China, Republic of Korea, Spain, France, Germany and the United States of America.

Amid coronavirus fear, nearly 2500 people have been put under surveillance during the past month in Jammu Kashmir as a part of measures to contain the novel coronavirus.

The government ordered the closure of all parks and gardens in Srinagar city as a precaution measure to combat the deadly coronavirus.

Deputy Commissioner (DC) Srinagar, Shahid Iqbal Choudhary said all parks and gardens in Srinagar would remain closed until further notice.

As per the Floriculture department officials they were expecting a huge number of tourists in the tulip garden which would have over 1.3 million tulips of 55 varieties blooming this year but it seems the garden would become a causality of the deadly virus in Kashmir.

The tulip garden normally opens in the third week of March and remains open until the last week of April.

It is one of the prime attractions for tourists in Kashmir.

Last year, the garden saw a footfall of 2.58 lakh visitors.

Director Floriculture Farooq Ahmad Rather said the administration had directed them to close all the public gardens and parks in the city.

“Amid COVID-19, there was a decline in the tourist arrival of both the locals and the outsiders to the gardens. Now we have directed the closure of the gardens until further orders,” he said.

Rather said the prevailing situation was not conducive to open the garden for the public.

The SMC also did not allow vendors to operate the weekly flea market ‘Sunday Market’ to avoid gatherings in the city.

In view of COVID-19 pandemic, the J&K administration also closed all educational institutions until March 31.

The government decided to suspend teaching and classwork in all schools, colleges and universities (public and private) and closure of Anganwari centres until March 31, 2020, following the emerging situation due to coronavirus in Jammu Kashmir while the board and other competitive examinations would be conducted as per schedule.

Director National Health Mission (NHM) Bhupinder Kumar while addressing a news conference in the winter capital urged people to contribute in tackling the situation and appealed all incoming passengers returning to J&K having travel history to China, Hong Kong, Republic of Korea, Japan, Italy, Thailand, Singapore, Iran, Malaysia, France, Spain and Germany to undergo self-imposed quarantine for a period of 14 days from the date of their arrival.

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Pic Credit: Basit Zargar

Kumar also said that the government had urged citizens, especially those with travel history to affected countries such as China, Italy, Iran, and South Korea to self declare immediately and to report to the nearest government health facility if any symptoms are found.

The J&K High Court (HC) also decided to hear only urgent matters from March 16 to March 31 in its both wings to avoid overcrowding of courtrooms.

The circular issued by the Registrar General of the HC issued instructions for the staff, including thermal screening of all visitors and closure of canteens, as part of precautionary measures.

The lawyers, litigants and parties in person were directed to mention their matter by providing number and stage of the matter on a daily board, showing the urgency before the concerned Registrar Judicial and upon satisfaction about the urgency, the court would hear such matters.

As part of the preventive measures taken up to control COVID-19, the bar associations and lawyers were ordered to make sure that entry of the litigants in the courtrooms was restricted to cases where the presence is unavoidable and in such cases, only one person may be called.

Earlier, to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court, had also declared the hearing of urgent matters only.

In an effort to contain coronavirus, the Directorate of Health Services, Kashmir also issued orders to all healthcare institutions in Kashmir to separate outpatient departments for respiratory tract infection (RTI) and influenza-like illness (ILI) patients.

“All health institutions should have separate RTI or ILI OPDs and OPD tickets may be issued accordingly so that RTI patients directly report to designated RTI and ILI OPD room of institutions. RTI patients will be separated from other patients in OPDs,” DHSK said in an order.

DSHK has asked all the Chief Medical Officers, Block Medical Officers and hospital administrators to ensure issuing of light pink colour-coded OPD tickets for all RTI and ILI patients as a precautionary measure.

The DHSK has also cancelled all kinds of leaves (except maternity) of all employees.

Meanwhile, the government also suspended Nodal Officer for coronavirus efforts, Dr Shafqat Khan for dereliction of duties, 10 days after he was designated for the task.

“Pending enquiry into his conduct, Dr Shafqat Khan, the Nodal Officer for coronavirus efforts in Jammu and Kashmir, Health and Medical Education Department, is hereby placed under suspension, with immediate effect, in terms of Rule 31 of Jammu and Kashmir Civil Services (Classification, Control and Appeal) Rules, 1956,” read an order issued by the General Administration Department.

In Jammu, the government also ordered the closure of all malls, gyms, swimming pools, and recreational clubs as a precautionary measure to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The virus has a pattern of transmission at a rapid rate in case prescribed preventive protocols like avoiding mass gatherings are not strictly followed.

The court also got tough and issued notice to the government in a plea seeking direction to authorities to take preventive measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

The division bench of Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Rajesh Bindal, while hearing the matter through video conferencing, issued a notice to J&K government through the Chief Secretary which was accepted by the government counsel in the open court.

The bench directed him to file a response to the contentions raised in the public interest litigation (PIL) within four days.

To combat the outbreak of coronavirus, the petitioner submitted that the government had failed to formulate any policy or take any steps in imparting training to the medical and paramedical staff and in improving the hygienic conditions of hospitals and medical centres.

“The hygienic condition of hospitals and primary healthcare centres continues to remain dismal,” the petition says.

The petitioner pointed out that the influx of tourists and return of locals from China and other affected regions is likely to keep the situation vulnerable which is further compounded by the ill-preparedness of the authorities and the recessive medical facilities.

“Since there is no scrutiny of the travellers at the entry points, therefore the local populace is susceptible to the hazards of the virus, keeping in view the depleted preparedness,” it says.

The petition submitted that crowded places like schools, hospitals, public utility centres including courts require special attention on sanitization and taking such measures to sieve off the infected people.

It says the government is under an obligation to develop infrastructure for keeping in readiness the Personal Protective Equipment for the medical and paramedical staff.

“The government is also responsible for keeping pathological laboratories accessible for the instant diagnostic tests,” the petition says.

In light of these submissions, the petitioner has asked that the respondent be directed to take effective preventive measures to combat the epidemic of COVID-19 and to formulate a policy laying the infrastructure for the comprehensive prevention, control and treatment of the epidemic of the virus.

In addition to that, the petitioner sought to set up special fever hospitals and isolated treatment centres managed by the specially-trained medical and paramedical staff till the disposal of the writ petition in the interests of justice.

To reduce the testing time in the transport of samples, the Health and Medical Education department also established the first of its kind two coronavirus testing laboratories in Kashmir and Jammu.

The two labs were made functional at Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) Soura and Government Medical College and Hospital, Jammu.

At SKIMS, the laboratory was started in the Department of Microbiology.

Financial Commissioner, H&ME department Atal Dulloo said the government laboratories had been made functional to reduce the testing time that was consumed in the shipping of samples to New Delhi.

“The labs at SKIMS Srinagar and GMC Jammu have been started. Now the samples of patients suspected of coronavirus will be tested locally now,” he said.

What is making the matters worse is the huge number of Kashmiris returning from affected countries like Iran and China.

Nearly 400 students of Kashmir studying in Iran were being screened.

Deputy Commissioner Srinagar, Shahid Iqbal Choudhary said around 200 parents of the Kashmiri students studying in Iran interacted with Minister of External Affairs (MEA) Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

“We have established the testing facility for the Kashmiri students at Indian embassy in Iran and a local team from India are screening them,” he said. .“The GoI will take care of the local expenses of the students studying in Iran.”

Choudhary said the MEA asked the parents to share their feedback and concern with regard to the coronavirus.

“More than 12 parents informed the minister about the location of the students and the minister thoroughly told the parents about the system being adopted in Iran,” Choudhary said.

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Isolation Wards in Kashmir, Pic Credit: Basit Zargar

The minister in the interaction meeting told the parents that GoI cannot put the lives of students at risk.

In the meeting, the minister said the GoI had already contacted with the in-charge officers of all educational institutes wherein Kashmiri students are studying.

“GoI has put all the arrangements in place to evacuate the students of Kashmir, however, the willing of the government of Tehran is also very important in this regard which has not been finalized yet,” Jaishankar told the parents.

As far as the pilgrims of Kashmir in Iran are concerned, the minister said that the pilgrims will be the first lot to return.

“From tomorrow the final screening of pilgrims will be conducted and probably will be returning this week,” he said.

Choudhary said the government had a list of nearly 400 students of Kashmir who were studying in Iran.

“We have got their list from the control room and their concerned universities and the maximum of the Kashmiri students in Iran are from those areas that are not affected with the coronavirus,” he said.

Choudhary said that as of now no student from Kashmir was tested positive.

This was after the High Court sought Government of India’s response on a plea filed by a Budgam resident regarding the evacuation of J&K students and other persons from Coronavirus-hit Iran.

The High Court directed the administrations of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh to ensure the creation of proper isolation and quarantine facilities besides testing laboratories for prevention of the novel coronavirus disease.

According to the directions, the Ministries of External Affairs, Health and Civil Aviation are required through the Indian Embassy in Tehran, Iran and their offices, to ensure availability of the required materials including masks, medication and essential commodities including food etc. to all Indians especially the students, who are stated to be stranded there.

It directed the government to further identify the protocol to be followed, examine the mode to forthwith implement the same and take steps for the evacuation of the Indian students stranded in Iran.

The High Court directed the administrations of J&K and Ladakh to identify and ensure the creation of proper facilities for isolation and quarantine in the Government and private sector, testing laboratories as well as the availability of the health care and medication for prevention of the COVID 19 disease and treatment of the persons infected/carrying the infection.

They were further directed to take immediate steps for acquisition of and to ensure availability in sufficient numbers and quantity of N-95 (or any other recommended) masks, for the public and separation kits for all medical personnel and staff.

The High Court directed the respondents to file a status report on or before March 12, 2020, which has been listed as the next date of hearing. While it is expected that the black clouds of coronavirus hovering over Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh end soon, how well the government and the authorities respond to the warning in the war-like situation remains to be seen. It is an acid test for the government otherwise is known to falter often.

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