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J-K: 4G ban strains healthcare services in Valley as doctors struggle to get updates on COVID-19

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The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the poor nature of health infrastructure across the world including India as hospitals strain under pressure from increasing caseload. While the world faces the pandemic head-on, healthcare professionals in the valley are struggling to get regular updates, guidelines, and developments owing to the ban on 4G internet services.

Jammu and Kashmir has been under strict security and communication lockdown since August 5, 2019 when the Centre stripped its special status abrogating Article 370 and 35A. The internet was restored only after a gap of 7 months, but it remains slow as 4G services remain curtailed.

The first patient of COVID-19 in the UT, a 67-year-old woman who had travelled to Saudi Arabia tested positive on March 18 in Srinagar. Jammu and Kashmir faced the same challenge as the rest of the world as it lacks infrastructure and manpower in the healthcare sector coupled with the security situation, which makes the task more challenging.

Iltija Mufti, daughter of former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, tweeted using her mother’s Twitter handle: “World’s battling coronavirus but J&K admin still unrelenting & refuses to lift the inhuman ban on 4G. In times of COVID pandemic, access to Internet & info is a necessity, not a privilege” (sic.)

“Prioritizing ‘imaginary security threats’ over healthcare for 9 million Kashmiris in a calamity like Coronavirus is a war crime. GOI (is) impervious to collective appeals of restoring 4G,” she wrote.

Member of Parliament from Srinagar and National Conference (NC) president Farooq Abdullah wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking an immediate restoration of high-speed mobile internet in Kashmir. “As you are aware, the first case of Coronavirus was detected in Kashmir yesterday which has resulted in authorities locking down large parts of the valley…The people are being advised to work/study from home, but this is impossible with 2G internet speed and limited fixed-line internet penetration,” Abdullah wrote in the letter.

“We are as much worried about the coronavirus as people in the rest of the world,” said Yamin Imtiyaz, an undergraduate student. “But what multiplies our worry is the lack of basic facilities like effective internet and healthcare.” Burhan Bhat a medical student said, “How will you get informed about this pandemic which has struck globally when you do not have access to information”.

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“Here the government is more concerned about security and terror activities but is less concerned about the health and safety of the people of the region. It is high time for the government to restore high-speed internet in the region so that people can have information.”

This tweet by Iqbal Saleem, a professor of surgery at the Government Medical College (GMC) in Srinagar has become emblematic of the hardships faced by healthcare professionals in Kashmir: “This is so frustrating… trying to download the guidelines for intensive care management as proposed by docs in England.. 24 Mbs and one hour.. still not able to do so… (sic)”.

Suhail Naik, president of the Doctors Association of Kashmir (DAK), says though the Jammu and Kashmir administration has acted swiftly to spread the ‘stay at home’ message, the state’s health infrastructure is not enough to cope with a COVID-19 emergency, should it arise.

“The health infrastructure in Kashmir is overburdened and it can’t take the extra load and will crumble,” Naik told a local newspaper in an interview. “…in Kashmir even a cancer patient gets appointment after months.”

“Telemedicine is not only about talking to patients on phone. A doctor needs to analyze reports and scans of patients online and consult them through video conferencing,” said Suhail Naik, who heads the Doctors Association. “But you can’t do it in Kashmir even in these trying times, because you have been denied access to the high-speed internet.”

Samia Rashid, the Principal of GMC Srinagar, claimed that they have enough ventilators to meet an exigency. She said that while there were enough ventilators “to contain the situation right now”, there was a shortage of manpower. “Our manpower to run them all is not sufficient.”

Scientists and researchers from Jammu and Kashmir have been unable to publish papers or attend important scientific conferences and events elsewhere due to the high-speed internet ban. On July 17, authorities ordered a continuation of the ban “in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India,” after a review of the situation in Kashmir, a territory whose sovereignty has been disputed with Pakistan for decades.

Recently the Kashmir Scholars Consultative and Action Network, an interdisciplinary group, wrote a letter to the World Health Organisation seeking an immediate intervention in lifting sanctions on high-speed internet in the region. In the letter, the scholar’s group said that despite the region reporting multiple cases of COVID-19, the Indian government has criminally barred eight million residents of the region from accessing reliable and updated information by keeping restrictions on high-speed internet.

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Health infra under severe stress

While the Centre rushes to aid states in the fight against the pandemic, fear and anxiety prevail in Kashmir valley as COVID-19 cases cross 18,879 mark and the death toll reaches 332. 14,812 of these cases are from the Kashmir valley and 4,067 from Jammu. Hospitals in the Valley have a shortage of doctors, paramedics and the healthcare facilities are insufficient to meet the crisis.

As per the report of the health department published in March 2018, “In Jammu and Kashmir, nearly 97 per cent of the healthcare needs of the 14.3 million population are met by public health institutions. The private sector has not developed in the UT due to its geographical remoteness, disturbing security scenario, and restrictive land laws.”

NThe doctor to patient ratio in the UT is amongst the lowest in India. “Compared to the doctor-patient ratio of 1:2000 in India, J&K has one allopathic doctor for 3,866 people against World Health Organization (WHO) norms of 01 over a population of 1,000,” the report of Central Board of Health intelligence (CBHI).

Reported By Wahid Bhat, He is a Journalist based in Jammu and Kashmir.

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