Health experts fear IOK could become a Covid-19 hotspot

Srinagar, April 23 (KMS): In occupied Kashmir, healthcare professionals fear that the territory can become the centre of the deadly coronavirus pandemic as its public healthcare system is unprepared and understaffed.

The occupied territory, which has been under strict military siege since August 05, last year, has recorded over 400 coronavirus cases but this number is thought to be a gross underestimation. Last week, a reported 5,000 testing kits failed to arrive in the Kashmir Valley, causing the Kashmir Directorate of Health Services to stop taking samples.

Official sources said that there was already a backlog of some 1,300 tests and new patients were arriving all the time.

“In the last 30 years, India prioritised conflict management over upgrading healthcare in occupied Kashmir,” explains Khurram Parvez, the programme coordinator of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. “Our doctors gained expertise in managing trauma victims but coronavirus is a completely new thing for them. Jammu and Kashmir is the least prepared region to deal with this virus and it will have devastating effects,” he added.

In 2018, an audit found the doctor to patient ratio in the occupied territory very low; one doctor for 3,866 patients (1:3,866). In India, the average is 1:2,000, while the World Health Organization recommends a norm of 1:1,000. The study also found less than 50 per cent of nursing positions had been filled. The audit concluded that the existing number of healthcare professionals was barely sufficient to run the health institutions in view of sustained increase of patient flow across the territory.

Now, doctors at Soura Institute of Medical Sciences in Srinagar say that there are only three staff members treating 96 COVID-19 positive patients. “It is not only against professional ethics but also amounts to gross medical negligence,” read a letter shared with The Telegraph.

On August 05, 2019, the Indian government revoked special status of occupied Kashmir and placed it under strict military siege, causing suspension of medical supplies.

“Over the years, the infrastructure for healthcare in Kashmir has not improved,” said a doctor at Government Medical College in Srinagar. He said, unlike different Indian states, we are least prepared for coronavirus, we don’t even have a private healthcare system here because conflict didn’t allow corporates to invest here. “We have brilliant doctors but they are not well equipped, we are in a war with an unseen enemy but without ammunition,” he added.

The occupied territory is short of 200,000 N95 masks and 10,000 personal protective equipment (PPE) kits.

“Doctors treating the non-COVID patients are only given an N95 mask once a week,” said Dr Zainub Nabi, a resident doctor at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar.

Health workers at Soura Institute of Medical Sciences report skipping their lunch and working for eight hours straight, as they are only being given one PPE outfit per shift.

There are only 215 ventilators for a population of approximately 13 million people and doctors say there have long been supply-chain problems. One senior doctor in Srinagar said that it was only a matter of time before his public hospital could not cope. “Our intensive care units are abysmally inadequate if we require ventilation of large numbers of people,” he said, “We can’t handle a flurry of cases of COVID-19.”

Medicines used by Kashmiris to keep respiratory problems in check – like levosalbutamol and ipratropium bromide – are in short supply, as stocks could not be maintained during the continued lockdown for the past over eight months.

“There is a lot of anxiety among the people, we can’t buy medicines here,” said Rukhsar Reyez, a student from Baramulla.

During the continued lockdown, the internet was also curtailed and only restored in 2G format on January 25, this year. Doctors say the speed of the internet restricts them from keeping up-to-date with the spread of the virus or important medical advice.

“The whole world is battling with an unseen enemy. Unfortunately, we are being undermined by denied access to high-speed internet,” said Dr Iqbal Saleem, a professor of surgery at the Government Medical College in Srinagar. “We have been facing immense difficulty in accessing medical literature and we can’t even do video conferencing with patients to treat them at home in the wake of coronavirus,” he added.

The world human rights organizations including Amnesty International have demanded of the Indian government to ‘urgently’ restore full internet access in occupied Kashmir. Those who speak out about their concerns risk losing their jobs. Dr Asif Ali Butt from the Soura Institute of Medical Sciences had his contract terminated after he spoke publicly about the shortage of masks.

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