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Geneva, June 02 (KMS): The highly-infectious COVID-19 variant first detected in India threatens to rapidly spread in the sub-region, including among refugees, the UN refugee agency has said as it warned of vaccine shortages in the Asia-Pacific region, including for asylum-seekers.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Andrej Mahecic, at a press briefing in Geneva, said that the fragile health systems in many countries in the Asia and Pacific region have struggled to cope with the recent surge of coronavirus cases.
“We are particularly worried about the situation in the Asia and Pacific region, which in the past two months has experienced the largest increase in the number of cases globally,” he said.
Over this period, there have been some 38 million recorded COVID-19 cases and more than half a million deaths, the UNHCR spokesperson said.
The lack of hospital beds, oxygen supplies, limited Intensive Care Unit (ICU) capacities and scarce health facilities and services have worsened outcomes for those infected with COVID-19, particularly in India and Nepal. The highly infectious variant of the virus which first emerged in India threatens to rapidly spread in the sub-region, including among refugee populations, Mahecic said.
The B.1.617 COVID-19 variant, first detected in India, is divided in three lineages: B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3. The B16172 strain – rechristened ‘Delta’ by the World Health Organisation (WHO) which has said that only B.1.617.2 is now a variant of concern, observing that lower rates of transmission have been observed for the other two lineages, making them no longer variants of concern.
The B.1.617.2 is now labelled variant Delta and has been reported in 62 countries as of June 1.
With COVID-19 raging in many parts of the world, the UNHCR warned of shortages of vaccines in the Asia-Pacific region, including for refugees and asylum-seekers.
UNHCR spokesperson Mahecic said: We urge an immediate and stronger support for the COVAX initiative, a worldwide effort aimed at achieving equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.
“This is critical to save lives and curb the impact of the virus, particularly in developing nations. These countries host the vast majority of more than 80 million forcibly displaced people in the world. Yet so far, they have benefited from only a fraction of the world’s COVID-19 vaccines.
The UNHCR stressed that no one can be left behind in the global effort against the coronavirus.
“The pandemic will be defeated only when vaccinations become available everywhere on an equitable basis, the agency said.
It said that the current delays in vaccine shipments, brought about by limited supplies to COVAX, mean that some of the world’s most vulnerable people remain susceptible to the virus.
The UNHCR is adding its voice to the calls for countries with surplus doses to donate to COVAX, and for manufacturers to boost supplies to the COVAX facility, Mahecic said.
The UN refugee agency said that refugees remain especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 as overcrowded settings, coupled with limited water and sanitation facilities, can contribute to increased infection rates and an exponential spread of the virus.
It said that in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, where almost 900,000 Rohingya refugees are living in the single largest and most densely populated cluster of refugee camps in the world, the number of cases has increased considerably in the last two months.
As of May 31, there have been over 1,188 cases among the refugees, with more than half of these cases recorded in May alone.
There is also a worrying increase in the number of COVID-19 cases among refugees and asylum-seekers in Nepal, Iran, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Some refugees, including in Nepal, have already received their first vaccine dose with COVAX-provided supplies while among the Rohingya refugees in the camps in Bangladesh, not a single vaccine has been administered yet, given the scarcity of supplies in the country, the UN refugee agency added.
On Wednesday, India reported 1,32,788 new coronavirus infections, taking the country’s tally to 2,83,07,832, according to the Union Health Ministry.
The COVID-19 death toll climbed to 3,35,102 with 3,207 fresh deaths, it said, adding that the active cases were recorded below 20 lakh for the second consecutive day.

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Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Aakash Hassan

On 12 April, as India registered another 169,000 new Covid-19 cases to overtake Brazil as the second-worst hit country, three million people gathered on the shores of the Ganges.

They were there, in the ancient city of Haridwar in the state of Uttarakhand, to take a ritual dip in the holy river. The bodies, squashed together in a pack of devotion and religious fervour, paid no visible heed to Covid protocols.

This was one of the holiest days of the Kumbh Mela, a festival that has become a highlight of the Hindu religious calendar and is known for drawing millions of pilgrims, seers, priests and tourists.

In the weeks beforehand, as a deadly coronavirus second wave began engulfing India, anxious calls to cancel the festival were rebuffed by the state and central government, which are both ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP). On 21 March, a full page newspaper advert featuring the prime minister, Narendra Modi, invited devotees to the festival, assuring them it was “clean” and “safe”.

But as festivities got into full swing in March, testing capacity was criticised as inadequate. Masks, though mandatory, were largely absent. The Uttarakhand BJP chief minister, Tirath Singh Rawat, who had earlier told devotees that “faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus”, was among the millions pictured taking part in the rituals wearing no face covering. Police overseeing the event said that were they to enforce social distancing, “a stampede-like situation may arise”.

By 15 April, more than 2,000 festivalgoers had already tested positive for Covid-19. Two days later, Modi backtracked and called for the Kumbh Mela to be “symbolic”, but it was too late. By the time the festival ended, on 28 April, more than 9 million people had attended.

The true toll of the Kumbh Mela will never be known, due in part to an alleged effort to stop collecting data. Thousands of pilgrims returned home without having been tested or quarantined and without any track of them kept by the government.

Some states began a belated effort to trace and quarantine the returned. In Madhya Pradesh, 789 pilgrims were traced from eight districts and 118 tested positive.

But as media attention focused on Covid-19 cases among the Kumbh returnees, the officials were ordered to stop counting. Four officials in different districts of Madhya Pradesh, as well as officials in Rajasthan, confirmed to the Guardian that their seniors called them off for political reasons.

“We were told to concentrate on the general Covid situation, and not focus on surveys and tracing of Kumbh pilgrims,” said a senior district official in Rajasthan, who requested anonymity, fearing reprisal.

Accounts gathered by the Guardian from the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Kashmir and Karnataka indicate that the virus travelled back with countless devotees and found its way to poor rural communities where access to healthcare and testing was limited or absent, with often devastating consequences. “Pilgrims from all states carried variant viruses and seeded epidemics,” said T Jacob John, a former director of virology at the Indian Council of Medical Research.

In the aftermath, Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, said the Kumbh Mela was possibly “the biggest superspreader event in the history of the pandemic”.

The government has stood by its decision to hold the festival. The BJP vice-president, Baijayant Panda, said “ignorance” and “hinduphobic elements” were behind it being labeled a superspreader event.

Nonetheless, in the week that followed the festival, the host state of Uttarakhand registered a 1,800% increase in Covid cases, many of which have been linked in some way to the festival.

Thakur Puran Singh, 79, a BJP leader and former minister from Rajouri in Kashmir, refused to the end to believe that he had caught Covid-19 at the Kumbh Mela.

At the crack of dawn on 9 April, Singh and his extended family, including his two sons, their wives and three grandchildren, piled into two escorted SUVs and drove 370 miles to Haridwar. They reached the Kumbh Mela by the afternoon. For the next five days, the family took multiple dips in the Ganges.

On 16 April, the day after returning, Singh began to experience symptoms. He dismissed them at first, but by 21 April his condition had deteriorated. His son, Dinesh Singh Thakur, took him to a local hospital, where doctors suspected Covid due to his damaged lungs. Thakur wanted a second opinion, and embarked on a journey to take his father to another hospital he believed was better.

“I could not believe the doctors and their Covid theory. I did not even put on a mask while driving my father,” said Thakur.

But Singh died on the way. Eight days later, his elder brother Balwant Singh, who the family had seen on their return from Kumbh, also died – again with symptoms suggesting complications caused by Covid.

“Even after Singh’s death, the family concealed that they had travelled to Kumbh,” said Dr Shameema, chief medical officer of the district. Dr Iqbal Malik, another health official, confirmed that four members of the family had tested positive.

A test-and-trace official said more than two dozen people contracted the virus after contact with Singh’s family members, who had attended four weddings after Kumbh Mela.

“These are the cases we have been able to track, but it is highly likely that the number is much higher,” the official said, again on condition of anonymity.

Singh’s body was cremated as per Covid-19 protocols, but his family still believes the virus didn’t kill him. “Why did only my father die when we were 11 members there?” said Thakur. “It is not a virus which kills. The death is destined. I have no regrets.”

Madhya Pradesh: The farmer

Gopal Singh’s family and neighbours were thrilled to see him return home from Kumbh Mela. The people of Madhi Chaubisa village, in Madhya Pradesh’s Vidisha district, came out to receive him and to get blessings, with the young customarily touching his feet. But the 56-year-old farmer was filled with dread.

Singh had joined around 100 other people from the surrounding villages who boarded two buses and embarked on a holy pilgrimage to Kumbh Mela. While there he saw people falling sick, and on the way home many of the bus passengers complained of high fever and diarrhoea. But they were not stopped anywhere for Covid tests, said Singh, nor for temperature checks.

“I have been to Kumbh twice before, but I have never seen anything like this – so many people getting sick,” he said.

Singh insisted on a Covid-19 test on his return, despite a local doctor dismissing his concerns. Four days later it came back as he feared: positive. In the meantime, he had mingled with many of the villagers.

Three more Kumbh Mela returnees soon tested positive in his village, then more in the surrounding villages. “After people came back from Kumbh, cases increased to over 30 in just a few days,” said Ragu Raj Dangi, 32, the head of the village. “And many people who had symptoms and those who came in contact of Covid patients were not getting tested.”

A few days later, Singh’s neighbour Mamta Bhai, 40, a mother of two children, developed a fever. For several days she was treated by a local doctor, but when her oxygen levels dipped to critical levels she was taken to an ICU. She died.

Singh said he is filled with guilt. “Our stubbornness and superstitious belief has bought us a catastrophe,” he said. “I am feeling very weak, and more than that I am feeling bad about those people who might have contracted the virus because of people like me.”

Uttar Pradesh: The Holy Man

As a high priest in one of India’s largest Hindu monasteries, there was never any question of the 74-year-old Pragyaanant Giri staying away from the Kumbh Mela. Like many at his ashram in the town of Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, he believed coronavirus to be a conspiracy.

But after spending a month at the festival, Giri – a former policemen turned priest – developed a sore throat and fever. His fellow holy men recommended he take some time off, so he went home to the ashram. As his condition deteriorated, he was taken to a hospital, where he tested positive for Covid-19. After two weeks in the intensive care unit, Giri died. In defiance of Covid protocols, his body was taken back to the ashram and buried.

People in the ashram described how cases shot up when Giri returned. “More than a dozen people who came in contact with him developed Covid-19 symptoms, and some had to be hospitalised,” said one. “But most of them never got tested.”

Yet even after Giri’s death, the prevalent belief in the ashram was that Covid was not real. Swami Harigiri, the head of the ashram, said it was a conspiracy against Hindus to call Kumbh Mela a superspreader event.

“We drink cow urine,” he said. “[Coronavirus] will not affect us.” Giri’s death being attributed to Covid-19, he said, was “fake news”.

Bihar: The pious women

Before Kumbh Mela the small village of Brindaban in the eastern Indian state of Bihar had been relatively unscathed by the pandemic. On 6 April a group of five women left for the festival on an 11-day trip. Days after their return, two were dead.

Although the local health department claims the victims had tested negative for Covid after death, their family members tell a different story.

“She fell sick the day she returned home, and the very next day she died,” said Awadh Kishore Tiwari, a nephew of Bindu Devi, one of the two women who died. Devi, who was 70, had a cough and a fever, said Tiwari. He added that his own mother, who was otherwise housebound, tested positive for the virus after meeting Devi.

Her death triggered a wave of panic. Forty villagers were tested and the whole village was sanitised and declared a containment zone. The local chief medical officer, Avinash Kumar, said only one of the pilgrims had tested positive for Covid-19 but conceded that his officials used only rapid antigen tests, which have a high rate of false negatives.

Bindu Devi’s death was followed closely by that of fellow pilgrim Dulari Devi. Relatives said the 58-year-old developed breathing problems the moment she returned from Kumbh Mela.

Her brother-in-law Awadhesh Chauhan said he had advised her not to attend Kumbh Mela because of Covid, but the pious woman had laughed it off. “She told me that nothing will happen to her, you need not worry,” he said.

Karnataka: The psychiatrist

When a 67-year-old woman from Nandini Layout, a suburb of Bengaluru, tested positive for Covid days after returning from the Kumbh Mela, her family grew frantic.

Living in the house with her was her daughter-in-law, a psychiatrist who worked in a hospital where she saw dozens of patients. Tests soon confirmed she too had Covid. Testing teams rushed to the hospital. “We found 12 patients and three staffers Covid-19 positive,” said Dr Manjala, who headed the team.

Eighteen other close contacts of the woman were eventually diagnosed with Covid, but officials said the true spread of the virus was likely to be even greater.

Everyone traced to the woman has recovered, but the family said they now feel unjustly stigmatised. “We cannot be blamed for this,” said the psychiatrist, who does not want to be identified. “It is the government that holds responsibility for allowing such a religious gathering.” – Courtesy The Guardian

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New Delhi, June 02 (KMS): An Indian court has ruled that a local government administration in Uttar Pradesh filed a “false and unfounded” police report against eight Muslim leaders who had opposed the “illegal” demolition of their mosque.
The bulldozing of the Masjid Gareeb Nawaz Al Maroof in May, carried out on the orders of the local administration of Barabanki district, caused an outcry and sent many local Muslims into hiding.
In the days following the demolition, the Barabanki administration filed a police case against eight local Muslim leaders who had opposed the demolition, accusing them of forging documents that had led to the mosque being illegally registered on government land.
In a ruling at Allahabad high court, judges declared that the administration had filed a “false and unfounded” police report against the Muslim leaders. The ruling, which was the result of a lawsuit challenging the demolition of the mosque, found that the state government had provided no proof to the court of falsified or forged documents.
The Muslims named in the case were also granted protection from arrest and the Uttar Pradesh government was given three weeks to produce the evidence.
The local administration that ordered the mosque to be flattened on 17 May had called it an “illegal structure” intruding on government land. The demolition has drawn comparisons with the demolition of Babri Masjid, a mosque torn down by a rightwing Hindu mob in 1992.
The Uttar Pradesh government is ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which also controls the central government. The state chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, is one of the most hardline leaders in the party, known for his vitriol towards Muslims.
After the mosque’s demolition, the Masjid Gareeb Nawaz Al Maroof committee and officials from the Uttar Pradesh waqf board, which oversees the running of all mosques in the state, had challenged the demolition of the mosque as “patently illegal” and demanded it be rebuilt.
The Barabanki administration has since denied there was a mosque on the grounds at all and described the building as an “illegal construction”. Documents seen by the Guardian, however, show the building was first registered with a state body as a mosque in 1968. Chaudhary Haseen, 65, also confirmed that the local administration had appointed his deceased father, Anwar Hussain, as caretaker of the mosque, which he said had stood “since the British period”, between 1956 and 1986.
The demolition followed weeks of harassment by the Barabanki administration against the mosque committee and Muslims who worshipped there. A notice had been sent to the committee alleging that the structure was an “illegal construction” and tensions arose after Muslims who were prevented from praying at the mosque clashed with police, leading to dozens of arrests.
The decision to demolish the mosque is also alleged to be also a violation of a high court order passed on 24 April where all demolitions and evictions in Uttar Pradesh were ordered to be halted until 31 May.
Adarsh Singh, the Barabanki district magistrate, has said the administration acted in “complete compliance” with the law. – Courtesy The Guardian

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Srinagar June 02 (KMS): In Indian illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK), Kashmir Economic Alliance (KEA) has said that a single day shutdown costs Rs 150 crore loss to Kashmir Valley.
Kashmir Economic Alliance Chairman Muhammad Yaseen Khan during his visit to Handwara Vegetable Market to offer sympathies to the victims of a fire incident said KEA will try to provide every possible support to rehabilitate those who lost everything in the incident.
KEA Chairman said, it is our responsibility to reach out to everyone who suffered any loss due to fire or other natural calamity. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with our trader’s community,” he said. He also said that the business community during the lockdown phase suffered significant losses.
To a question, he said that the authorities have to find some way to keep the business going as Medical experts say COVID infection will live with us for long and we will have to find a way to ensure no trader suffers.
Meanwhile, Kashmir Trade Alliance (KTA) expressing anger over the anxiety and uncertainty created by the administration’s order to phase out the month-long lockdown said that the matter should be taken more seriously.
Ajaz Shahdhar, President of Kashmir Trade Alliance (KTA) in a statement said that the local authorities’ permission to do business only two days a week on alternate days is a joke with traders and shopkeepers. He said that with this logic, the shopkeeper would have to open the shop only one day in a week, and that day too he would have to clean the dust and dirt of the week.
Shahdhar said that if the situation was so dangerous for Covid, the authorities should have waited for another week to start the un-lock processes. He said that there was no example of only one working day in a week in any part of the world. He said that in fact this process was being done to collect taxes from the traders.
Shahdhar demanded of the authorities to seriously prepare a roadmap for unlocking businesses so that shopkeepers and consumers would not face any difficulties.

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Srinagar, June 02 (KMS): Coinciding Global Day of Parents falling on June 01, Farida Qayoom, a mother in the Indian illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) remembers her son, who was killed by police in custody in 2010.
Living in a modest house on the northern side of the capital Srinagar along with her husband and three daughters, she said that her only son Umar Qayoom was thrashed and tortured by Indian police leading to his death.
For now, the Qayoom family has been waiting for justice over the past 11 years. It took them seven years to get a formal complaint registered against the police personnel for the torturous killing. But the trial in the case is yet to begin.
“I am waiting for justice in my son’s case and I hope someday it will be delivered to us,” Farida said.
Two years after Umar’s brutal killing a one-man inquiry commission led by a retired judge Makhan Lal Koul concluded that he had died out of torture in police custody. The retired judge recommended the filing of the case against police officers.
Although the case was filed in 2017, there is no headway to proceed against the culprits.
“He was an obedient son with big dreams. But all that has gone with him,” said Farida. Pointing out towards a graveyard from her kitchen window, she said her son is lying there near a Sufi saint’s shrine.
“It was Friday, August 20, 2010, and during the month of Ramadan, my son had gone to offer prayers. But before he could return home, there was tear gas shelling and gunfire by security forces near our home. I was praying for the safety of my son. But prayers went in vain,” she said.
Soon the family was told that Umar has been detained. Abdul Qayoom Bhat, the father of the teenager rushed to the local police station to see his son.
“He was assaulted. Blood was seeping from his body. I cried and pleaded before the police officials but they did not listen. They threatened to put me also behind the bars,” he recalled.
Umar was released after some time, but he was bruised. In a week, despite care, he succumbed to his injuries. It was diagnosed that his vital organs had been damaged during police custody, said Umar’s father.
A 2018 report by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society — a human rights group operating in the region — stated that around 318 children in the age group 1-17 were killed from 2003-2017.

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Srinagar, June 02 (KMS): Indian illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir’s economy has borne the brunt of three back to back lockdowns since abrogation of article 370 in August 2019 resulting in the loss of whopping Rs 45000 Crore. The month-long lockdown from April 30 to May 30 this year has registered a loss of Rs 5000 crore alone, reveal the figures worked out by the trade bodies of Valley.

According to the Kashmir Chamber and Commerce Industries president Sheikh Ashiq Hussain, Kashmir economy suffered a loss of around Rs 17,878 crore in first four months of restrictions and shutdown in the valley post Article 370 abrogation by the Government of India in August 2019.

This was followed by nation-wide lockdown triggered by Carona-virus pandemic in 2020 that cost Kashmir economy Rs 27,000 crore.

As per trade bodies, the ongoing Corona lockdown has further taken the already crippling economy to silent offshores with people associated with trade and economy estimating a loss of around Rs 5000 Crore from April 30 to May 30 this year.

Chairman Kashmir Economic Alliance (KEA), Muhammad Yaseen Khan said that around 50 percent of the traders won’t be able to continue the business as they have taken loans from financial institutions and they aren’t able to repay the installments.

“For the last 22 months, we have been hardly able to pay interests. To cope-up with the set premiums has become very difficult, almost impossible, which has turned the performing assets into Non-Performing Assets (NPA),” Khan said.

He said that if trade and business has to be rescued from the uncertainty, infusion of bailout packages is highly inevitable.

Figures available with the Kashmir Economic Alliance (KEA) suggest that the Kashmir economy suffered a loss of around 27,000 Crore during the nationwide Corona lockdown imposed in March 2020.

While talking about the partial relaxation in the ongoing Corona lockdown, Khan said: “People from trade, business and transport owe money to banks and suppliers, and the economy has been on crippling end, which makes the survival very difficult. The immediate remedy would be the assistance from the government, but given the ongoing pandemic situation, we want to wait till Covid situation stabilizes and we will come up with our demands and submit the same to the government.”

“Even if the trade and business is allowed to work on all week days, we are on the receiving end, unless there is no capital infusion in the market,” he said.

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#SikhsWillNeverForget1984

Islamabad, June 01 (KMS): The storming of the Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ holiest shrine in Amritsar, India, in June 1984 is an ugly scar on the so-called Indian democracy while the victims of Blue Star Operation and those killed in the ensuing bloody chain of anti-Sikh riots are still awaiting justice.

A report released by Kashmir Media Service, said that Indian army massacred thousands of Sikhs including pilgrims during its attack on the Golden Temple between June 1 and 10, 1984. Indian army backed by tanks and artillery guns reduced the Sikhs’ holiest shrine to rubble besides killing thousands.

The report mentioned that HR violations were being perpetrated against the Sikhs even before the Operation Blue Star, while the Indian army’s 1984 assault on the Sikh holiest shrine in Amritsar was a sacrilegious act as well. The operation marked the official beginning of a policy of HR violations against Sikhs and a systematic purge of the community on a large-scale in India. »

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Adil Rashid

June 01, 2021

In the first week of May, Qazi Idrees, a 29-year-old government employee, was making desperate calls to get a ventilator supported ICU bed for his father, Qazi Aftaab. Aftaab was admitted at JVC Medical College and Hospital in Srinagar, which was severely understaffed and under-resourced. “When my father required high-flow oxygen, they kept him on low-flow,” Idrees told me. “They asked us, as our father’s attendants, to give him injections,” Idrees said. How could we? It’s a sophisticated set-up and what if we did anything wrong, who would be responsible? They even asked us to do suction by ourselves, how could we do it, what are the doctors there for?” Qazi Aftaab died of COVID-19 on 17 May, along with 73 others in Jammu and Kashmir. His case is emblematic of the critical shortage of oxygen, drugs, healthcare staff and hospital beds of Jammu and Kashmir’s health systems.

Amid this public health crisis, as COVID-19 cases and deaths have been rising dramatically in the region, the territory’s administration has been creating hurdles for local NGOs and civil-society organisations that have been filling in the gap, providing essential oxygen and drugs. Several doctors and local leaders told me that the current spike in cases in Kashmir was, at least in part, because the administration encouraged an influx of tourists in an attempt to portray Kashmir as having returned to normalcy. On 4 May, when Aftaab was admitted at JVC medical college, 4,650 people tested positive for COVID-19 in Jammu and Kashmir.

Idrees told the scribe he had initially been glad when they had been able to find a hospital bed for his father, something that became increasingly hard as cases in Kashmir surged up. But as he discovered, the hospital was struggling with its limited resources, and said that the doctors were using the same amount of oxygen in regular oxygen beds and in intensive-care unit beds. “Initially they moved us to a bed, which they said was an ICU bed, but they used the same 60-litre oxygen machine. They even told the district commissioner, who had called them on our behalf, that we were provided an ICU and the patient is stable. It was a lie. No care is being given to patients.”

Idrees also learnt that families were expected to procure the drugs and manage the patients themselves. He said that when his father was finally admitted to an actual ICU, it had only two nurses, who did short shifts, and had no doctor after 9 pm. “They provide no care as they are supposed to,” he told me. “This is a wretched disease. It affects you mentally even if it is your kin who has it. If somebody were sick normally, your relatives and others would come to the hospital, we’d get some moral support. That’s not the case with COVID; you worry about your father, then about yourself, about catching the infection, and then you realise that you are on your own, nobody is coming to help.” Shafa Deva, the medical superintendent of JVC medical college did not respond queries.

There has been a historic lack of medical infrastructure in the region, where the Indian government’s concerns over security have often outweighed its concerns over public welfare. In April 2020, medical professionals voiced concerns about the capacity of the region’s medical infrastructure to manage a crisis such as COVID-19. The same month, the Jammu and Kashmir directorate of health services published a circular threatening prosecution against outspoken doctors.

Over the past year, the Kashmir health directorate has been increasing the number of beds, oxygen and equipment necessary to handle rising COVID-19 cases, but several doctors told me that the current spike in cases dwarfed what they had prepared for. “The Kashmir valley has 2,459 oxygen-supported beds, only 752 of which could handle high-risk patients,” Mir Mushtaq, the spokesperson of the directorate of health, told me in the last week of April.  However, the administration has lost crucial time is equipping hospitals with ICU care facilities. According to the government’s daily bulletin on COVID-19, on 16 May there are only 133 ICU beds available in Kashmir. On 31 May, Mushtaq told me, Kashmir had 2,035 oxygen-supported beds, 67 ICU beds and 112 ventilators. However, there seems to be a discrepancy in the government’s data, because just a day earlier the government bulletin noted that Kashmir had 154 ICU beds, 83 of which were vacant.

The state has also been unable to utilise ventilators well. A report from April 2020 showed that Kashmir had only 93 ventilators for a population of around eight million. On 21 February 2021, the local newspaper Greater Kashmir reported that the union government had allocated 908 ventilators to Jammu and Kashmir of which 892 were installed. However, a senior official with the health department told me that many ventilators were lying unused. “These are sophisticated machines,” he told me, requesting to remain anonymous. “To properly function each ICU requires at least a specialist doctor, that is an anesthetist, a trained technician for ventilator maintenance, a nursing orderly to cater to the patient’s non-medical needs, and a nurse, who all are to be supervised under a registrar who will in turn report to a consultant. The government had not used the time between the last wave and now to recruit the necessary manpower. As a result, at several places, ventilator facilities lie unused. Belatedly, the government has resorted to contractual recruitment through the National Health Mission.” On 24 April, Mohammad Yasin, the mission director of the Jammu and Kashmir wing of the NHM, issued a notification inviting applicants for 30 posts for anaesthesia consultants through walk-in interviews on 28 and 29 April. “But even that is woefully inadequate,” the health-department official told me.

Alongside ventilators, there has also been a lack of drugs commonly prescribed for COVID-19. On 20 April, AG Ahangar, the director of Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, Srinagar’s biggest hospital, said that Jammu and Kashmir was suffering shortage of remdesivir. The same day, Atal Dulloo, the financial commissioner of the territory’s health department said that there was no shortage in the state. However, both doctors and relatives of patients told me that this was an absurd claim.

Two doctors I spoke to, one from SKIMS and another from Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar, both of whom wished to remain anonymous, confirmed to me that since mid April, the hospital had lacked sufficient stocks of remdesivir. Idrees, too, told me that he struggled to get the drug. “The consultant had recommended remdesivir injection, but my father wasn’t given the medicine for his first two days in the hospital,” Idrees said. “The doctors ticked that column recording that they did provide it. I figured they didn’t have it in the stock. The consultant told me the administration wouldn’t say so, even if it was true. Finally, I got them from the market. They cheated the treatment sheet for a steroid medicine in the same way as well. On one night they didn’t even have paracetamol.” Dulloo did not respond to questions emailed to him.

On 17 May, the Hindustan Times reported that, despite a lack of oxygen for hospitals and homecare in Kashmir, five oxygen-generation units meant to be deployed in hospitals in Kashmir were diverted to Hindu-majority Jammu. Two days later, The Wire, reported that it was three oxygen-generation units that had been diverted. Abdul Rashid Dar, the chief executive engineer of the mechanical engineering department in Kashmir was quoted by the Hindustan Times report as saying, “Only two plants of 1,000 LPM capacity have been diverted.” Despite me pointing out his quote, Dar denied that any diversion had taken place to me.

A senior Kashmiri journalist who has covered the region for over two decades and wanted to remain anonymous, told me that the diversion of the oxygen-generation units was part of a larger pattern. “Allocation in health sector is almost at par in both regions, if not skewed towards Jammu,” he said. “In the past twenty year all health ministers have been from Jammu and they were all very powerful. Obviously, the BJP has a vote bank there. Jammu, Katha, Udhampur districts have always been one of the bastions of the RSS. The diversion of the oxygen units makes Kashmiris feel they are expendable any way. I think there was a lot of anger on Kashmiri social media”

The lack of oxygen has severely hit families in the region. On 2 May, Faizan, a 29-year-old resident of Srinagar’s Kalashpora locality, saw his uncle’s oxygen saturation falling below 90. When he went to the city’s Chest Disease Hospital, he was told that his uncle could not be admitted. “They said that they wouldn’t admit him because none of us could qualify as a by-stander, because all of us were COVID positive,” Faizan told me. “So, we were forced to take care of my uncle at home, but there was no way we could get oxygen.” Late that night, an imaging and diagnostic centre which was conducting COVID relief work, reached out to Faizan and delivered an oxygen cylinder to his house. “They didn’t want any money either, but because of them my uncle’s condition is improving,” he told me.

Like the diagnostic centre, several NGOs, volunteer networks and civil-society organisations have been at the forefront of providing oxygen and drugs to those in Kashmir who cannot find hospital beds. A doctor who has been working in COVID-19 care at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital since last year, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that despite the lack of beds and facilities, the death rate in the Kashmir valley has been lower than Jammu primarily because of the work of these civil-society organization. “If you look at the figures, the daily cases, we are already under strain,” he said. “But if you look at deaths, Kashmir has lesser deaths than Jammu because a large number of patients and their requirements are managed at their homes by NGOs. Take them out of the picture, and things would look a lot worse, at least in terms of deaths.” The data bears this out too. Between 28 April and 7 May, there were 161 deaths in the Kashmir valley, while 255 COVID deaths have been reported from Jammu.

Bashir Ahmad Nadvi, who works for a Kashmir-based NGO called Athrout, told me that the condition in Kashmir was dire. “We get almost 30 or 40 calls a minute, and almost all of them asking for oxygen cylinders or concentrators,” he said. “Last year it was different. People would ask for medicine or food kits, this year it is all about oxygen.” Nadvi told me that besides helping people in Kashmir with food kits, and medicine, they have about 400 concentrators and 40 mini-ventilators spread across Kashmir, helping those who cannot arrange oxygen through government channels.

“We however can provide oxygen cylinders only at one facility, the Srinagar Hajj House which was converted into a COVID care facility in collaboration with the District Disaster Management Association,” he said. The equipment at the Hajj House facility, including oxygen and ventilators, was donated by Athrout. In mid May, Newslaundry reported how Athrout largely went unmentioned government statements and press releases. The report noted that after the facility began gathering press attention, members of Athrout were asked to remove their uniforms and banners, so the initiative seems like it is entirely managed by the Jammu and Kashmir administration.

Nadvi told this scribe that thirty years of conflict had helped build strong civil-society organisations that could step in when the government failed to provide for its people. “Naturally, Kashmir is far behind places like Delhi,” he said. “However, a network of NGOs working in Kashmir have been able to fill the gaps, where the administration could not, helping keep the death rate low. Our situation, the conflict of 30 years, helped us prepare better.”

However, the Jammu and Kashmir administration has been posing challenges to NGOs doing relief work. On 6 May, Mohammed Aijaz, the district magistrate of Srinagar issued an order which stated that “all oxygen manufacturing units within the jurisdiction of District Srinagar shall supply oxygen only to the designated hospitals/ clinics and will stop supply to any private society/ NGO with immediate effect.” It further stated that any private hospital would need to “register their genuine demand Nodal Officer COVID-19 War Room … with the copy of the communication to Director Industries Kashmir.” The order was widely criticised by civil-society organisations and journalists for restricting access to home care and further add pressure to already overwhelmed hospitals.

A senior functionary at an NGO that works with marginalised communities in Kashmir, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that home care had become even more essential because hospitals had begun discharging patients who still required oxygen. “Let’s suppose hospitals across Kashmir discharge 400 people every day who require some level of oxygen support at home to create vacancies to help other critical patients,” he told me. “But they in effect wash their hands off as far as the discharged people and the responsibility of their oxygen needs is concerned. Where will these people go? If we, and all other NGOs don’t provide oxygen, food, medicine to these people, won’t they die or come on the road?”

A project manager at an NGO that has been responding to COVID related SOS calls and delivering oxygen cylinders to patients told me that Aijaz’s order had created a panic when it came out. “The day that the order came, our vehicle wasn’t allowed entry into the factory for refilling even,” he told me. But his organisation, along with other prominent NGOs, got in touch with the administration to discuss the issue. “It was an exhaustive meeting attended by various officials,” he said. “They tried to convince us to follow the order. But when we put forward our points of view, they listened, and thankfully understood our concerns.” The Twitter account of the Srinagar administration has since taken down the tweet in which the order was published. As of now, NGOs have to file papers to the administration every week to be allowed to refill oxygen cylinders for patients.

Many local doctors and activists told me that the Jammu and Kashmir administration had not only failed to address the current COVID-19 crisis, but were largely to blame for the virus’s spread in the first place. “Jammu and Kashmir is a place of all seasons and we are planning festivals in every season for the locals and tourist alike,” Sarmad Hafeez, Jammu and Kashmir’s secretary of tourism, said in Srinagar, on 4 April. “We started with almond blossom (Badamwari festival) and now Tulip Festival and many more events are coming in summer. The tulip festival is an open invitation to all the people from all over the country and from all over the world to celebrate the beauty of Jammu and Kashmir.” According to the government of Jammu and Kashmir’s department of information and public relations, the two-day Tulip Festival had 32,000 visitors. Nearly the entirety of the state’s senior administration was at the event too, from the secretaries of various ministries, police heads and Manoj Sinha, the lieutenant governor of the union territory.

The spread of COVID-19 in the Kashmir valley has been alarming even in comparison to India’s poor management of the pandemic. On 20 February, Jammu and Kashmir had 700 active cases of COVID-19, but by 3 April, the first day of the Tulip Festival, the case count had grown five-fold to 3,574. The cases load only continued to climb over the next month, reaching 44,307 on 7 May. “The government-organised tourist fests could have been a major reason for the spread of the virus,” the doctor at SMHS told me. “They gave precedence to tourism, image-making and economy over people. Public health was delegated to second place.”

Several doctors told me that a key reason for the spike in cases in Kashmir was because the government failed to carefully test and isolate tourists. Syed Ghazala Nazki, a community-medicine specialist, who has been in charge of testing at Srinagar airport since May 2020, told me in late April this year that they test between 3,000 and 5,000 persons at the airport daily. “We mostly do rapid antigen tests and the results come within half an hour,” she said. “If a person is positive, he is contacted by authorities and monitored constantly. We do about 500 or 600 tests on average these days.” Nazki said the more efficient RT-PCR tests were reserved for travellers from outside India, and those who may show symptoms of COVID-19 upon arrival. Data accessed by the online news portal Citizen Matters showed that between January 2021 and the end of April, 1,26,076 tourists arrived in Kashmir, only 424 of whom were foreign nationals. When asked why such a distinction was made when a vast majority of tourists who arrived in Kashmir over the past year were Indian, Nazki said, “We have been advised to do so.”

The doctor from SMHS’s COVID-19 ward told me that merely sampling tourists at the airport and letting them travel around the state before their results came in could lead to a wider spread of the virus. “What is the point of testing and sampling even if we just let people go? We have had cases where people would deliberately hide their travel histories, so how does testing and letting go people make sense?” Nazki, however, argued that the burden of preventing this lay entirely with the tourists themselves. “The tourists are supposed to follow SOPs and keep in isolation,” Nazki told me.

The government’s policy of testing and quarantining those arriving from outside points to a double standard for tourists and Kashmiris. In the beginning of the pandemic, as people all across India scrambled to reach the safety of their home, Kashmiris, spread all across India and the world, flocked to their homes as well. On 23 May 2020, the Jammu and Kashmir department of information and public relations reported that 87,948 residents of the territory had returned since the start of the pandemic. Initially, all passengers coming through any mode of transportation were required to be tested and sent to mandatory quarantine at facilities set up by the government or paid for by the travelers. The travelers, at that time almost all Kashmiris returning to the relative safety of home, would be sent to their homes after testing negative in a RT-PCR test and completing the mandatory two-week quarantine period.

It was not until 30 October 2020, following restrictions being eased in other states that the administration in Kashmir also followed suit, and allowed home quarantine. This double standard is also clearly emphasised during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Kashmir valley. On 30 March this year, two days before the inauguration of the Tulip Festival, the Jammu and Kashmir administration passed an order establishing a Test-Track-Treat Protocol. The order said that RT-PCR testing should be increased in Jammu and Kashmir. “The proportion of RT-PCR tests in the total mix should be scaled up, on best effort basis, to 70 % or more, excluding travelers.” In other sections of the document, the term “traveler” seems to refer exclusively to tourists. The order also specified that up to 25,000 pilgrims a day were allowed to visit the Vaishnodevi Shrine in Katra, while not allowing gatherings, assemblies or processions anywhere else in the territory.

Members of the Jammu and Kashmir administration also told this scribe that even if tourists were sufficiently tested, they were often hard to trace after they left Srinagar airport. A senior official working in the administration’s COVID-19 control room, who wished to remain anonymous, explained that if a tourist or an incoming local tests positive, they are contacted based on the details they provide to government officials at the airport. “For incoming tourists, usually the only details noted are their cell phone number to the contacts of their travel agents and hotels,” he told me. “But the system has gaps, a lot more could have been done to prevent persons with viral load from entering the valley. Sometimes the phone numbers provided by tourists don’t work in Kashmir. Initially we missed some positive travellers. It wasn’t possible to gauge how many people those tourists might have in turn infected.”

The COVID-19 control room official told me they had voiced these concerns to the Jammu and Kashmir health department. “We had also suggested a mandatory RT-PCR report of 72 hours as compulsory upon arrival for all tourists—we even did it unofficially for some time,” the official said. “But the proposal didn’t find favour with the administration for some reason.” I asked if the administration did not want to enforce stringent testing because they did not want the success of the Tulip Festival and other tourist events to be affected. “The less said, the better,” the official responded. “It’s obvious that doing such things at the time of a pandemic doesn’t make sense, but what can we say.”

It was not only in Kashmir that state administrations allowed for large religious or touristic events. Between January and April, the Uttarakhand government held a full-scale religious festival called the Mahakumbh, in which over 21 lakh people participated with minimal COVID-19 precautions. Experts have called it a super-spreader event. However, the tourist festivals in Kashmir differ from events like the Kumbh in that they were not backed by popular demand, or seen as religiously or culturally necessary.

The administration of Jammu and Kashmir has constantly tried to use tourism as a marker of normalcy returning to the region. Indian newspapers, too, routinely quote officials from Jammu and Kashmir’s tourism department who argue that the return of tourist following the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 is a sign that the valley is peaceful. Amid the pandemic, the state’s tourism department was also bidding to hold conferences of international tourism leaders. News reports about the region routinely say that tourism is a key industry, arguing that its return will also create an economic recovery in the valley. In reality, the tourism industry only contributes an estimated 6.98 percent of the territory’s gross domestic product.

Kashmiris have constantly argued that the administrations’ urge to increase the arrival of Indian and international tourists is not economic recovery at all, but rather an attempt to advertise that the region is peaceful. “In the case of the current BJP government, it has weaponised tourism, a recreational and commercial activity, to flood Kashmir with non-Kashmiri domestic tourists as a reminder to Kashmiris that they are insignificant in the face of the demographic power of India,” Siddiq Wahid, a historian who was previously the vice chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Awantipora, told me. “So, the use of tourism as a political tool has to be understood in the context of the last seven years, not just the post-Article 370 political landscape. The government, both local and national, are entirely culpable for pushing tourism in the midst of a pandemic. In the context of the history of the Kashmir conflict, it leaves us wondering whether this radical promotion of domestic tourism by the government is not a political, rather than an economic, project.” Sinha, the lieutenant governor, did not respond to questions about tourism in Kashmir or the current health situation in the valley.

The doctor from SMHS who wished to remain anonymous told me that the administration had not learnt any lessons from the spike in COVID cases following the Tulip Festival. On 13 March, Sinha announced that the administration was going to allow the annual pilgrimage to Amarnath shrine in Kashmir’s Anantnag district. The pilgrimage had been halted in 2019 following the reading down of Article 370, and again last year because of the onset of the pandemic. On 1 April 2021, the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board had begun the registration for the Yatra. On 22 April, the board announced that the registration had been temporarily suspended, though it said they will re-open once the situation improves. Since then the Jammu and Kashmir government has not made any definitive statements whether the Yatra will take place. The 56-days-long pilgrimage was due to start on 28 June. “Allowing the yatra in present situation will be a disaster, bringing all variants of the virus to Kashmir,” the doctor told me. “It will be the next Kumbh.”

Wahid, too, argued that Amarnath Yatra might be dangerous. “Prima facie, there seems to be enough evidence to suggest that the government should suspend all such gatherings be they religious or political. But the government’s policies in Jammu and Kashmir are not necessarily governed by science as much as they are by politics. So, it is not surprising that it pursues a policy of ambiguity and of hope that it can continue to sponsor the yatra to continue to assert its domination in the former state.” He continued, “One should not be surprised if it is regarded here as a special political, demographic and ideological message to Kashmir.”

Adil Rashid is a Kashmir-based journalist who has worked previously with Outlook.

— Courtesy The Caravan

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Srinagar (KMS): The United Nations Rapporteurs have disclosed that Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader, Waheed Parra, in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK), was subjected to abusive interrogations after his arrest by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which lasted from 10 to 12 hours at a time.

In a report released in New York, the UN Rapporteurs pointed out that Parra was questioned about his participation in a meeting with UN Security Council members.

The Rappourters have made public their communication concerning allegations of “arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance and torture and ill-treatment committed against the three Kashmiris including Waheed Parra, Irfan Ahmad Dar, and Naseer Ahmad Wani.

“Parra was held in a dark underground cell at subzero temperature, was deprived of sleep, kicked, slapped, beaten with rods, stripped naked and hung upside down. His ill-treatment was recorded,” the UN report read.

The UN Rapporteurs said that Parra was examined by a government doctor three times since his arrest last November and three times by a psychiatrist. He requested medication for insomnia and anxiety, the UN report said.

Para is a grassroots level political and social activist advocating the cause of youth in the Indian illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir. He is also a member of the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership, a peace-builder, and serves as the youth President of pro-India People Democratic Party.

Parra became victim of NIA after raising alarm about the Government of India’s actions towards Kashmiris in the Muslim dominated occupied territory.

He is from Naira in South Kashmir’s Pulwama District and previously worked as a journalist, who produced a number of human-interest news stories and anchored television shows broadcasted in the Jammu and Kashmir. Para remained under house arrest until September 2020.

On 25 November 2020, Para was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and held in their custody for one month at their headquarters in New Delhi, where he was subjected to ill-treatment. Parra was permitted to meet with his attorney and a family member separately approximately ten days after his arrest and again in the third week of his detention. All visits were conducted under surveillance.

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APHC urges UNGA to monitor grim situation of IIOJK

ImageSrinagar, May 29 (KMS): In Indian illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference and other Hurriyat leaders and organizations have deplored that India is using rape of Kashmiri women as a weapon of war to humiliate the Kashmiris and suppress their ongoing freedom movement.

They expressed solidarity with the family of Aasiya and Neelofar of Shopian on their 12th martyrdom anniversary. Aasiya and Neelofar were abducted by Indian men in uniform on May 29 in 2009, gang-raped and subsequently killed in custody. »

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