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Kashmir shuts again, this time to combat the coronavirus

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“This year August came in March only,” said Abrar Ahmad Shah, a businessman who lives in Khanyar, in downtown Srinagar.

On Thursday, paramilitary forces unspooled concertina wiring across Srinagar’s streets once again and set up barricades to check the progress of cars and pedestrians. Restrictions were particularly severe in downtown Srinagar, the old part of the city. The last time Srinagar saw such restrictions was on August 5, as the Centre revoked special status for Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 and split the state into two Union Territories. But this is a very different kind of lockdown.

On March 18, the first case of Covid-19 was detected in the Kashmir Valley: a 65-year-old woman from Khayam in downtown Srinagar, who had returned from Saudi Arabia on March 16.

The next morning, Srinagar district magistrate Shahid Iqbal Choudhary tweeted: “Restriction imposed in #Srinagar city for containment of any likely spread of #Coronavirus. Medical teams are following SOP. There will be initial problems for a day or so. Adm will ensure effective services & supplies. Pl stay at home. Contact District Control Room for any help.”

Shah, whose home is about a kilometre away from Khayam, has seen much worse. “But today’s restrictions are nothing compared to what we saw in August,” he said. “In August, the military didn’t allow even a single soul to come out of his house. Today, there’s no restriction on the movement of civilians in ones and twos. There are barricades and concertina wires but that is just to prevent vehicles.”

The 2G factor

The August lockdown had not just involved physical restrictions but a complete communications blackout, with landlines, mobile connections, cable television and internet connections snapped. Seven months later, the Valley is still emerging from the blackout. Fixed line broadband connections have been restored but only slow speed internet is allowed on mobiles.

“At least this time we have 2G and phone services are working,” said Shah. “So, in a way, it’s a bit easier than in August. But I must say the overall economic impact will be similar because shops and business establishments are shut. My shop is shut, too, and I don’t know when I will be able to open it.”

In rural areas outside Srinagar, where broadband connections are more sparse, slow mobile internet speeds have become a source of frustration.

“Honestly speaking, if we are put under lockdown, the internet is the only way to save ourselves from boredom and to get help with the pandemic,” said Sheikh Yawar, who lives in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district and has a degree in computer applications. “For all the news about Covid-19 in Kashmir, we have to wait for the 7 pm news. I could very well have had instant updates about the pandemic in Kashmir on my phone in real time. You can’t even download a photo on 2G speed. How are we supposed to watch those informative videos about precautions from scientists across the globe? 2G internet is as good as useless.”

As the Valley shuts down to fight the virus, demands for the restoration of 4G mobile internet have grown. Residents felt easy access to information would help contain the spread of the virus. On March 19, Farooq Abdullah, member of Parliament from Srinagar, who was recently released after months of detention post August 5, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanding the restoration of 4G mobile internet in the Valley.

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A shikara is disinfected on Dal Lake in Srinagar

Raising defences

With Jammu recording three cases and neighbouring Ladakh reporting eight, the Valley had already been raising its defences. After the first case in the Valley was detected, the administration announced a slew of new restrictions on MArch 19.

In Srinagar, public transport and the entry of vehicles into the city were prohibited. In Ganderbal and Pulwama districts, too, the authorities suspended public transport till March 31, invoking the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005. The Banihal-Baramulla railway service, which travels the length of the Valley, was suspended till March 31. Section 144, prohibiting the assembly of five or more people, was imposed in South Kashmir’s Pulwama and Kulgam districts till March 31, 2020.

The prohibitory order had already been imposed on Shopian, Ganderbal, Budgam, Anantnag, Kupwara, Bandipora and Baramulla districts to stop the spread of the virus. While schools and colleges in the Valley had been shut for days, public places, bars, restaurants and clubs in the cities of Jammu and Srinagar were shut down on March 17.

On March 18, the Jammu and Kashmir administration had moved to control the flow of people from outside the Union Territory: inter-state bus services were suspended, foreign tourists were banned and flights from Leh were turned back and travellers from Ladakh quarantined.

Quarantines and searches

In an order issued on March 18, the district magistrate said: “Only those travellers can enter Srinagar who have undergone quarantine for the specified two-week period immediately before the intended date of travel and certified and cleared by the competent medical authority in Ladakh. Travellers from the region who will not have undergone quarantine in their region will have to undergo quarantine in Srinagar before being allowed to proceed to their desired destinations.”

Accordingly, 81 passengers from Leh were quarantined in Srinagar on Wednesday. Officials said 78 had been sent to a designated quarantine outside Srinagar on Thursday. Chaos broke out at the Srinagar airport on Thursday as a group of students from Bangladesh landed and protested against the quarantine. Parents waiting to receive them also protested, according to the police, adding that the students were later taken to designated quarantine facilities.

The administration has declared the spread of COVID-19 an epidemic, authorising health inspectors to enter any premises to look for people who may be infected. “Such persons are bound to cooperate and render all possible assistance to facilitate such surveillance, inspection, enquiry and examination,” said a notification issued by the Health and Medical Education Department on March 16.

The home department has also deputed 20 police officials – one in each district of Jammu and Kashmir – to assist health inspectors.