A host of leaders from Pakistan, including Imran Khan, have sought to project that the situation of Covid-19 in J&K is dire and that the lack of internet is preventing people from getting the latest information on the pandemic. As such, the international community should intervene.
In reality, the situation is dire in the portion of J&K illegally occupied by Pakistan — the so-called Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit Baltistan (GB).
Let’s start with broadband. Pakistan held a telecom spectrum auction in 2014 to introduce 3G and 4G technology in the country but excluded PoK/GB from it. Six years later, these areas still lack such services. A report in the Daily Times on April 27 said: ‘one can commiserate with the residents of AJK-GB who are still waiting to access something that has become a necessity. In this age of technology, AJK & GB is still deprived of basic internet 3G and 4G access.’ While there is no doubt that across the board broadband services will be restored in J&K, there is little hope of this happening in PoK/GB because they don’t even exist.
The first positive Covid case in Pakistan was detected on February 26 but the screening of samples began at a hospital in PoK only towards March-end. Even so, the single lab in the region in Muzaffarabad was able to conduct only 8-10 tests daily of those who reported to the health facility. There was no question of community testing. It is believed that the lack of testing accounts for the relatively low detection of positive cases.
Though the administration claimed that things were under control, the association of young doctors (YDA) and civil society activists have mocked official claims and accused the government of not tackling the situation seriously. In a press conference, they said no one was paying heed to the safety of doctors and paramedics who were most vulnerable in the prevailing situation. They had not been provided even with masks, let alone safety kits.
The PoK government, like that of Sindh, announced a three-week lockdown from March 23, going against Imran Khan’s decision not to declare a nationwide lockdown. However, despite the restrictions, the media reported that the ‘so-called prohibitions’ were being brazenly flouted right under the nose of the authorities in different parts of the state.
A month later, the PoK government allowed businesses to remain open from 8 am to 4 pm, and like in the case of Pakistan, also decided to permit prayers in mosques during Ramzan. Social distancing measures during such occasions were being flouted, which could potentially lead to a big spike in cases.
According to the World Food Programme, the situation of food security in AJK was grim due to avalanches earlier this year that led to a lot of food stocks being spoilt and people being stranded due to damaged roads. The pandemic and the lockdown has further aggravated the situation.
The scenario in GB was best revealed by CM Hafeezur Rehman when he admitted on March 27 that there was only one testing centre in the region, where merely 15 patients could be tested in 24 hours, and only nine ventilators were available.
GB had the highest number of coronavirus patients in the country proportionately. The surge in such cases was largely due to Pakistan sending over a 100 pilgrims, who had returned from Iran, without proper screening. According to The News, the number of confirmed cases in GB was roughly 30% of the total test sample, the highest in the region and foretelling an impending disaster.
On March 23, a young physician from Chilas, Osama Riaz, died of coronavirus, which he contracted while handling patients returning from Iran without protective equipment. Another medical staffer, Malik Ashtar, lost his life for the same reason. This led to the GB Chief Court taking notice on April 21 of the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPEs) for paramedics.
Even before the outbreak, the healthcare system in the region was grossly neglected. According to a 2015 study of the health sector in GB, ‘shortage of technical staff and lack of quality services is a key issue for the health department.’ It noted that there were 886 beds available in the region, with the bed-to-population ratio being 1:1354, much lower than the international standard. The doctor-population ratio was 1:4411, far less than the ratio in Punjab that was 1:2187. Due to the lack of proper facilities, patients had to undertake expensive travel to Pakistan for treatment. According to another report in 2017, written by a Skardu-based doctor, statistical evidence testified to the stark reality that healthcare in GB was in an appalling state.
At best, the hospitals in the area were post offices, referring the patients for treatment to hospitals in Pakistan.
The pandemic has exposed the true healthcare situation. They have seen through Pakistan’s game of talking about the pandemic situation in J&K to distract them from their own pathetic situation.
In an important move, India has indicated its abiding stake in PoK/GB, with the Indian Meteorological Department commencing to show temperatures of these areas as part of India. Hopefully, the day is not too far off when residents here will be able to enjoy the fruits of Indian democracy, development and better health facilities.
Views are personal