A Covid Spring

A year later when the economic forces are fighting to undo the impact Kashmir took in the last two years, the contagion is ferociously back. How should the society and the government respond, Riyaz Wani writes

This cartoon by Rafia Rasool was viral on social media today, April 5, 2021.

Beginning April 3, Jammu and Kashmir administration is holding a 5- day tulip festival to attract tourists. A host of activities, including cultural shows and musical evenings, are being held. Several national-level and local artists including Mumbai-based Kashmiri singer Vibha Saraf will perform during the festival. So will Badshah, a rapper, who has charged the Jammu and Kashmir government almost Rs 30 lakhs for the show. The sound systems are being driven from Punjab to suit the event.

The festival is likely to draw thousands of more visitors at a time when the third wave of Covid-19 has set in and the daily tally in Kashmir has gone past 300. Earlier the administration held a music concert at Badamvaeri. After the tulip garden opened on March 25, over 50,000 people have visited in the first five days.

At one level it is good. The arrival of more tourists and also the internal movement of people help Kashmir economy. Already around 85,000 domestic tourists have visited Kashmir this year so far including about 17000 in January, 26000 in February and 42000 in March. The numbers are expected to rise in the months to come. But the surging third wave of Covid-19, if not reigned in, can kill yet another tourist season and further batter Kashmir’s economy.

But as the tulip festival shows, Jammu and Kashmir seems to be least bothered about the rising Covid cases. It is taking fewer measures to enforce a Standard Operating Procedure in public life, as the tulip festival and the earlier Badamvaeri concert underlines.

 A Battered Economy

On a positive note, nobody is talking of lockdown and rightly so. The lockdowns have devastated India’s economy, shrinking it by a whopping 24 per cent in the second quarter of 2020. Kashmir economy suffered much more.  According to an estimate by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), the Valley’s economy suffered a loss of more than Rs 18000 crore during the seven month-long post Article 370 lockdown. Similarly, according to Kashmir Trade Alliance, the Valley lost Rs 8416.2 crore during the first two months of the Covid19 lockdown beginning April 2020. The loss has since only piled up. Apart from the large-scale Covid disruption, the harsh winter of 2020-21 has been no less detrimental to businesses.

Lal Chowk, the heart of Srinagar on July 13, 2020, when the second phase of lockdown started for containing the Covid-19. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Other sectors too have been hit hard over the past nineteen months. Tourism, one of the key contributors to the local economy also came to a standstill hitting the hotel industry, travel operators and handicrafts sector hard– that is, before picking up again over the last several months. The fledgeling IT industry and the start-ups are only now trying to resume their operations. In spite of all this, an increased GST collection suggests the economic forces are successfully fighting the disruptions.

 A Lockdown?

 In such a situation, resorting to more lockdowns is suicidal. It is tantamount to deliberately pauperizing the people. More so, when there’s now a big question mark over the beneficial outcome of such a draconian measure. Or if at all the lockdown had any salutary impact, its returns are diminishing by the day. Moreover, the lockdown was only effective to break the chain of infection. This is no longer the case. The community transmission of Covid-19 has long set-in so the contagion has long outgrown the utility of a lockdown to address it.

So what should the government be doing instead?  Many things, other than an easy recourse to lockdown. For one, there’s an urgent need to enforce safety precautions in order to contain the pandemic. And to start with, there has to be an aggressive campaign to enforce the use of masks. More alarmingly, the masks are conspicuously absent from the faces of most of the people walking on the streets or those of the passengers using public transport. And none of these violators is taken to task.

CRPF personnel stand guard on the deserted business street in Maisuma locality of Srinagar, on Saturday, August 1, 2020. Authorities ordered the closure of all major religious places, including mosques and shrines in Kashmir, to contain the spread of Coronavirus. Kashmir has extended lockdown until August 5, 2020. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

This is strange. Since last year, the government has been ready to lock everything down at the drop of a hat, but it has shirked from implementing the law when it comes to forcing people to observe precautions during the unlock period.

 The administration needs to urgently work on two fronts: one, run an earnest awareness campaign alerting people to the deadliness of Coronavirus and the urgency of observing safety precautions. Second, take strict action against the people who go out without masks or participate in large gatherings. These are the only pragmatic and hopefully helpful tools to tackle the contagion. That too, with the least damage to the economy.

 Joint Effort

 We also need to involve the community in the effort, including youth, mohalla heads and most importantly religious preachers who will be tasked to exhort people to observe safety guidelines in their respective areas. This should have been done much earlier. 

 In Kashmir over the past year, the administration has so obsessively regulated and dictated the public lives of people that the latter have almost forgotten to mind them on their own. This is starkly reflected in the way the fight against Coronavirus has been carried out. The administration has taken to control the situation in a way that is no different from the security management of the situation arising out of the repeal of Article 370. This has denied people a sense of agency to act in their own interest.

The issues that the villagers raised in the first edition of B2V were repeated by people in B2V3. This picture is from B2V1.

This partly explains the indifference to Covid-19 safety protocols among people as they see controlling of the runaway contagion as the exclusive remit of the administration.  This should force the government to introspect. It is not when it takes each and every decision on behalf of the people and inflicts sweeping lockdowns as it did in 2020 but when it makes them a stakeholder in these decisions. An effective fight against Covid-19 needs the administration and the public to work in tandem not the former trying to do it through thoughtless government decrees that achieve little more than throwing the lives of people upside down.

 A Must For Administration

And to so, the administration has to lead by example. It has to ban the official functions and also the cultural events like tulip festival. Similarly, there shouldn’t be any permission to hold political rallies. Masks have to be mandatory for the government functionaries and employees. Schools have to be closed to check further spread of the contagion or else there has to be strict enforcement of the SOP, something that is easier said than done. In the recent past, many schools have witnessed the outbreak of infection leading to their closure.

Artists performing during the Tulip Festival held in Tulip garden on the foothills of Zabarvan in Srinagar on Sunday, April 4, 2021. Pic: DIPR

That said, it is only after the government has enforced discipline on itself that it can preach to the people to do the same. Unless the administration does this, it will have no right to ask people not to attend religious gatherings or bar them from going to mosques, temples or gurdwaras.   More so, in view of the upcoming fasting month, a special period of piety among Muslims.

The people have to exercise caution. For all the powers, means and resources that a modern government commands, it cannot be ubiquitous and control our public behaviour individually. So, common people have to act responsibly. Already the number of Covid-19 positive cases in Kashmir is on rising, with deaths also picking up recently. Jammu and Kashmir is now conspicuous in terms of the number of cases among all states and union territories in India.  This does make it one among the significantly infected regions. Also, the number of cases has shown a marked rise over the past fortnight, with an average daily figure on some days going past 300. However, on a positive note, the number of recovered patients has also grown. Also, unlike the last year, we have now a vaccine. Millions of people, most of them comprising the frontline and vulnerable demographic groups have already received the shot. 

Kashmir is looking forward to a post-Coronavirus period with some hope and scepticism. The region has been through a long period of disruption. We can only hope that the world is able to get a handle on this deadly virus and get back to a normal life. But meanwhile, it is time for us to cautiously get back to work.

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