With six of its staffers down with Covid-19 infection, the newsroom has been closed for a week now. Masood Hussain narrates how while covering it, the dreaded virus caught up with the Kashmir Life team. The contagion brooks no complacency is the moral of the story
Circa 2020. After being shut for months, surviving as they were on dollops of vanilla journalism, newsrooms were getting back to what they ought to be; buzzing with activity. The newspapers were trying to revive, retrieve, and reconnect with the realities on the ground. The communication blockade had taken a toll not only on the readers – they were denied off their daily dose of news – but the journalists as well. The reporters had relocated, gone cold on their beat as their professional bread and butter has become a scarce commodity. The managements faced falling revenues resulting in holding back, cutting salaries to laying off people. The squeeze on journalists’ lives and livelihood was pincer-like.
Then came a ray of hope to revive the craft. Early 2020, Shams Irfan, a veteran in the newsroom, exhibited sixth sense to predict that Trump’s “China virus” would bring doom and result in the possible new world order. The newsroom would listen in disbelief to the possible ravages of something that is hardly visible. Many thought it to be industrial creation and a bio-war tool. But given the way Kashmir had been during that period, the story unfolding in the far way China, however, was too remote for the journalists caught in a tightrope walk between Khanyar and Khanabal.
Little did we realize that the world is now a global village. Even if you avoid events and trends, they will come to you on their own. That is exactly what happened by the third week of January when Delhi started flying home its students from China. Lo and behold, there were almost sixty-odd Kashmiri students who were studying in Wuhan itself. They had flown to the ITBP quarantine centre in Delhi.
The virus reached the valley faster than any of us had anticipated and pushed the newsroom to go for the first story on, what eventually became the twenty-first century’s first pandemic.
A Greenhorn, A New Virus
For me, the issue was who will bell the cat?
Barely a few weeks back, a young mass communication graduate had landed in our newsroom. Armed with a degree in journalism and a good attitude, he was as new to the newsroom, as the virus was to the valley. He volunteered to give the story a shot and in the process satisfy himself that the classroom had equipped him for a newsroom. Khalid Bashir Gura did not mince words about not being enamoured, let alone excited about pursuing journalism as his career.
My instinct led me to believe that Gura would be the perfect historiographer of the virus in the Kashmir context. Viruses are supposed to be intelligent and so are greenhorns in journalism. Ever so diligently, Gura did a detailed copy on the return of the first flock of Kashmiri students from Wuhan.
The situation changed quite fast. Iran was the second country that started reporting enormous Covid-19 casualties. Kashmir has remained linked with Iran for centuries to the extent that Kashmir in Persian literature is being referred to as Iran-e-Sageer, little Iran. Though these historic relations have weakened with the emergence of nation-states and the emergence of new political boundaries, the blood relations remain, strong and firm. As the moment for evacuation of Kashmiri students and pilgrims became a major issue in Kashmir and Kargil. Iran’s crisis was complicated by the sanctions and it was another major worry for a few thousand families who had their members stuck up there.
Gura followed up his maiden foray with a series of news stories on the issue for the Kashmir Life website. But the long-form magazine needed an exhaustive in-depth report. I asked Raashid Maqbool to work on it overnight by talking to people in Iran and file a copy. An earlier Kashmir Life journalist, he was busy with his PhD but he managed to do a good copy that gave a strong foundation for subsequent follow-ups. By the time, the pilgrims flew home, many had perished in Qum.
Stung by this trespassing on his newly established territory, Gura fired on all cylinders by filing a revealing report, the first of its kind, on how ill-prepared Jammu and Kashmir was for a crisis like the Covid-19. A week ahead of the detection of the first case, he visited the hospitals, met the health workers, and came with a gloomy report that even masks are not in stocks or the PPEs. He found the lax systems of scrutiny in place.
By now, the tiger has tasted blood! One morning, a palpably excited Gura came to the newsroom and went out of his way to shake hands with the seniors and even hugged a couple of interns. The reason: an exclusive interaction with a Kashmiri student who flew all the way from Italy to Srinagar and dodged the scan at the Srinagar airport to reach home!
Like the rats of a sinking ship, everybody wanted to jump out only to find that the ship was in the middle of an ocean. Nothing happened. A good story by Gura was followed by a hiatus when he found his taste buds behaving strangely and the nose bluntly insisting to stay neutral while making a sense between the scents of wazwaan and the stench of Brari Nambal lagoon. A week later, he was back on his desk.
A Historic Context
A shoot and scoot coverage is not in the DNA of Kashmir Life, a serious news magazine. It is our style to provide a context to any development; historical and textual. The pandemic triggered by a virus, as it was unique had precedents in the past in Kashmir. As researchers were traced and the history books were re-viewed, the newsroom was pushed to the bygone days when human life actually did not matter. Déjà vu! Kashmir has been the epicentre of an epidemic that never went away in the nineteenth century. It followed a pattern – the crisis started with the arrival of durbar and started exhibiting a slow pace only when the Maharaja’s extortionist forces would leave for Jammu.
There were so many epidemics of cholera, smallpox, and plague that when the Spanish Flu pandemic visited Kashmir and Jammu, nobody even recognised it as a grave tragedy that it was seen globally. For Kashmir Life, it was the toughest job to create an authentic narrative of the pandemic that devastated Kashmir 101 years before the Coronavirus started its world tour in 2020. This exercise helped us dust some of the finest research on the subject to the extent that it shocked a few of them when we located them for comments on their works. It yielded a key finding that major killers like epidemics and pandemics have travelled into Kashmir and were indirectly facilitated by a disconnected governance structure and an ignorant clergy.
One News, One World
As the virus emerged as the key disruptive character across the world, it was perhaps for the first time in history that the focus of the news content across the world was the same. Deconstruction of the viruses’ genome was as good a news item for The New York Times as it was for Kashmir Life. Understanding the virus and its key characteristics remained at the core of the initial narrative in the east and the west. With the infections spreading fast and the doctors claiming their inability in downloading data-rich key files on protocol and treatment – owing to the continued communication gag, it became the media’s additional responsibility to pick bits of information from influential world media in the UK, USA, and other places and put them in print.
In the immediate follow-up, there were three clear tracks of covering the once-in-lifetime event – the state and status of infrastructure deficit; impact on different facets of life and the system of governance, and counter-Covid-19 management. Then, there were individuals and groups who contributed to all these efforts. Shams did a detailed report on Kashmir’s readiness to manage the pandemic. The focus remained on the basics like the beds, equipment, masks, PPEs, and other things. He then did a copy about how the pandemic is impacting the security situation.
A New Crisis
The first case of Covid-19, an Umrah return lady, was reported on March 18, 2020. The first death of Covid-19 was reported on March 26, 2020, when the so-called Case No 5, died. A moneyed man from an established business family from Sopore, he had dedicated himself to the work of faith and had contracted the infection during his Delhi visit.
The first death exhibited the fault lines that Delhi media has created by a highly biased reportage envisaging holding the Tablighi meeting responsible for the onset of the Covid-19 in India. This had an impact in Kashmir and it led to the ostracisation of the patients and their families. The drastic drives by the government also contribute because the authorities would forcibly take entire families to quarantine centres and it had created a serious social issue. There were instances in which locals would come out in protest against setting up these centres fearing that the quarantine centres will spread the infection.
Saima Bhat, a senior editor at Kashmir Life took the challenge on herself and did a series of narratives about how families are being ostracised and the costs involved in it. Quickly, she visited a number of quarantine centres to understand what life looks like in these hotels and well-guarded enclosures and how hospitals are unable to manage treatable diseases. Shams even did a longish copy about how the virus is thriving in these centres.
From Military to Carona via Civil Curfew
As the Government of India decided on a lockdown, life froze. Most of the reporting staff would work from home but a skeletal staff would always work from the office. Working and meeting virtually was a new thing, fun but problematic. Those reporting to the office daily included Tahir Bhat, the online editor, and Bilal Bahadur, the chief photographer. In Kashmir, the perception in the Kashmir Life newsroom is that it would require a major debate to decide whether the virus visited most places of Kashmir or Bilal Bahadur. Always on the move, Bahadur got a bag full of plastic overalls and would spend his days covering the health workers, Covid-19 funerals, businesses smashed by the lockdown, and the state of the hospital and the patients. He was one of the first to record a conversation with Dr Navid Nazir in Chest Disease Hospital on March 4, 2020.
Bahadur did some daring motion picture stories that were vital in addressing the lopsided thought process at ground zero. These included a tailor giving up his routine work and exclusively becoming a PPE tailor. Then he did a short film about an ambulance driver who was the only person driving the Covid-19 patients in Srinagar and later driving and laying to rest the people dying of the deadly disease. Bahadur spent days with him covering his daily routine and eventually visited his home. The authorities awarded the driver, later. Eventually, with Syed Samreen, they traced a young man in a city locality who would get into the burial of Covid-19 patients and then get into self-quarantine.
Almost chasing the coffin carrier ambulance, Bahadur moved from district to district and recorded the diminished funerals that required a lot of fumigation of the space, coffin, and attire. He recorded the use of mechanical earth-removers in digging the graves and, at one place, the locality refusing the dead a space in the ancestral graveyard forcing the family to bury the dead man in his apple orchard.
Getting People Back
As the globe went into lockdown, the process of getting the citizens back started at all levels. Kashmir had multiple problems as a huge section of the young population was out of Kashmir. As the government started seeking details of the people requiring an airlift home, Kashmir figured in the requests from almost every country on earth. They were either student pursuing education or traders. Within India, there were no states where Kashmiri were not present, seeking a lift home. Within Kashmir, there were two types of problems – the labour force from Jammu was stuck, and so were tens of thousands of workers from Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, Punjab, and other states. People from Chenab Valley and Pir Panchal region left on foot and created history by reaching home with the least loss of life. However, the workers from other states – unlike Delhi and Mumbai, were stopped here by society and properly fed till a situation emerged and they returned home.
Reporting this movement on daily basis was a serious crisis. In the idle of the night, a call from Jharkhand would come pleading that they are hungry and nobody is taking care of them. Or the Kashmiris living in Dubai would assert that they had arranged their own charters but the Government of India was not permitting them to fly the aircraft to Srinagar.
Understanding The Virus
Given the fact that the medical fraternity is at the core of the Covid-19 management, liaising with top professionals and their hospitals is a key news resource world over. The newsroom had to repeatedly meet them and mostly in person – first to record interviews about what the virus was all about and how to manage it; then some of the senior doctors contracted the disease and the newsroom had to chase them for days to share their first-hand experiences with our readers.
It was in this hunt for the top experts that Saima Bhat could locate Dr Ali Khan, a Kashmir origin American expert who has been at the forefront of the battle against the viruses as a key decision-maker at the American Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. His interview took its own time and was published along with excerpts from his famous book on viruses. We chased every new development that happened in the process of managing the epidemic including the vaccine.
Over the years, readers know that the media has completely changed. Earlier, the readers would be happy with the newspaper that would give them a round-up of the happenings of the last 24 hours. Now they need instant information about the developing stories. The massive consumption of video is changing the way Kashmir is staying up-to-date. The news photographers who are associated with social media operations are always in danger of contracting the disease. Some actually did contract and survived.
At the peak of lockdown, our video editor was caught in a lockdown, almost 70 km away. It was Aijaz Ganai, who would edit the data from Mumbai and Delhi till he trained Tahir Bhat as his assistant by lecturing him on phone about how to edit a video.
At the peak of the 2020 covid-19 crisis, when the Director SKIMS, Dr A G Ahanger finally agreed to sit for an interview with me, it was interesting. He had to talk a lot and respond to the criticism that was around. We keep waiting till we noticed that one of his aides on our right and another on our left were coughing. It was scary. Nothing happened. Two days later, both of them tested positive. We reported the news and exhibited that strange face of disbelief and dread. A week later, the senior doctor who had facilitated the interview also reported positive. Somehow, the contagion spared us.
Locating The Requirements
One of the major exercises at the peak of lockdown 2020 was to identify the deficits at the infrastructure level and then see the possibility of managing them locally. At that point in time, accessing material from outside Jammu and Kashmir was problematic as the air travel was jammed.
The first hunt of the newsroom was about the facemasks. After a few days’ hunt, a unit was located with the help of the then Director of Industries, Mahmood Ahmad. The unit was profiled so that people know that this particular facility is available within the reach.
There was no cure and there is no cure to Covid-19. In emergencies, the only option is industrial oxygen. Again, a detailed narrative was generated and while doing so, the state of oxygen plants of the major hospitals was initiated. It was much later that the government decided to invest in a number of oxygen plants in the peripheral hospitals, an initiative that is yet to be accomplished.
At the outset, the medical professionals were loudly talking lacking a range of things. This led the local innovators to get into work and offer alternatives that could be managed locally. Almost two dozen items were innovated by the local entrepreneurs and innovators. These included a range of oxygen concentrators and ventilators. These prototypes were not perfect but required fine-tuning and industrial manufacture – something that nobody is interested in.
One of the key components of our coverage was the impact that the pandemic lockdown is having on different facets of life. Apart from education, trade, and other basics, we had dedicated staff to work on the vulnerable sections of society. In this narrative, the focus remained on a set of social groups who have been working overtime to manage these vulnerable sections at a time when incomes evaporated away because of the harsh lockdown. Despite all those tensions, nobody in Kashmir died of hunger.
Three months later as the unlocking started, Covid-19 moved out of focus. By then, the curve had significantly flattened especially in Kashmir where counter-Covid efforts were also aimed at managing possible street tensions. Though in between there were copies of the pandemic, nobody took it seriously. Doctors and experts continued telling us that a second wave is on its way but nobody gave it any attention.
It was Friday – the first of the Ramzan 2021 when Kashmir Life online editor, Tahir Bhat flew from Delhi. He had a quick nasal test at the airport and tested negative. We broke the fast together. Monday morning, I was the first to test positive, followed by Tahir, Fayaz, and Malik Kaisar. An intern, Saifullah Bashir tested positive almost a week later. So did Nida, another intern. Right now, we have families of three staffers involved as Tahir Bhat continues to be on oxygen support in Kupwara. All others turned out to be negative. The office was closed for a week and now those certified as negative are back to the routine. The infection has made us live the crisis that we have been reporting for the last 13 months.
Still, we were fortunate enough that we were impacted at a time when the protocols were not forcing the contacts to stay in jail like quarantines and that patients were not whisked to hospitals. There is no ostracisation and the only strength that helps us fight the contagion is the encouraging get-well-soon calls that people make to us round the clock. This shall also pass.
(Note: When this report went to print, we had four staffers infected. By now, it is six including two interns. At least one of our staffers is on Oxygen. We seek your prayers.)