Downgrading Red Zone

At one point of time, Hajin belt was emerging as Coronavirus hotbed. Though the belt continues wearing the red zone status, the numbers have sharply fallen in the last three fortnights. Syed Shahnawaz Bukhari, one of the frontline officers in the counter-Covid-19 exercise in the belt told Masood Hussain how the system worked against the contagion

Medical staff in the field in Hajin, about to start the random sampling. KL Image Special Arrangement

Bandipora, one of the first and worst Covid-19 affected districts in Jammu and Kashmir has come off from near disaster zone to a situation where it has sustained the deceleration for a considerable time now. Of the 145 cases detected in the district, 132 have recovered leaving only 12 active cases in the hospitals. The belt, however, witnessed the unfortunate death of a 54-year-old man from Dangerpora Gundjahangeer.

Ninety per cent of these cases were detected in the initial first month and rest of the cases, mostly travellers, came up in the last 40-odd days. The area witnessed 5700 individuals being tested for the Coronavirus including around 800 women.

Given the compulsive gradual easing of even otherwise unsustainable lockdown restrictions, no one can predict how the contagion will impact societies in coming days. Right now, we are beset with a new challenge as more and more travellers are coming in. We may have more cases.

Initial cases were reported on March 24, from Hajin tehsil. This led the administration to act swiftly. Responses to the pandemics can never be perfectly effective, but the agile‐adaptive approach with a high degree of transparency, adequate inter-sectorial cooperation and coordination among different government departments, competency of health officials and peoples’ voluntary cooperation were critical factors in halting the virus spread and provide helpful lessons about the containment efforts. The administration did not lose any time in shifting from a soft and reactive approach to a hard and more aggressive approach by belligerent contact tracing, forcing mass quarantines, increased testing and enforcing strict lockdown while continuously putting emphasis on the peoples’ voluntary cooperation. It also perfectly harnessed the role of religious institutions and community leaders to inform, educate, and change the behaviour of people. Commoners are by and large responsive to convincing communications.

Authorities lacked hotels and other housing infrastructure in Hajin. An image showing the state of an administrative quarantine centre that is originally a stadium. KL Image Special Arrangement

The doctors and paramedical staff have been successfully fighting this war with a known unknown and infinitely destructive enemy. Ignoring the life risks involved, the health care workers worked round the clock. I haven’t literally known a day when I saw their officers at the district or the tehsil level along with their medical officers away, either from their offices or the field. Ambulance drivers who accompanied the staff ferried active patients to testing facilities and technicians responsible for taking the samples of suspects did an impressive job, never said No.

Many other supporting departments came up with a matching effort and support, in terms of providing essential supplies to people amid a strict lockdown. Not known to the people, the officials from the revenue department were always on the forefront and a guiding force for all of us. The Deputy Commissioner, who has now moved to another district, was proactive and gave an exemplary leadership.

Nearly 100 cases were reported from Hajin tehsil with a population of around 100 thousand people. Almost half of the population lives below the poverty line and a large population dependent on the informal sector. The pandemic has brought their life to a grinding halt and destroyed their livelihoods. With that economic background and the literacy rate of just 48 per cent, the voluntary “stay home stay safe” or “break the chain” advisory is ineffective at such places. The habitations in this rural setting are such that two or more families can potentially mingle even when the administration makes its best efforts to ensure social distancing. Thus, the challenges were bigger and manifold.

Tracing the contacts of Covid-19 cases and putting them in institutional quarantine was challenging. The teams involved in this process were on many occasions treated with contempt and met resistance. Going in quarantine meant leaving their livestock and other precious family belongings behind. Their bond is not only economic but also predominantly emotional and that was key to the resistance.

In one village the families of few Covid-19 patients locked the doors from inside their homes and our doctors and officers had to stay up almost for the whole night to ensure they are shifted out to administrative quarantine. At times, stones were pelted at the police teams.

Tracing and moving the contacts of the suspected Covid-19 cases was and continues to be one of the most unpleasant operations of the counter-Covid process. In this photograph, a family is being shifted out of their home somewhere in Hajin during the night. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

In another case, as we lifted the family members for quarantine, burglars tried to barge in their home on the very first night. So the poor people had their own genuine insecurities. We may dismiss it but the fact is the disease has its own stigma associated with it. No one is ready to accept it and dealt with it the way we may preach or like.

At times it is a personal emotional ordeal to be the witness to the ground zero happenings. Soon after the dead body was buried in the only death case in the district, I had to instantly pick up the family members for testing and for institutional quarantine, in that moment of extreme grief. It was an extremely difficult moment. The very next morning one of his relative families came and inhabited that house to take care of the belongings and livestock. As a compulsive requirement, I had to be ruthless and pick them up as well. Instances like these were painful but there was no second option – the chain had to be broken.

Health officials taking swabs from one suspect. Officials said aggressive testing was key to the battle against the pandemic.

Nearly 90 per cent of the cases in Hajin came from three villages – Dangerpora in GundJahangeer, Shalpora in Naidkhai and Bonpora in SK Bala, apart from the sporadic cases form other places. We had 50 cases from Dangerpora having a population of around 450; there were 20 cases from Shalpora in a population of around 650. So our earnest endeavour was to test as many cases from these hotspots as possible and we eventually succeeded in testing the entire population of these two villages and nearly the whole population of Banpora in SK Bala.

We resorted to random sampling in reasonably good numbers from all other places. We tested health officials, municipal worker, police personnel and private drivers whom we had hired for different duties. As per the guidelines, we are in the process of testing all pregnant ladies and all the shopkeepers that gave us a perfect random sample. In all, we have tested more than 3000 people from Hajin tehsil so far that makes it almost 3 per cent of the entire tehsil population.

It was not easy. In the beginning, we had to face rude and wild allegations. At some places, people alleged doctors are taking money from the government as commission for every test. Some others started believing that Covid-19 testing is a government ploy to deprive people of their reproductive vitality. We had to apply different tactics to encourage people to come forward and participate. Ultimately they cooperated and the credit for the change goes to them. Local volunteers played a vital role in motivating people.

As far as possible, adequate essential supplies are made available to the people at their doorstep to avoid their travel and congregation at market places and people showed extreme patience. The Police, officials from Food and Consumer Affairs, Rural Development, Education and Animal Husbandry departments, Banks and municipal workers, everyone played their role very well. We realize that people had to face many difficulties in the past two months and may continue to face such difficulties for some more time, but without that, we would not have been where we are today.

The administration is trying its best to reach every family, yet I received many distress calls from people who have heart-wrenching situations to narrate. Covid-19 is not only about human beings and their rations, in most of the cases, but we also had to make arrangements for the feed and fodder for their livestock as well.

Counter Covid-19 officials in the main Hajin Market. At the peak of the reporting of new cases, this was a routine in the Hajin belt. KL Image Special Arrangement

But the risks that the crisis threw up, showed up as well. Some employees on duty, at times, tried to escape from their responsibilities, fearing they may contract the infection. Even medicos at times hesitated to indulge in any kind of activity that required proximity with their colleagues dealing the Covid-19 suspects. I saw few insensitive doctors treating their fellow staff like untouchables and treating patients indifferently from an inaudible distance in the OPD. At times when a situation demands a coercive approach, we in the administration usually rely on the police force. It so happened at times that even police on the spot had unexpressed hesitation in dealing with the situation. Such things made the job extremely difficult at times.

At a personal level, I see all these instances as the basic human response to the pandemic. But all these instances were quite a few. Had everybody behaved like them, we might not have reached where we are today.

One thing that I have not talked about is that Bandipore is not Srinagar. Unlike Srinagar, quite a few non-governmental organisations have reached Bandipora.

Bandipore may also claim to have some beautiful spots within and outside the Wullar lake but it lacks the huge hotels and other infrastructure. We had to convert schools and stadia into quarantine centres. Obviously these places aren’t basically meant for the stay of people. Though we tried to upgrade the facilities up to the optimum levels in minimum time, yet many a time the people in quarantine centres were not happy as they still faced some difficulties.

A Leading Lady

Credit goes to the people, who mostly exhibited patience. One boy also attempted suicide in distress, as he wanted to go home form the quarantine centre at an earliest.

Some even resorted to mud-slinging alleging that officers have to draw fat bills for putting people quarantine. There were few instances of protest and hunger strike, too. Honestly, we got complaints about the quality of food served in quarantine centres. To a large extent, these allegations were not untrue. To be honest, it was very difficult to arrange food for the people quarantined because vendors were unwilling to do the job. We had to literally coerce them to do so.

Syed Shahnawaz Bukhari led the counter-Covid-19 team, in Hajin belt.

Religious leaders of all shades readily extended their good offices and support. They urged people to self-isolate and abandon congregations of all types. There were isolated cases of defiance and denial as well. Interestingly, while they disagree about the impact of the virus, they did find a common ground on the importance of fundraising to help the poor and needy. Local volunteers and charity activists were hugely helpful in managing part of the hunger.

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