Get Masks Please

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Coronavirus is making deeper inroads but Kashmir is woefully short of essential medical supplies, reports Umar Mukhtar

Masked: Earlier a hooded person was a suspect but the arrival of the Coronavirus has changed the situation as security men feel safe getting close to masked people., a photograph from a Srinagar road on March 19, 2020. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

When the news of first positive Covid-19 case in Kashmir broke, Waseem Parvez, 27, left for the market to get some masks and hand sanitizers. To his surprise, every medical store denied the availability of these essential commodities. Without further delay, he headed to the district hospital Pulwama.

“There are almost 20 medical shops around the hospital, so I thought at least I will get the mask there,” Waseem said. But he met the same response: “Kehin chunne (we have none)”.

The non-availability of the masks and hand sanitizers turned Parvez to his friend who owns a medical store for help. To his utter disbelief, he got the same answer from him too. “I had been listening to the government advisories daily to use hand sanitizers and masks but there are none in the market.”

Like Parvez, there are many others who want to follow the instructions from the medical experts, to ensure the safety of their lives and of others, but they find the essential medical supplies are woefully short.

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Aqib Ahmad, 22, a resident of Nagbal village of Anantnag district is finding it difficult to get a single mask and a bottle of sanitizer for his ailing father.  “I went to nearby areas, to all medical stores but everyone says no to me.”

Ahmad has no idea why he cannot find a single mask in times when they are most needed. When Ahmad asked one of the medical store owners, the cause of the shortage, he got the same reply, “supply shortage.”

There is only one medical store in  Nagbal area. The shop caters to a population of 1500 households. Ashaq Hussain Mir, the chemist there said that prior to this crisis, he had 30 masks in store. But when there was a shortage of masks and sanitizers because of the hoarding by some people, Mir distributed them for free among the locals.

Mir drove me 13 km to Anantnag town to buy masks and sanitizers but had to return empty-handed. If there were any, they were available at very high rates.

“Population of hundreds rely on me. They have access to my medical shop only in our area. Every day people come to me and ask for masks and sanitizers but I have nothing to give them.”

Apart from the masks and sanitizers, Mir says that there are some particular drugs that that are very scarce in the market right now. “Azithromycin, levocetirizine, and Montelukast,” are some drugs that Mir says are short in the market.

Though Mir had a tough time to cater to the needs of the people in his area, he had kept a fair portion of medicines catering to respiratory ailments.

“These are the testing times; we should stand firm and God willing everything would be ok sooner or later.”

The question arises if masks were available earlier, though, on high prices in bulk, then where are they now?

The pharmacists who wanted to keep the supply of the essential commodities for the people available are caught between the devil and the deep sea.

As the coronavirus made inroads into India, it triggered hoarding of the essentials. The masks sold at very high prices.  The government invoked the epidemic and disaster management Act with an aim to cap the prices. But on the ground, the situation seems quite the opposite.

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Mujtaba, a chemist in the Newa area of Pulwama said that he had a stock of 200 masks prior to the declaration of the first case. A mask used to cost around Rs 5. “We used to get a mask for around Rs 3 from the wholesaler and sold that for Rs 5. But now the same mask costs the chemist around Rs 17″.

“I simply do not want to get into unnecessary trouble. If I get the stock on such high rates, I have to sell it at a higher rate. So, it is better to not sell such an item that will make me liable for any breach of law.”

Mujtaba explains that the same is true with the hand sanitizers. Mujtaba is of the opinion that rather than hounding chemists, authorities should address the problem. “The wholesale dealers have hoarded the things and are selling them at high rates. The masks that Kashmir needs, given its susceptibility to contagious diseases especially flu, are missing in such time. It is no way a good sign.”

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