After the first of the 43 Umrah pilgrims tested positive, panicky health officials drove 11 of them to a 2-room PHC for fortnight-long quarantine. Now, five of them have tested positive, reports Shams Irfan
After a hectic two day’s journey from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to Kashmir via Kochi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi and Chandigarh, when the batch of 43 pilgrims finally landed in Srinagar, all they could see was home.
They didn’t care much when they were allowed to walk out of the airport without any screening. It was March 16.
Within an hour of their arrival, they were on their way to their respective homes in Kashmir. Eleven of them went to south Kashmir’s Shopian. As they reached home, they were welcomed by their loved ones and neighbours. The next twenty-four hours they spent surrounded by visitors, who came to congratulate them on successfully completing the Umrah.
Two days after their arrival, on March 18, an elderly lady from Khanyar, who part of the group tested positive for deadly Covid-19 virus. She developed symptoms immediately after her arrival in Srinagar. This set in motion a painful ordeal for people who were part of her group, especially those living in Shopian.
“Same night, we got a call from our local hospital asking us to isolate ourselves at home,” recalls Sajid (name changed), the youngest one among 43 member Umrah group.
Next day health officials from Shopian hospital came to Sajid’s house, screened him for symptoms, and when they found none, gave him guidelines to self-quarantine at home. The same was done with the rest of the ten people who were part of the Umrah group.
“They told me to stay away from my other family members and use a separate washroom,” said Sajid.
But later in the day, the health officials visited him again, and this time asked him to come along with them.
Sajad was taken to Public Health Centre (PHC), Tukroo, located on Shopian outskirts, where other ten people from the Umrah group were already assembled. They were immediately put under quarantine as a precautionary measure.
“This is where things got messed up,” alleges Sajid.
With just two small rooms available in PHC Tukroo, Sajid and others were divided into two groups: three couples in one group and five single males in another.
While Sajid shared his room with other four others, his father-in-law and mother-in-law, were in the next room with other two elderly couples.
Such a congested arrangement made them nervous, as they feared they might catch the virus from one another.
“We told health officials that this is not the right way to quarantine, but nobody listened,” said Sajid. “Even if we wanted, there was no way to keep some distance from each other.”
On day-six of their quarantine, Sajid’s room partner, an elderly man from Sindhoo-Shirmal, complained of high blood pressure and uneasiness at night. He was immediately taken to Shopian hospital for check-up, and later referred to SMHS hospital in Srinagar. “The next morning he was brought back and put in our room again,” said Sajid.
A day later, he fell ill again and was taken to Shopian. After spending a few hours there he was sent back to PHC Tukroo. “But his condition was not good,” said Sajid.
Once back, Sajid helped the elderly man with his medicines and dinner. “I took good care of him as he was really old and frail,” said Sajid. “Besides, we were together since we left for Umrah in late February. So a bond of sorts was developed.”
The next morning, the elderly man from Sindoo Shirmal once again started complaining of uneasiness. “Ideally he should have been isolated in the first go,” said Sajid. “But health officials looking after us were confused and lacked coordination. They were totally blank when faced with crisis.”
Finally on March 30, after staying in quarantine at PHC for eleven days, the group was allowed to go home.
“Thankfully everyone was doing well including the elderly person,” said Sajid. “We were happy to be home.”
But the happiness didn’t last long. A day later, on March 31, the test result of the elderly man from Sindoo Shirmal came and he had tested positive for Coronavirus.
This shattered everyone who was put with him in PHC Tukroo. For the first time since their arrival in Srinagar, the group felt really scared.
“I was literally shaking with fear. And why not, we were in the same room for eleven days,” said Sajid.
The same evening all ten got a call from health officials in Shopian, who asked them to isolate themselves at home.
The night was the longest and scariest for Sajid.
The next one day Sajid spent inside his house without letting anyone come near him. But he is not sure if everyone else did the same.
“Ideally we should have been isolated the moment elderly man’s test came positive. But they (officials) still waited for one day,” said Sajid. “What I have learned so far is that every minute is crucial in this fight.”
Finally, on April 2, Sajid and remaining nine pilgrims were taken for second quarantine.
This time they were kept in a better facility; at a holiday resort located near Heerpura village on Mughal Road.
Here they were kept in five rooms: four rooms for couples and one for Sajid and other person. “It is far better than what we have been through at Tukroo,” said Sajid, who is still at the facility under a second quarantine.
On April 3 and 4, local health officials collected their samples in two groups and sent them for testing to a government lab in Srinagar. The followed two days of uncertainty and wait for the results. “We knew the way we were kept at PHC Tukroo, will surely have got some of us infected,” said Sajid. “I was sure it will be me as I was close to the infected person.”
When the results came, four among them tested positive for Coronavirus, including Sajid’s in-laws. In all, out of the eleven people, so far five have tested positive in Shopian district.
Same day all four positive patients were shifted out of the quarantine centre and sent to Pulwama hospital.
Sajid and other three are still under quarantine.
“Since the beginning of our journey from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, nobody took Coronavirus seriously. At Hyderabad and Mumbai airports people were allowed to get mixed with our group,” said Sajid. “I am sure Khanyar lady got infected during transit. Else, she was the fittest one in the group.”
There is no official count about exact number of people who tested positive so far out of 43 Umrah groups. Only six cases are so far known including the Khanyar lady, the first patient who has recovered and is discharged from the SKIMS.
“I know how a few among our group mingled with people initially,” said Sajid. “Now it is too late make corrections.”
So far 13 positive cases have been confirmed in Shopian district. This is the fourth highest number in any district in Kashmir region. According to official figures, over two thousand people are currently in administrative and home quarantine.
But due to poor quarantine facilities, which are in contrast to internationally laid down rules of isolation, locals fear Shopian could explode any time.
A small video clip of a coaching centre converted into a quarantine centre in Shopian was doing rounds on social media. A man in the clip can be seen asking for water from the balcony. There are eight people in that building under quarantine. Interestingly, they have to visit a nearby mosque to use a toilet.
“Same is the situation with almost every quarantine centre in Shopian,” said Ahmad, a social activist, who refused to give his full name. “There are people in quarantine at government schools and local hotels. But we all know how hygienic these places are in Kashmir.”
Locals also blame lack of experienced staff at Shopian hospital for the crisis. “A number of doctors are serving the same hospital for last thirty years. This has made them callous and indifferent,” said Ahmad.
But Yasin Chowdhary, District Commissioner, Shopian, refuted allegations of any negligence at administrations part and said strict measures are in place to stop the spread of virus. “Our hospital staff is well equipped and trained to handle the situation,” said Yasin.
Amid war of words, Sajid misses his family and home, as he has just spent five days with them since his arrival on March 16. His family visits the facility once in a while with change of clothes, but they are not allowed to see each other.
“I was supposed to be tested four days back and I am negative. But who knows what will happen once they will test me again before letting me go,” said Sajid. “What if I test positive this time?”
Sitting inside the quarantine facility, cut off from the world, Sajid is sure officials have learned from the blunder of PHC Tukroo. “If they have not, then Shopian is in real trouble,” he said painfully.
(Note: None of the photographs used in this report is directly linked to it.)