Viral Fear

Kashmiris returning from Wuhan, the epicentre of coronavirus in China that has killed more than 2100 people, are quarantined in Delhi. As the health authorities in Jammu and Kashmir are busy  creating systems to fight the new menace, those isolated rely on technology to communicate and are yearning for freedom, reports Khalid Bashir Gura

An isolated ward for novel Corona virus.

As the death toll from the new coronavirus (named COVID-19 by WHO) surged more than 2100 deaths and continues to climb, the world is frightened. Though Kashmir continues to be far from the fallout, many Kashmiris who have returned from China are being monitored and put through screening, quarantined and made to go through various mandatory tests.

So far none of the tests has been positive. Authorities, however, cannot take a chance as the nascent research have suggested that people who were initially tested negative eventually proved positive. The protocol followed the world over is a minimum of fortnight-long isolation.

“It was unimaginable for us a couple of weeks ago,” said Insha (name changed), who is quarantined in Delhi along with Sumaira (name changed). Both of them are medical students, now in isolation at an Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) facility in Delhi.

Flown from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, by Air India, they and many others are distressed as they proved asymptomatic. “We feel like we are prisoners. Imagine being told to stay in one room, not to go outside, just eat one’s food and go back to bed. This repetitive life is sickening”.

A microscopic image of Coronavirus. Pic: Internet

Narrating her ordeal on phone Insha, however, said the facility has all the facilities: Wi-Fi, electricity, water, games TV, blankets, electric kettles, slippers, soaps, towels, fruits and many more items.

“But we Kashmiris are facing problems because of the insipid nature of the food. What is distressing is that there is no human to human interaction. Our conversations with others depend on technology. We want to be out as soon as possible but there seems no definite date for the end to our quarantine period,” Insha said.

Medical isolation has its own pre-requisites. They are not allowed to move out and nobody is getting in to meet them. It looks like an alien film where one gets everything excepting the fresh air outside. People who get in are in huge protective attire and also look like out of the world sort of creatures.

“I am scared as well as hopeful. Everyone here wants freedom from this quarantine jail”.

Sumaira flew to the ITBP facility from China’s Shiyan province, located more than 400 km from the epicentre. She still relives the dread she flew from.

“There was a lot of panic in China. We wanted to get away from the epicentre of the deadly disease,” she said. “We were anxious and panic struck but now being here we are relieved as none of us has tested positive but the possibility of the carrier of the virus can’t be ruled out”.

Sumaira, however, said that even in quarantine she could eat with others and share the room with them and it created an atmosphere of fear as any of them could be a carrier of the virus.

Like other Kashmiris, Sumaira also has grown sulky with insipid food and monotonous life. “I want to scream at the top of my lungs, that please let me go from this jail,” a worried Sumaira said. “If someone is not well they shift the patient to AIIMS, Safdarjung for further tests and after negative tests, they are brought back.  All I yearn for is home. I am mentally depressed because I am homesick. There may be around 10-15 Kashmiris here. We just miss home and food”.

Entrance to the isolated ward.

At the facility, they are being taken care of almost on an hourly basis. Doctors from AIIMS are deputed in the facility, who collect samples, analyse and report. “Our saliva and mucus was taken four days ago and the reports were negative,” she said. “Our stay here depends on them as whenever they think we are fit to go home we will be allowed to leave”.

She said that Indian embassy officials in Beijing took an undertaking from them that they had to stay in quarantines for at least 14 days in anticipation of their evacuation.

Most of them have succeeded in getting in touch with their families. Some of their relatives told this reporter that they are on way to Delhi to see them if they can. They are worried despite the government’s best initiatives. “We want them back soon, healthy and safe,” a family member said on condition of anonymity. “The only thing that is perturbing us is the uncertainty of their quarantine period”.

A Worried Government

Families apart, even the government has its COVID-19 worries.  All passengers having a record of flying to China in recent past are being isolated at the airport in Srinagar. In certain cases, samples are being collected for tests and they are sent home with strict advice to stay aloof in isolation. The local medical staff visits them almost on a daily basis, officials associated with the exercise said.

“Right now, we have 78 individuals in quarantine across Jammu and Kashmir, 10 of them in Jammu,” Dr Shafaqat Iqbal, the nodal officer, overseeing the outbreak impact in the UT said. “I am told there are 34 in quarantine in Delhi.”

Right now, Iqbal said, there is one Kashmiri student in isolation in SKIMS. “He had flown to Kolkata from China where he was screening, tested negative and sent home,” Iqbal said. “However, he developed a fever and was admitted to SKIMS. We have taken samples and results are awaited but his fever has subsided.”

(As on February 20, officials said, as many as 94 citizens from Jammu and Kashmir including 88 students who had recent China travel history have returned home. It excludes 23 students who are still in Delhi quarantine. From Delhi’s ITBP facilities, as many as 10 students who completed the fortnight-long quarantine and were tested negative for the virus reached home on February 19. They were from the batch of people who were flown from Wuhan on February 1. They have been advised to stay separate from their families for the time being. Of them, three each were from Srinagar and Kupwara and one each from Anantnag, Pulwama, Budgam and Baramulla.)

Preventive Measures

Officially, the health sector is ready to face any emergency.

Santosh Dhoke, Director Srinagar International Airport, said they have strictly implemented the central government directions. “The state government has deputed doctors at separate arrivals counters. One room has been dedicated and whosoever is suspected is screened,’’ Dhoke said. “It (Srinagar) is a secondary destination and no direct flight from affected destination lands here. But at 12 primary destinations, additional facilities have been added to tackle the problem.”

“We have established a control room, helpline numbers, and surveillance desk at Srinagar airport. The isolation wards were set up at SMHS, SKIMS, Sanat Nagar, Chanpora, Ompora and Jawahar Lal Nehru Memorial Hospital at Rainawari,” Dr Manzoor A Qadri, who is officially responsible for managing COVID-19  impact if any. “We have trained our RRT’s (Rapid Response Teams) and paramedics besides procuring PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment), triple-layer masks, and N-95 masks. We are also monitoring ARI’s (acute respiratory infections) and if we suspect anything we will respond to it.” Uptil now, no positive case has been detected from Kashmir.

At the SKIMS, where the authorities are already fighting H1N1- of 1250 positive cases detected since September 2019, 80 were admitted and most of them discharged after recovery, Dr Farooq Jan, the medical superintendent said they have already set up two wards – one with five beds and another with 20 beds. “We have also pre-requisite kits available like n-95 masks and other kits,” Dr Jan said. “But we do not have the bio-safety laboratory that requires higher safety standards.” He said that testing is possible but safety issues are lacking and that is the reason all samples are being flown to Delhi.

The medical fraternity is cautioning against the panic. Their main emphasis is on the fact that nobody has tested positive – barring a few cases in the plains, and Kashmir in insulated from Tibet and Pakistan administered Kashmir.

KL Artwork: Malik Yasir

“There is no need to panic,” Dr Parvez Shah, Principal of the state medical college in Srinagar said. “As its epicentre is China’s Wuhan, the waves we hope won’t reach here. All the cases with travel history to China have been tested negative. Samples from suspects are taken to Medical College, Srinagar and SKIMS and then sent to Delhi, but the preliminary test is done at the airport and at other entry points to the valley.,” At SMHS, one of the GMC’s associated hospitals, there is a 12-bed isolation ward.’’

Doctors Association Kashmir, President Dr Suhail Naik, however, sounded alarmed because Kashmir is a tourist destination. Since there are no footfalls for more than the last six months, Kashmir can breathe easy, for the time being.


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