Faultlines in Kashmir’s Covid-19 Frontline

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Doctors at a quarantine facility in Srinagar. KO Photo: Abid Bhat

World Health Day dawned just another day of fret, fear and frustration for Kashmir’s primary defense line in the Covid-19 fight back.

Hirra Sultan

Srinagar: Every morning Dr Shameema gets up and changes not in her room but in the spare washroom outside the premises of her home.

She longs to give her year-old baby one hug before she heads out for the perilous duty, but she decides against it.

The most she carries with her is her phone, loose change and a sanitiser. No purses, water bottles or tiffin accompany her anymore. One can read worry written all over her face.

“Every doctor is taking as many precautions as possible,” Dr. Shameema told Kashmir Observer. “With us at the forefront, we cannot risk taking the virus home.”

Kashmir’s conflict-hardened medics, experienced in tackling a warlike situation back home, are today anxious about a microorganism that has already consumed over 70,000 people across the globe.

Dr Shameema is married to another doctor and the couple has been having elaborate discussions since the apprehensions of Covid-19 started in Kashmir.

They mutually agreed on what clothes they would take out with them, and everything else, mandatory to keep the virus at bay.

“We are all afraid of what would happen if we get infected,” she said.

Her husband, Dr. Asim, has already taught his toddler about the virus, and how he needs to clean his hands properly.

“I cannot get Covid-19 from him, but he can,” the doctor said. “I’m putting my everything at risk here.”

Thrown in line of fire, these young doctors say, if they survive this, it would be some stroke of luck. KO Photo: Abid Bhat

Many doctors have thought of staying in their outhouses and not seeing their family till the pandemic is around.

“Most of our parents have compromised immunity,” Dr Asim continued. “They suffer from hypertension, diabetes and asthma. If, God forbid, something were to happen to them due to my profession, I would be devastated.”

In the backdrop of these unspoken fears, many medicos in Kashmir have only become more fretful after a doctor from Jammu was tested positive for Covid-19.

Apart from a doctor testing positive, Kashmir also witnessed the second death due to Covid-19 — a quintessential grocer from Tangmarg.

The fallout of Tangmarg man’s death has been onto doctors, both from CD Hospital and SKIMS Bemina, for negligence which both attendants as well as the administration seem to believe to be the cause of his death.

There have also been multiple claims from other patients that doctors are not treating them well or attending to them while they are being quarantined.

Some of them even claimed that Covid-19 positive patients were being sent to chemists to buy drugs for their own selves. The doctors though, narrate an altogether different story.

“At CD Hospital, post-graduate students had been put on duties; all PG’s whether they were majoring in clinical or non-clinical studies are being asked to attend to the quarantined people,” said a doctor at the hospital.

“What is a student of Anatomy, Biochemistry, and the like supposed to do in a ward filled with quarantined people?”

The doctors at SKIMS Bemina shared the similar story.

Dr. Arbina Zaz, junior resident at the hospital, alleged that all junior residents were summoned and told that they are being put on Covid-19 duties.

“There was no briefing, nobody took our consent, neither were we provided with any PPE [Personal Protective Equipment, used to prevent transmission of the virus],” the worked out medic told Kashmir Observer.

“We are a mere bunch of newbies who know nothing and have no idea what to do. Why is such a critical situation being handed over to us? Why didn’t the consultants, the HODs stay too?”

All doctors in general, had a sense of fear.

Health officials during their door-to-door visit in Srinagar to check for symptoms of coronavirus.

Dr. Arshi Mushtaq, junior resident at SKIMS Soura, said how there’re no PPEs for the doctors at a tertiary care hospital, forcing them to buy their own masks.

“The government has no sense of responsibility towards us,” she said. “We have been provided with an HIV protection kit against novel Coronavirus.”

Thrown in line of fire, these young doctors say, if they survive this, it would be some stroke of luck.

“Every day I fear I am taking the virus back home with me, as the government is not providing us with anything, not even a pair of gloves,” she said. “It’s excruciatingly painful to think that my professional duties are putting my parents at such a huge risk.”

When asked how the hospital was coping up with the tag of being Covid-19 designated hospital, the doctor got a little worked up.

“There are no ventilators here. How are we supposed to treat these patients? These administers, they merely pocket the money they should have used to upgrade the hospital and leave us vulnerable. They could have acquired ventilators, PPEs and other stuff, but there is nothing,” Dr. Arshi said.

Doctors, she said, have been reduced to mere clerks in the ailing healthcare system.

“If there are no beds in a hospital, it is not a doctor’s fault,” she said.

Gousia Hospital, Khanyar, is one of the only hospitals still treating patients in OPD and due to JLNM being dedicated to Covid-19, this hospital is attending to a larger population than it usually does.

A lady doctor at the hospital paints the picture a little more clearly.

She mentions how the disease is highly communicable and since they are treating a variety of patients, they can never know who amongst them might be positive or a carrier.

“We enter the hospital wearing polythene sheets over our shoes and buy our own masks. There is nothing else we can do. Everyone is afraid,” she said.

Dr. Shahid Saleem, Consultant at Bone and Joint (B&J) Hospital, Barzulla said that they had closed the OPD for about two months.

“Minor ailments and the like can be treated over a phone call,” he said. “For injury and trauma patients, the hospital is functioning normally, with fracture surgeries being done regularly, without much delay.”

When asked about the safety of doctors in the hospital, he said, “We have requested any person with any travel history or flu like symptoms to not accompany the patient. Also, we have put doctors on a rotation based duty so that we do not have to come to hospital every day and the risk of getting infected can be reduced.”

Dr. Umar, PG at B&J Hospital, said they were supposed to be at hospital regularly though there were not as many patients.

“The people are also conscious of not moving out unless utterly necessary,” he said. “It is a relief they are taking this seriously.”

This was possible only because the hospital tends to a specific set of patients. But if the Covid-19 cases increase, they might also have to entertain them.

But every doctor is not as blessed as the ones posted in Barzulla.

The doctors on quarantine duties are even more frustrated. They are being put on 24 hours duty and in PPEs, they can’t even pee.

“Whoever made these duty sheets must think of doctors as some fancy Avengers character, who need nothing, feel nothing,” said Dr. Shaista posted in SKIMS Bemina.

Dr. Riyaz Untoo, Principal Medical College SKIMS Bemina, on being asked about the protest by doctors said, “We have not procured these kits. If doctors in SKIMS Soura, and CD hospital can work with safe gear, why won’t doctors wear it here?”

Dr Shaista dismally said, “Sometimes I want to give up. I hadn’t signed up for this. There is no gear, no concern for our wellbeing whatsoever. The Hippocratic Oath [an oath of ethics historically taken by physicians] feels like a noose around my neck. Or maybe the government does want all doctors to fall sick. Why else would they do this to us?”

It is evening by the time Dr Shaista reaches back home, exhausted. The children rush to hug her, but she just asks them to stay away and silently retires to her room, scrubbing herself for an hour before she feels satisfied she is clean enough to greet her kids.

(Some names in the story have been changed, on request, and keeping in view the recent gag order imposed on medics in Kashmir.)

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