Kashmir doctors prohibited from speaking to media as COVID rages


a group of people riding on the back of a truck: COVID recovered patients boarding an ambulance outside a hospital in Srinagar [File: Nawal Ali/Al Jazeera]

© COVID recovered patients boarding an ambulance outside a hospital in Srinagar [File: Nawal Ali/Al Ja… COVID recovered patients boarding an ambulance outside a hospital in Srinagar [File: Nawal Ali/Al Jazeera]

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir have barred doctors from speaking to media and directed the oxygen manufacturing units to stop supplies to the NGOs and private users.

The order issued by the region’s department of health on Thursday came as it battles a deadly wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with hospitals running short of beds and patients scrambling for oxygen cylinders, medicines and medical equipment such as oxygen concentrators.

“All Chief Medical Officers/Medical Superintendents/Block Medical officers of Kashmir Division are enjoined upon to issue instructions to all the staff under the administrative domain to desist from media interactions,” said the order signed by Dr Mushtaq Rather, director of health services in the disputed region.

Warning the doctors of “strict disciplinary action”, the order alleged that “contradictory and confusing messages” were being circulated about the pandemic which “misinform the public and create unnecessary and avoidable panic”.

Kashmiri doctors say the order is aimed at stopping them from “flagging genuine issues” related to the healthcare system in the region.

“During a pandemic, stopping doctors from raising genuine concerns to the media is going to have bad consequences. It is more important that doctors tell you about the health crisis but now we have all been silenced,” a doctor in one of the main public hospitals in the region told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

“We cannot speak about the situation on the ground fearing for losing our jobs.”

India on Friday reported a rise of 414,188 new COVID-19 cases and 3,915 deaths – both the highest ever so far, despite experts saying the figures are an undercount. India’s total infections now stand at 21.49 million, while total deaths have reached 234,083.

Indian-administered Kashmir recorded close to 5000 infections on Thursday and currently has nearly 27,000 active cases of the coronavirus. On Thursday, the region recorded 52 deaths while the overall tally stands at 2,562.

Amid the surge, the federally-run region’s administration claims there are enough supplies of oxygen, critical care drugs and other COVID-19 facilities to meet the crisis.

But the official figures themselves present a different picture.

In the six hospitals designated for treating coronavirus patients in the main city of Srinagar, home to more than 1.4 million people, there were just 11 ICU beds vacant on Thursday.

Sumeena Jan, 26, a resident of Srinagar, said the government is preventing people from knowing about the “catastrophic situation”.

“Speaking and putting out loopholes in the public glare is the only way to improve the condition of the situation we are in right now,” she told Al Jazeera.

“They want to hush up the things and do not want the public backlash. The authorities in the health sector do not want to be exposed for having done nothing in the last one year to gear up for the pandemic.”

‘Stop oxygen supplies to NGOs’

In another order on Thursday that was widely slammed by the region’s residents, the authorities have directed the oxygen manufacturing units to stop supplies to the NGOs and private users.

The order, issued by the district magistrate of Srinagar, Muhammad Aijaz, directed all the manufacturing units within the jurisdiction of Srinagar to supply oxygen only to designated hospitals and clinics.

“[They] will stop supply to any private NGO with immediate effect. Supplies to private persons/societies/NGOs (other than hospitals) shall be made only with prior approval of the District Magistrate,” the order said.

A number of NGOs, charities and volunteers are currently working in Indian-administered Kashmir to provide and refill oxygen cylinders to coronavirus patients being treated at home.

Muhammad Afaaq Sayeed, project director at Social Reforms Organisation (SRO), a Srinagar-based NGO, said the order will impact their work “immensely”.

“We have been giving oxygen cylinders to people in home care. They also come for a refill. When we won’t be able to give refills, they will suffer,” he told Al Jazeera.

He said there are at least 350 patients on oxygen support provided by his NGO.

“The short-term effect will be very big. If you don’t give oxygen on time, it’s of no use,” he said, hoping that the administration “will restore the process”.

Kashmiri social media user, Faheem Aslam, wrote that by hampering the work of NGOs in the middle of a “grotesque pandemic”, the administration is literally “aiding their death”.

Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister of the Muslim-majority region, also condemned the government order.

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Stopping the hoarding/black marketing of oxygen cylinders is a laudable goal. Preventing NGOs or making it tougher for them to help people get cylinders is dangerous,” he tweeted.

“NGOs were working when the government was still in deep slumber.”

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