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In Kashmir, slow internet throttles doctors’ coronavirus response

‘An internet connection, especially in a pandemic, is like an eye to the emergency physician. Kindly, don’t blind us.’

Kashmiri journalists display laptops and placards during a protest
Kashmiri journalists display laptops and placards during a protest demanding restoration of internet services in Srinagar on 12 November 2019. (Danish Ismail/Reuters)

A long-running ban on high-speed internet in Indian-administered Kashmir is hobbling efforts to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic, local doctors warn, as cases rise in a region that has already endured months of military clampdown.

India’s government last week ordered a lockdown across the nation of 1.2 billion people in an attempt to contain the virus – shuttering businesses, suspending most transport, and stranding hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers unable to get home in time.

But residents in Kashmir are facing the same restrictions without the benefit of high-speed internet. India’s government imposed an internet ban here last August after Kashmir was stripped of its autonomy and put under a military lockdown, which had eased only in recent weeks.

Indian authorities restored low-speed 2G mobile internet in early March, but the limits on faster services remain. Kashmir’s doctors say the throttled internet speeds prevent them from accessing crucial advice from the global healthcare community.

“The other day, I was trying to download the coronavirus-prevention handbook released by the Alibaba Foundation in China but could not due to slow speeds,” said Shoaib Ahmed, a resident doctor at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital, one of the largest tertiary care centres in Kashmir.

Equipped with this information, he believes, doctors can avoid the mistakes other countries have made in battling the virus.

Other doctors have also taken to social media to air their objections.

“This is so frustrating,” Iqbal Saleem, a professor of surgery at the Government Medical College in Kashmir’s largest city, Srinagar, wrote on Twitter after trying to download guidelines for intensive care management. It had taken him an hour to partially download the document.

Another doctor, Khawar Achakzai, said it took him an entire night to download a research paper to help him prepare for an upcoming shift in his emergency room at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh.

“An internet connection, especially in a pandemic, is like an eye to the emergency physician,” Achakzai said. “Kindly, don’t blind us.”

Kashmir’s months-long ban is among the longest internet blackouts ever imposed by a government, according to Access Now, a US-based digital rights group.

The government in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir has been extending the high-speed restrictions on a week-by-week basis. In a statement last week, the government said the high-speed ban is “absolutely necessary” for “maintaining public order”. Kashmir is home to a decades-long anti-government insurgency, but critics accuse India’s military of unchecked rights abuses in its crackdowns on civilians.

“An internet connection, especially in a pandemic, is like an eye to the emergency physician. Kindly, don’t blind us.”

Rights groups say internet access – and free-flowing information – is crucial during a pandemic.

“There is a growing anxiety around the pandemic and unwarranted restrictions on content and dissemination of information only stands to add to the panic,” Avinash Kumar, executive director of Amnesty International India, said in a statement.

Internet restrictions in parts of Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Bangladesh’s refugee camps are also making it hard for people already facing crises to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic, according to Access Now.

Restrictions hit schools and aid groups

Worries over the internet in Kashmir reflect growing concerns that the region is ill-prepared for the coronavirus. Reeling under decades of conflict and militarisation, Kashmir’s healthcare system remains severely underdeveloped.

“Primary and even secondary care hospitals are not capable of handling this pandemic. They neither have infrastructure nor the resources for this,” said Qasim Bhat, a junior health inspector in the government health department. “If the virus spreads fast, tertiary care hospitals are going to be overwhelmed.”

As of 1 April, India has recorded more than 1,600 coronavirus cases and at least 55 in Jammu and Kashmir, according to government figures.

Read more → Lockdown hits access to healthcare in besieged Kashmir

For a population of around seven million in the districts of the Kashmir valley, the region’s most populated area, there are 97 oxygen ventilators and only 85 intensive care beds, according to local media and rights groups. In addition to staff shortages, doctors and paramedics have complained of acute shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, and hand sanitiser.

Beyond the healthcare sector, Kashmir’s internet restrictions are also making it harder for the broader population to re-adjust to life under lockdown. While schools and businesses in India and other parts of the globe have tried to move online, slow internet prevents many Kashmiris from doing the same.

“High-speed internet must be restored so we can create online educational resources like video lectures,” said Nisar Ahmed, an English teacher from Anantnag district, south of Srinagar.

Kashmir’s schools briefly re-opened in February after a seven-month hiatus. Private tutors and community schools have often sprung up during previous clampdowns, but those measures are now impossible amid the pandemic.

“We were trying to compensate for the academic loss of the previous year but, unfortunately, the pandemic forced us to close down again,” Ahmed said.

The throttled internet has also slowed local NGO operations.

“We aren’t able to upload the relevant documentation from home at slow speeds,” said Sabeeha Khan, a communications coordinator for a local aid organisation that works on mental health and women’s empowerment. “Some of us have to regularly travel to the office and document everything on hard copies and submit these documents to our donors physically.”

A militarised health response

As cases began to emerge in Kashmir this month, the regional government responded by boosting health screenings of passengers travelling into Kashmir. It designated 11 hospitals in Jammu and Kashmir to treat potential patients, and created a compensation fund that could benefit 3.5 million people including informal workers and pensioners.

Yet in a region that has seen years of conflict, demonstrations, and military suppression, the new coronavirus lockdown is also a reminder of broader grievances.

Paramilitary soldiers have shut several major roadways to enforce stay-at-home orders, and at least 49 people have been detained for allegedly violating the lockdown, according to local media.

Some see it as an increasingly militarised response to a healthcare crisis.

“In public perception, the government quarantine centres are similar to prisons.”

“I have been regularly taunted, turned back, and almost assaulted by the paramilitaries blocking the main road near my house,” said Asif Ali, a journalist who said he has been desperately trying to buy insulin for his diabetic mother.

The government has set up quarantine centres for returning travellers. For some, though, these are more detention centres than health facilities. In a place where suspicions against state authorities run high, the militarisation is a disincentive for people to report their travel history or even symptoms, said Abdul Rauf, a PhD researcher in politics who recently returned from abroad.

“In public perception, the government quarantine centres are similar to prisons,” he said. “People are already describing quarantined people by using words like ‘detainee’.”

The names of some individuals in this story have been changed due to security concerns.

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