When Amina Bano, 82, walked into the vaccination room of a government-run hospital in central Kashmir’s Budgam to receive her first dose of COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, 17 May, a nurse on duty had to turn her away.
“We are sorry but the vaccine is not available,” the nurse told the two young men accompanying Amina, who is a diabetic and needs a walking stick for support.
“You don’t have to bring her here unnecessarily. When we get new stock, we will call you,” a doctor who was seated in a corner of the room added in a calm voice.
But these reassurances have failed to convince people in Kashmir where anger is growing against the acute shortage of COVID-19 vaccine.
Political parties, experts, doctors, and ordinary citizens are accusing the BJP-led administration headed by Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha for “discriminating” against the Muslim majority region.
Discrimination Against Kashmir?
“The government will not allow any wrong to take place. Media should stop looking at this issue (of vaccine shortage) through the prism of Kashmir versus Jammu,” said Dr Saleem-ur-Rehman, Chief of J&K’s immunisation department.
But while the vaccination drive is going on smoothly in Jammu, a negligible percentage of people are getting the jab in the Kashmir region.
Over the last 10 days, more than 1.3 lakh vaccine doses were consumed across J&K, of which 1.16 lakh (89.23%) vaccines were administered to the people in Jammu alone, forcing many hospitals in Kashmir to turn away people who went to get their jabs.
On Monday, only 274 people were vaccinated in Srinagar district while 3,667 Jammu residents got the jab. The government had announced the vaccination programme for people below 45 years through the CoWIN app from 1 May but it hasn’t been rolled out yet due to the shortage of vaccines.
“I have been trying to book a slot on the CoWIN app since last week without success. The government has been telling people to get the jab, but where are the vaccines?” said Arif Rashid, 43, a businessman based in Srinagar.
“I managed to book a slot on two occasions but when the date approached, I got the message that my appointment has been cancelled,” he added.Arif Rashid
The non-availability of vaccines has prompted many vaccination centres in Srinagar and elsewhere in Kashmir to remain shut since last week. Private healthcare providers, who have been asked to procure supplies on their own by the UT administration, are not offering the vaccination service.
“Prioritising one region and ignoring the other amidst the deadly pandemic is regrettable. We demand an absolute uniformity in the supply of vaccines in Jammu and Kashmir,” said Imran Ansari, an influential Shia cleric and leader of People’s Conference.
Disparity in Vaccination
The virus has so far killed 3,149 people in the Union Territory, which has 51,623 active cases, majority of them in Kashmir.
In J&K, out of nearly 34 lakh vaccine doses procured so far from the central government which runs the UT directly, over 28 lakh doses have been administered, according to the government data, with a little over 5 lakh people receiving both doses.
“Out of the total doses procured so far, 6,21,870 doses were given to the Army as per initial allocation of the Health Ministry,” Commissioner Secretary Health, J&K, Atal Dullo, said.
Later, the Army returned 58,930 doses as they had surplus, he added.
J&K reportedly accounts for eight percent wastage of procured vaccines. Last week, the Union Health Ministry warned of cutting allocation to states that didn’t bring down their wastage.
“While J&K has a population of 1.25 crore, according to the 2011 census, Kashmir region with around 70 lakh citizens has been allocated only 15 lakh vaccine doses for 45+ age category so far.
On the other hand, the Jammu region, the bastion of the BJP which has one-third less the population of Kashmir, has got the lion's share with close to 19 lakh doses, sources said.
Official sources said only one in three people in 45-plus age group have been vaccinated in Srinagar district, the second worst-hit in J&K after Jammu where almost 100 percent people in this age group have got the jab.
“Nearly six lakh people have been administered either one of both doses of the vaccine in Jammu district while in Srinagar, which has a population of more than million, less than 2 lakh people have got vaccinated so far,” a senior doctor based in Kashmir said, wishing anonymity.
Better Infrastructure in Jammu
While there is a lack of “uniformity” in vaccine distribution between Kashmir and Jammu, the latter also fares better in terms of the infrastructure set up by the administration for fighting the pandemic.
For a population of around 53 lakh, Jammu has 2,457 beds dedicated in hospitals for COVID patients of which 1,641 are occupied. There are 2,276 beds for patients in isolation and 271 ICU beds of which 87 are vacant.
In comparison, in the Muslim majority Kashmir which has more than double the population, only 2,853 beds have been dedicated for COVID patients, out of which 1,717 are occupied. The government has allocated 2,853 beds for patients in isolation.
Of just 133 ICU beds in Kashmir, 75 are vacant.
According to a report in Hindustan Times, five medical oxygen generation plants purchased for Kashmir have been diverted to the Jammu region to meet the growing demand there, although more cases are being reported from Kashmir.
“For days together no vaccines were administered in Kashmir and the unmitigated disaster in Jammu continues unabated as deaths spiral due to the shortage of medical oxygen," PDP spokesperson, Najmu Saqib said.
“The administration must procure vaccines without delay and erase the disparity between the percentage of inoculation in the two regions (Kashmir and Jammu),”Najmu Saqib, PDP spokesperson
Shortage of Vaccines
In March, due to vaccine hesitancy, the J&K administration diverted nearly one lakh doses from Kashmir to Jammu, which is also recording more deaths among all the 20 districts.
“When the vaccine was available (in Kashmir), some people were circulating and believing in rumours that it will lead to impotency. Now that there is a temporary shortage, they want the jab.”Dr Saleem-ur-Rehman, Chief of J&K’s immunisation department to The Quint
“The vaccine has a short life and if we had not utilised it, the entire stock would have gotten wasted,” Dr Saleem-ur-Rehman, the chief of J&K’s immunisation department, told The Quint. Asked why the vaccines can't be diverted from Jammu, which isn't facing shortage of stock like Kashmir, Dr Saleem said: "The stock has already been sent to the health centres there. It is not possible to gather it again."
Last week, J&K LG Sinha set a deadline of 10 days to vaccinate all those in the 45 plus group. But it is not clear how the target is going to be achieved when vaccine supplies have dried up.
Dr Saleem said the UT will get fresh stock of vaccine within a couple of days after which the vaccination drive, which has been nearly stalled in Kashmir, will be resumed.
“After what has been happening in other parts of the country, there was a sudden increase in vaccine consumption in Kashmir due to which the region has exhausted its existing stock,” Dr Saleem said, adding, “But we are hopeful about getting more supplies this week.”
(Jehangir Ali is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets at @gaamuk. This is a report and analysis, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)