Amid COVID Deaths & Despair, Kashmiris Give a Leg up to Each Other

Abrogation of Art 370 and the pandemic have been a double whammy, but they couldn’t deter citizens from stepping up.

Updated
Coronavirus
5 min read
Amid COVID Deaths & Despair, Kashmiris Give a Leg up to Each Other
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When a middle-aged man, in a traditional kameez pyjama, asked if it was safe to touch the body of his COVID-19 positive sister, who lay motionless in a coffin outside the mortuary of Srinagar’s SMHS hospital, ambulance driver Jameel Ahmad felt dejected.

What followed next was an emotional diatribe: “What is wrong with you? As strangers if we are hauling her coffin into the ambulance, what is stopping you from helping us? She’s your sister, not a bomb that will go off with your touch,” Jameel, 49, told the inconsolable man.

The elderly Srinagar woman, admitted last week, passed away on Monday, 27 July. As per protocol, the hospital mortuary retained the body till her COVID-19 test returned positive on Tuesday, ruling out any possibility for the deceased’s immediate family to participate in her last rites.

This tricky situation thrusts additional responsibilities on people like Jameel.

Driver Jameel Ahmed waiting on Tuesday, 28 July, for the body of a COVID-19 casualty outside the mortuary of SMHS hospital in Srinagar.
Driver Jameel Ahmed waiting on Tuesday, 28 July, for the body of a COVID-19 casualty outside the mortuary of SMHS hospital in Srinagar.
(Photo: Jehangir Ali)
Now, besides his official role of the driver, he has to arrange the coffins (paid by hospitals), for which he has contacts of three persons, ring the gravedigger and also gear up attendants before heading out to graveyards from hospital mortuaries.

Handing over a personal protection equipment to the woman’s brother, Jameel continued: “Wear this, and keep your heart and mind free of evil thoughts. Have faith in God. If you take precautions, nothing untoward will happen.”

Jameel Ahmed (L) supervising the burial of a Covid patient who passed away in Srinagar recently.
Jameel Ahmed (L) supervising the burial of a Covid patient who passed away in Srinagar recently.
(Photo: Abid Bhat)

Jameel, who works with J&K’s health department, was not facing this peculiar situation for the first time. Since the pandemic broke out, of 348 COVID deaths in J&K, Srinagar alone has recorded nearly 100 casualties, the highest among the 20 districts of the union territory.

About 30 percent of 348 deaths have been reported in the past week alone, making the job of Jameel even tougher. In five months, he claims to have transported more than 70 COVID-19 bodies from hospital mortuaries to graveyards across Srinagar.

And there have been instances, says Jameel, where the families or relatives of a dead patient relegate the responsibility of last rites to him. In such scenarios, he depends for help on the gravedigger, his associates or even people living around a particular graveyard to complete the last rites.

“Some of them are so afraid they won’t even attend funeral prayers. But I encourage them (family members) to have faith and step forward,” Jameel said outside the mortuary of SMHS hospital.

With over 7,749 active cases in the region as of 30 July, the COVID-19 curve has been surging since the past fortnight. Srinagar hospitals are feeling the dearth of manpower and beds to deal with an unprecedented flow of patients. New guidelines have been issued not to admit asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic patients who will now be treated at home.

For Jameel, the ambulance driver, the ordeal is becoming more agonising. On 16 July, he was glad that only two COVID-19 patients had died in Srinagar. By the time he was about to finish, there was more bad news. 16 deaths were reported that day, the highest single day leap in J&K since the pandemic broke out.

“I had to bury four more bodies in different graveyards in one night. I got free at around 3 in the morning. But I am doing it for the sake of God. If I keep the fear of the virus in my heart, then who will bury the dead?” he said.

Bringing Out The Best Of Kashmir

In Kashmir, ignorance and superstition around the transmission modes of the virus have cast a long shadow on the last rites of deceased COVID-19 patients. There has been violence, too. Doctors and paramedics are facing the heat from attendants, the proof of which is borne by a disintegrated coffin outside the SMHS mortuary gate – the victim of an aggrieved family.

But it has also brought out the best in some Kashmiris who gave up their personal comforts for the larger good of society. Some former COVID patients travel hundreds of kilometres to donate plasma and save lives of those terminally sick while others use the luxury of time offered by the COVID lockdown to spread the light of education.

In June, Abdul Ramzan, who teaches Mathematics at a higher school in north Kashmir’s Bandipora, couldn’t come to terms with the thought of sitting idly and aimlessly at home, and getting paid for it too! Then he saw a video on open air community classes on Youtube and felt inspired.

“We don’t have a big lawn at home,” said Ramzan, a resident of Lankreshipora in Bandipora, “so I requested my cousin and he was very happy to offer the lawn of his home.”

Since June, Ramzan has been organising Maths classes for Class 9 and 10 students.

Education official Mohammad Ramzan at an open air community school in Doodhpathri resort.
Education official Mohammad Ramzan at an open air community school in Doodhpathri resort.
(Photo: Abid Bhat)

“I was aware of the dearth of Maths teachers in our area which prompted me to start these classes. I will continue till it is safe for students to go to school,” he said.

As the shuttering down of educational institutes completes a year, first due to the Article 370 revocation on 5 August last year and now the pandemic, community schools have sprung up in different parts of Kashmir.

Confined to their homes due to the pandemic, many teachers in Kashmir mobilised elders in their localities who then convince students, particularly of higher classes, to attend these classes.

“I ensure that students maintain social distance while attending classes. It is a double responsibility,” Ramzan said.

Travelling Miles To Save Lives

Jahangir Hussain, 30, didn’t think for a second when he consented to donating his plasma for a terminally sick Kashmiri bureaucrat. Earlier this month, Hussain, whose blood type is O negative, got the phone call from the blood bank of SKIMS hospital.

Hussain, a devout Muslim who offers prayers five times a day, was discharged from SKIMS last month after recovering from COVID-19. It was late in the evening when the call came and he had to travel around 50 kilometres from his Budgam residence to reach the hospital in Srinagar.
Plasma Donor Jehangir Hussain at his cloth shop in Budgam.
Plasma Donor Jehangir Hussain at his cloth shop in Budgam.
(Photo: Jehangir Ali)

“At that point, nothing was more important for me. I didn’t open the shop next morning and immediately left for Srinagar. It was a good feeling. I hope my action motivates others to save lives,” Hussain, who runs a cloth shop in Budgam district, said.

After doctors, COVID-19 patients who have fought back the disease, are stepping forward to pool plasma in blood banks for critically ill patients. Kashmir’s medical fraternity has also woven its threads into this system by setting up district-wise directories of patients who have recovered from the disease.

Like violence, COVID-19 is touching the lives of all Kashmiris in myriad ways. But as has been the case in past thirty years of turmoil, the uncertainty is bringing out the best in some Kashmiris. Selflessness and solidarity have become defining features of this yet another dark period in Kashmir.

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