COVID-19 is ravaging India, and the northern region of Kashmir is no exception. However, what is rather exceptional about the spread of COVID in that region is the draconian and counterproductive response offered by the federal and local governments. Doctors and other healthcare professionals are, according to Al-Jazeera, under strict orders not to talk to the media about the medical emergency currently underway in the region. The reason given for the blackout by Kashmir’s department of health is that they fear the spread of misinformation regarding COVID, and want to avoid panic stemming therefrom. However, this restriction of information will certainly hinder the medical community’s understanding of the progression of Coronavirus- a dangerous development. It also may serve for the Indian to solidify its control over the hotly contested region, and further escalates tensions in an already fragile political order.
Doctors have been warned of “the strictest disciplinary action” should they talk to the media about the crisis they are currently managing, and it is therefore only under the condition of anonymity that we see the reactions of those on the ground. “We cannot speak about the situation on the ground fearing for losing our jobs,” said one doctor- with another explaining that “During a pandemic, stopping doctors from raising genuine concerns to the media is going to have bad consequences… we have all been silenced.” What’s more, this comes among clear falsehoods promulgated by the federal authorities who run Kashmir. They claim that there are enough hospital beds and oxygen supplies to treat all Kashmiri COVID patients- even as official numbers show beds running out and deaths continuing to rise.
A media blackout issued by the government is worrying in and of itself- if the world cannot know of the internal conditions of a region, there is no accountability preventing humanitarian abuses. However, given the pandemic at hand, it seems clear that this restriction is the result of a catastrophic collapse in the healthcare system, and that political calculation has come before the wellbeing of the people of Kashmir. Yet, one might ask, with so many regions in India in medical collapse, why has Kashmir so far been the only region subject to a media blackout? This may be related to Kashmir’s hotly contested nature- as it is claimed by Pakistan and China- and the political stability of this region is integral to India’s national security interests. The intersection of public health crises and military realpolitik has not led to India’s military aiding its population in the life and death struggle against COVID-19, but suppressing it when human suffering is deemed inconvenient to strategic aims.
Kashmir’s hotly contested status stems from the British partition of India and Pakistan following the second world war and the once superpowers’ withdrawal from the subcontinent. The hastily drawn border was, as in so many postcolonial nations, a poor reflection of reality, and sporadic conflict over the region between India and Pakistan has seen wide-scale human rights abuses- none of which have been investigated in civilian courts. This cycle of violence has spilled over into the domain of public health, showing the pernicious effects of a martial mindset on all aspects of society. Now that COVID is ravaging the nation, with hundreds of thousands of Indians dead and dying, this hyper-politicization’s consequences have led the government to punish those best able to provide solutions.
In times of intense crisis, the powerful are faced with a choice- to support or suppress those affected. The governments of Kashmir and India have clearly chosen the latter, and this is detrimental both to those whose voices cannot be heard, but also to epidemiological scholarship and investigation, and spreading awareness of this acute crisis when it is most needed. Censoring the free flow of information is a dangerous thing- and during a global pandemic, when as much information on COVID as can be collected is needed, it is downright irresponsible.