258 days before the world declared itself into a lockdown, Kashmir was forced into one. People of Kashmir had numerous nights of curfews and shutdowns frequently, ever since 2008.
The newly imposed Corona Lockdown isn’t slightly different in characters but simply added to it. Two days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a national lockdown in the country, Kashmir was strictly put under one. When the world was privileged enough to have a pre-proclaimed lockdown, Kashmir under a twice ‘locked-up’ lockdown is gradually turning into an inferno of suppressed emotions and mental stress, and the epidemic has severely added to its magnitude.
“How is this lockdown different from the earlier ones?”
” … it doesn’t feel any different except for the addition of Corona virus threat” – Muzzafar Ahmad Rather (BCA, second year, Amar Singh College, Srinagar) replies much tranquil.
“It is destroying my mental health as I always hesitate to stay shut-in and often yearns to roam around. The long lockdown which we have been facing on and off since 2008 is obviously changing our people. In general, all people have become somewhat like survivalists, because that is the only thing they can do. Children are getting depressed and get irritated or angry at small things. Sometimes I myself feel like I am about to burst and can’t take it anymore”.
Muzzafar doesn’t have nightmares now, as it is hard for him to fall asleep itself, “some nights I find myself wide awake till 5:00 am in the morning, and it requires a lot of physical work to fall asleep”.
But it is strange dreams that haunt Aafu Reshi (Designer, Batagund Tral) every night. She says, “I am being very claustrophobic, and I have this terrifying feeling of being boxed and trapped. This makes me restless and nightmares more frequent, now am prone to it”.
She has to close her business unit due to the poor internet service in the valley.
For Kashmir, the lockdown does not alone give the pain of being departed from their family members and friends as Kashmiris are both physically and virtually isolated, but the ongoing medical crisis has devastated the already perishing economy of its people due to the early clampdown and blackout.
Mental health experts in Kashmir claim they have witnessed higher relapses in patients with psychiatric issues since the first cases of novel coronavirus were reported in Kashmir.
“Some have predisposing factors like they already have been suffering from mental issues, which aggravate under current circumstances. Rest all of us have realistic anxiety, which can be easily avoided,” said Dr. Yasir Rather, a psychiatrist.
He said that people need to understand the difference between social isolation and social distancing, “People basically have to avoid physical socialization. A person has to maintain a distance from people and avoid all kinds of in-person communication. Nowadays a person has got various mediums to connect with the people. An adaptation is needed to cope up with the situation through virtual socialization, working on hobbies and developing skills”.
But people in Kashmir are devoid of a virtual world to socialize now. He, however, said people in villages can communicate with each other on terraces and through windows since their houses are located at a certain distance from each other.
Renowned psychiatrist and Head Department of Psychiatry, GMC Srinagar Dr. Arshid Hussain, while explaining the difference between social isolation and social distancing, said only physical isolation is needed to keep Covid-19 at bay. “Social distance is the behaviour of maintaining the physical distance between two socializing persons while they interact in different environments. Social isolation is limiting somebody’s ability to interact with other beings by isolating him physically,” he said.
“There is a need to do physical isolation quarantine but-coupled with emotions of love empathy and longing, and prayers for the well-being of those infected,” Dr. Hussain said.
Due to the frequent political turmoil, Jammu and Kashmir does not fare well on the mental health index. A survey by Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) in 2015 said that 45% of the adult population has shown symptoms of mental distress and over 41% of the population showed signs of depression, 26% signs of anxiety and 19% showed probable symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The ongoing pandemic has aggravated the existing unfavourable ambiance for mental health in Kashmir which has a long history of tumultuous political happenings. The Kashmir valley has been mired in violence, repression, and lockdowns — a quagmire of trauma.
“During any crisis situation, the chances of relapses among patients are higher and we live in a conflict-torn society which makes it worse,” Dr Shoib pointed out.
Five persons have died and 328 have been confirmed positive for the coronavirus disease in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
People largely have not been venturing out of their homes as those violating Section 144 are being charged by the police. As a result, many people are going through mental issues of insomnia and behavioral changes.
Doctors at Government Psychiatric Hospital said they receive many distress calls from people about anxiety and depression after the lockdown.
The advisory by Child Guidance and Well Being Centre -a nodal Centre for Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS), Kashmir says stay connected in a virtual world through phones and WhatsApp: “You can make groups on various social media platforms, of extended families and friends. Ask about the well-being of each other, but don’t remain stuck with corona talk. Use humor and reassurances liberally. Remind each other of previous difficult situations from which we emerged unscathed. If you are not able to force one, smile on video calls,” it reads.
It emphasizes that neighbors should continue chatting and socializing through windows (provided that windows are two meters apart) as was the norm in yesteryears.
“Revive the old tradition of ‘Daraev kin darbar’,” (talks from windows),” it says.
“During social distancing, the vulnerability of children to abuse increases. So, be vigilant and make sure within families if children are safe”. It focuses on reading books of interest, resting and sleeping in appropriate doses will all help and lonely walks within your premises wherever possible can be very refreshing,” the advisory reads.
Unfortunately, Kashmir is facing a medical emergency and a virtual emergency simultaneously.
“For the past ten years, abnormal is the ‘new normal’ for Kashmir”, says Sayima (Manager, Batagund Tral), “.. our childhood was risen in regular political upheavals and social crisis and now grown into a youth of the same”.
For Sayima, the losses that the long-term lockdown gave are not emotional and physical alone, it has demolished her professional life too.
“The professional losses are high as this is a peak season for us to work and make money, in order to pay bills and also salaries for the staff but the COVID19 lockdown has brought a tremendous amount of hardships and I am unable to pay anything. The alternate option could have been using online payments and through 4G internet facilities, but the ban on it has aggravated the situation, it has brought many miseries to the trade sectors of Kashmir and broke the spine of entire Kashmir valley trade”.
For Aatifa, a 10th standard student from Drabgam Pulwama, lockdown is, fear and frustration, “when you are locked up for so many days and months, it’s obvious you’ll get frustrated, you find many behavioral changes within, each and everything bothers and above all fear reigns”.
Reeling under two ongoing lockdowns; coronavirus pandemic controlled lockdown for 21 days and a nearly six-month clampdown imposed by the Indian Government, people of Kashmir are stuck in the fears of existentialism.
Despite the demands of many international human rights bodies to restore high-speed internet and the release of Kashmir’s political prisoners, the New Delhi remains stubborn.
In fact, all these losses contribute much to the mental health of its people in Kashmir, perishing day by day.
People of Kashmir are isolated when the entire world tries to find alternate spaces in their virtual world. Even during these times of utter medical emergency and hardship, what Kashmir is provided with is just one doctor per 3866 people while one gun-wielding Indian soldier per 10 Kashmiris.
The throttled internet in Kashmir adds to the vulnerability and poses a virtual emergency in the union territory.
“Kashmir’s healthcare infrastructure is one of the worst in South Asia. Our doctors are risking their lives while the pandemic awaits Kashmir. The lack of resources is such that a very few have been put under observation for covid-19 infection”, Stand with Kashmir, a collective working for Kashmir’s needs says in a separate statement.
Kashmir Valley’s graph for COVID19 is showing a steep rise, since the first case in the valley was reported on March 18. The virus, which originated in China’s Hubei province, has claimed nearly 1.5lakh lives globally and infected over 22 lakh people worldwide.
Mubashir Hassan is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir.