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FEATURE-Kashmir internet blackouts hinder health services, contact tracing

Reuters | Updated: 20-05-2020 05:30 IST | Created: 20-05-2020 05:30 IST
FEATURE-Kashmir internet blackouts hinder health services, contact tracing

By Athar Parvaiz SRINAGAR, India, May 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For three days without internet or phone service this month, Rouf Ahmad found himself cut off from his family in Indian-administered Kashmir while his mother was receiving treatment for the deadly coronavirus.

The 23-year-old sociology student is under quarantine in a hospital in Srinagar, Kashmir's main city, and could not contact the rest of his family to tell them about his mother's condition as she was treated in the same hospital. "I used to update my sisters and father many times a day about my mother's status," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone. "My frustration knew no bounds when I couldn't do so for three days."

Communications blackouts imposed by India's government as part of an effort to quell political turmoil and armed conflict in Kashmir are hampering the fight against the novel coronavirus, warn health experts and residents. Weeks of slow or no internet are a regular occurrence in the disputed region. The latest restriction on high-speed internet access has been in place since August last year, when India revoked the special status of its only Muslim-majority state.

The Indian government reinstated low-speed 2G internet services in January, but a blackout earlier this month massively set back health services and contact tracing efforts to curb the new coronavirus, health experts said. "The shutting down of the internet is not new to Kashmir," said one Srinagar-based hospital doctor, who asked not to be named.

"But, this time around, we were shocked that we had to work without the internet even during the pandemic for a week," he said, noting that the government had told health professionals not to talk to the press. "We are pushed into the primitive world when the internet is shut down abruptly."

When contacted for comment, police officials directed the Thomson Reuters Foundation to an official order posted on the police website. It said the shutdown on May 6, implemented the day after security forces killed militant commander Riyaz Niakoo in south Kashmir's Pulwama district, was necessary due to the "likelihood of misuse of data services by anti-national elements".

Knowing Kashmir's history of communication restrictions, Ahmad anticipates further shutdowns - mobile internet was again halted on Tuesday - but hopes he and his mother can get out of the hospital before then. "I can't bring myself to deal with another blackout. Our family is already facing an awful situation as my mother is battling COVID-19," he said.

CONTACT TRACING Kashmir is among the Indian regions worst hit by COVID-19, with confirmed cases increasing sharply from four in mid-March to more than 1,200 by mid-May and about 16 deaths, according to official figures.

Health professionals at two major hospitals in Srinagar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that during the recent communications blackout they were unable to consult with colleagues about coronavirus cases. A health department official, who requested anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the press, said the three days without mobile phone service put added strain on the country's already stressed health system.

The blackout affected all but phones on pay monthly contracts, which are mainly used by government officials. Doctors normally use messaging services like WhatsApp to send each other information about cases and communicate with patients, the official explained, adding that relying on phone calls in the shutdown was often inconvenient and time-consuming.

He noted that there was no way for health workers to carry out contact tracing, which involves tracking down infected people and finding everyone who has been near them, so they can get tested too. "It was impossible to trace the contacts of COVID-positive cases in those three days as there was no way of reaching out to people," said the official.

It was also impossible for Kashmiris to install the government's contact-tracing app that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said everyone in the country should download onto their phones in a televised address last month. Health experts say contact tracing is key to keeping the virus in check.

Even a single day's delay in contact tracing could be the difference between getting the virus under control and suffering a resurgence, according to researchers from the University of Oxford in Britain. Owais Ahmad, the Officer on Special Duty at Kashmir's COVID Control Room, where he helps monitor the spread of the virus in the region, confirmed that the three-day blackout had impacted the rate of installation of the app.

About 100,000 people in the region have so far downloaded the app, he estimated. But he added that he thinks it will pick up now that internet and mobile phone services have been restored.

"This is an extremely important app in the fight against COVID," Ahmad said during an interview in his office. RISE IN INTERNET SHUTDOWNS

India has said it cuts communications to prevent unrest in Kashmir, where a separatist insurgency has killed more than 40,000 people since 1989. Kashmir is claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, which have gone to war twice over it. Each rules parts of the scenic Himalayan region.

The internet blackout in Kashmir which started in August and lasted 175 days, was among the world's longest internet shutdowns implemented last year, according to digital rights group Access Now. Last year, India experienced 121 shutdowns, out of a global total of 196, the group said in a recent report.

International rights groups have decried the rise in the use of communications shutdowns in recent years as governments from the Philippines to Yemen said they were necessary for public safety and national security. The United Nations has said such measures cannot be justified as the world is trying to tackle a pandemic.

"Internet access is critical at a time of crisis," David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, said in a statement in March. "Human health depends not only on readily accessible health care. It also depends on access to accurate information about the nature of the threats and the means to protect oneself, one's family, and one's community."

Ahmad at the COVID Control Room rejected the claim that shutting down internet and mobile services had impacted healthcare in the region. He said the communication blackout had been "managed by health workers", without specifying further.



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