25 March, Dhaka, Bangladesh (+thinking of Kashmir)

By Sauliha Yaseen

Bangladesh confirmed its first positive case of Covid-19 this month. The deadly virus has reached the borders of this country still struggling with its healthcare facilities but which has done exceptionally well for a young country. This virus in a city that houses more than fifty thousand people per square kilometre could act like a tiny spark in a heap of gunpowder. The tabloids are filled with the grave implications this ‘foreign’ virus would have for the country. Do viruses really have a nationality? Do they carry passports and approach immigration counters trying amicably to address the quasi-hostile immigration officers? Apparently not. Apparently viruses don’t discriminate.

Being a government hospital in a developing country, our hospital caters to three times as many patients as the actual number it is meant for. To make up for the lack of space on the wards, the gallery on the ground floor has been converted to an open-air ward housing all sorts of patients. No distinction. On a fine spring morning, a strange hustle in the gallery-cum-ward derails all the normal activities of the hospital. A suspected Covid patient with a likely history, supposedly symptomatic, has been found in one of the beds beside a hundred or so other patients. This news spreads at the same wild-fire rate as the virus itself. Within hours the entire wing is cleared of people. The overcrowded pathology lab is wiped clean. Only the counter separating the morose technicians from the irascible crowd of patients waiting to handover their samples of blood and urine, remains. The grimy foam mattresses are stacked one over the other in a corner exposing rusty beds they covered. A strange hush descends upon the usually busy building. It is disquieting. In a moment we are transformed from healthcare providers to paranoids. From life savers to a bunch of vulnerable beings searching for a refuge from the unseen. In a matter of moments, there begins the frenzied rummaging for hand-washes, alcohol hand-rubs, surgical masks and whatnot. Doctors, nurses, paramedics throng the washrooms, frantically washing their hands, harrumphing, blowing their noses. A lockdown is imminent.

This tragi-comical scene takes me thousands of miles away to my homeland, a place famous for its beauty and protracted lockdowns; Kashmir, one of the most militarised zones of the world.  A similar frenzy would ensue when the Indian Paramilitary forces would mount their armoured vehicles and impose curfew on a jaded population of Kashmiris. People would resort to panic buying, hoarding, filling up the fuel tanks of their vehicles and storing some extra fuel in cans. The frenzy preceding a lockdown had a festive vibe of its own. People would end up predicting the severity of restrictions and the duration of curfews. And here I was in my workplace experiencing a sort of déjà vu, except this time we weren’t pitted against gun wielding soldiers of an occupying regime. We were up against a virus, a force of nature.

After this wave of nostalgia passes, I am engulfed with guilt. Is this comparison insensitive? Was I being tone-deaf? Here the government is fighting tooth and nail to provide basic facilities to the citizens. Medicines are being restocked. Essential commodities are made available. Schools air online lessons for the students. The government and the people are hand in glove fighting the virus. That is the plan at least.

But what was it like in Kashmir? It isn’t a government-citizen relationship. It is an occupier-occupied connection. We are prisoners in our own homeland. There is no restocking of essential drugs. There are no emergency healthcare services. Recently a young man succumbed to snakebite because he was denied access to a hospital. Our kids do not enjoy a ‘learn-at-home’ experience. Some, as old as 12 or 13 years are languishing in jails under draconian and discriminatory laws.  Internet is a luxury in Kashmir. As I’m writing this, Kashmir reels under the longest internet ban in history, as doctors struggle to download the WHO guidelines to manage this global pandemic. All these discrepancies strike me one by one and I just hope that my people can see this double lockdown through.