SEATTLE, Washington — When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Kashmir, a disputed Himalayan territory divided between India, Pakistan and China, the population quickly exhausted resources and time. Once official aid ran out, though, local volunteers stepped up.
When COVID-19 struck in March 2020, Kasmir’s people had already been subject to months of curfews, lockdowns and restrictions on communication. India, since stripping Jammu and Kashmir of semi-independent statehood in August 2019, has kept active troops in the region. It also restricted internet access in the region.
Like many locations around the world hit the hardest by the pandemic, Kashmir suffers from a lack of ambulances, ventilators and available medical personnel. This is worsened by the severe restrictions on foreign aid India has maintained throughout the region. As of October 2020, only thirty-four international organizations were permitted to operate in India-controlled Kashmir.
Volunteer Relief Efforts
Kashmir’s people have stepped up to fill these gaps. For some, this means volunteering their financial skills or helping distribute relief funds with maximal impact. Javaid Ahmad Dar, head of the NGO Social Reform Organization in Srinagar, told The New Humanitarian that his group raised the equivalent of $100,000 for families in need. They have also organized plasma donations, sourced oxygen and provided other essential equipment.
Other smaller, local organizations tap into their own funds to help small businesses and wage-workers, whose work must halt during lockdowns.
Aside from funds, Kashmir’s people also volunteer their time. Volunteers perform burials and last rites for families unwilling to risk COVID-19 exposure. Ambulances shuttle patients to and from hospitals day in and day out. Individuals must undertake contact tracing independently because the government does not. Covering for trained personnel, laypeople deliver medication for free to groups in the most need.
There are even volunteers in Kashmir’s hospitals who try to make sure patients receive treatment and are comfortable there. However, due to the steep spike in cases, not every doctor, nurse or volunteer has access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). As opposed to the N95 masks, gloves, face shields and full-body suits of American PPE, Kashmir PPE typically consists of a paper gown, cloth mask and one pair of gloves.
Local Aid Involves Whole Communities
The families of these people are also volunteering in their own ways. Individuals working in the hospital tell stories of coming home late at night, stripping off their clothes, showering and sanitizing themselves and then waiting hours to see their family. In an interview, a hospital volunteer named Javed told the National Herald that he has not held his four-year-old son in two weeks. This is out of fear that he has brought COVID-19 home.
Kashmir’s people volunteer their time and resources to help combat the COVID-19 crisis, but the crisis is not new for them. As inhabitants of a disputed territory, they have contended with active fighting and lockdowns for years, with small, community-run NGOs often on the frontlines.
Now, as COVID-19 infections continue to spike in hospitals, Kashmir’s people band together and fight back. Even lockdowns fail to dim their resolve.
– Jessica Raskauskas