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Kashmir Internet Restrictions Impede Fight Against Coronavirus

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When India stripped Kashmir of its constitutional autonomy last year, it also clamped down hard on civil liberties, bracing for protests. Landlines and Internet access were cut, according to the Indian government, to prevent what it called the propagation of terror activities and the incitement of the general public. The lockdown was slowly being lifted when the coronavirus hit, and Kashmiris were ordered to once again stay in place. Deliberately slow Internet speeds are now hampering Indian doctors who are desperate for information in how to treat the virus. Gowhar Geelani is a journalist in Srinagar, Kashmir. And we asked him how hard COVID-19 has hit the region.

GOWHAR GEELANI: The numbers are quite high and alarming, actually. We have right now over 1,500 cases - and it's getting closer to 2,000 - with 20 deaths. And most of the deaths are in the Kashmir Valley, which is already into its second lockdown. COVID is the second because we are in a kind of lockdown since August of last year. So that has actually complicated the situation.

SIMON: Well, explain that to us because, of course, one of the conditions of the Indian lockdown in Kashmir has been limited Internet service. And I gather that's made treating coronavirus very difficult.

GEELANI: Absolutely. I mean, one is, like, you know, all the doctors - what they are saying is that they are not able to download the important journals and important studies related to COVID and what kind of protocol is to be followed because the low-speed 2G Internet speed. So that has actually, you know, hampered their work. And second is, you know, the kind of censorship that exists because health professionals, doctors are not allowed to speak about any, you know, problems with regards to COVID preparation or regards to the infrastructure. And, you know, one of the studies is that for a population of 8 million, there are only 90 ventilators in all the hospitals that we have.

SIMON: What happens to doctors who speak out?

GEELANI: They are punished and demoted from their positions. There was one doctor who actually complained about the lack of availability of PPEs, protective equipment and ventilators. And he was quite vocal about it. And it didn't take long to actually silence him. So that telegraphed a message to other doctors that there is a certain line that we cannot cross. And, you know, we do not have these health bulletins - media health bulletins coming from the health professionals. But it is being done by the administrators, a government spokesperson, who just speaks at 4 p.m. or 6 p.m. every day and gives all the statistical data, which is not to be questioned because it's a one-way communication, where they talk and we listen.

SIMON: You know, we keep hearing around the world that accurate and reliable information is key to trying to contain the pandemic. And that's exactly what - you're finding it hard to come by in Kashmir.

GEELANI: You actually want to contain the pandemic. But here, the focus is more to contain the story so that the bad news doesn't go out. It's like hiding a dead fish in the corner of the room, which you do not want other people to know about. But it smells foul anyway. So this has been this information black hole, which is there and is actually not helping to fight against the pandemic in Kashmir.

SIMON: Gowhar Geelani is a journalist in Srinagar, Kashmir. Thank you so much for being with us.

GEELANI: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.