Kashmir internet blackouts hinder health services, contact tracing

International Desk
20 May 2020, Wed
Published: 01:38

Kashmir internet blackouts hinder health services, contact tracing

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. Source: Reuters