Srinagar: In the northern-most region of the country, police officials are combing through data on thousands of calls, debit and credit card transactions, ATM transactions and flight manifests to determine who might be a potential coronavirus patient.
The number of Covid-19 cases reported in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) rose to 55 Tuesday as six more tested positive in Kashmir. So far, 43 cases have been reported in Kashmir and 12 in Jammu. Two people died from the infection while two others recovered, leaving 51 active cases in the Union Territory.
Most of these have been a result of people travelling back to J&K, which means they likely picked up the infection outside of the region. However, as the numbers in the country go up despite a lockdown — Monday saw the biggest spike with 227 new cases being reported in a day — officials are working round the clock to trace where patients went, where they picked up the highly contagious infection from and who all they likely passed it on to.
The biggest roadblock for the team of officials from the Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP), responsible for contact-tracing is getting the full and authentic details of a person’s travel history.
Over the past two weeks, police officers have reached out to foreign embassies, banks, private phone companies, airline companies and central security agencies to develop a database of individuals who returned to J&K between 1 March and 23 March. India went into a lockdown from the midnight of 24 March.
This list was then cross-checked with district level officials who were already marking out people who had not reported their full travel history.
Although there is no consolidated database on how many people returned to J&K since the Covid-19 outbreak, senior government officials said authorities tracked around 12,000-13,000 residents who flew in or travelled by road to various districts since the beginning of the month.
“People were generally forthcoming (about their travel history), but there were instances where officials faced hostility. Furthermore, there was always the question of providing proof … as a result of which police was roped in last week to collect the information, which might be used in case of hostility and denial by people who intend to conceal travel history,” said a senior government official.
“There were a few cases where travellers denied coming to J&K recently. Mostly because they lack confidence in the health infrastructure of the UT,” the official added.
Rounding up the ‘suspects’
The official told ThePrint that screening at airports in J&K began on 5 March. At the time, almost everyone cooperated. However, after 10 March, a day after the first cases were reported in the region, people began withholding information. Around 4,000 people are believed to have not reported their travel history, of which more than 90 per cent have been traced, he added.
In two separate instances, details such as ATM transactions and call history were used to counter people who denied having travelled to New Delhi.
Officials from the administration, particularly the health department and the offices of district magistrates, have been approaching individuals they believe recently returned to J&K but didn’t declare their travel history. This list was drawn up based in information received from residents, a mechanism initiated by Srinagar District Magistrate Shahid Choudhary. The police was brought in to double up efforts across all districts.
“We told these individuals (who denied travelling outside of the region) that we had collected data, or let’s say prima facie evidence, of them recently coming into J&K after which they admitted to the same. Following this, initial screening tests were conducted. Some were put into administrative quarantine, some in home quarantine while others were sent to hospital quarantine,” said the official.
‘J&K people are not suicidal’
One of the main reasons people have not been forthcoming with the police is because they fear catching the infection at quarantine facilities.
“Some in J&K believe that instead of being treated, they will catch infections at facilities set up by the administration to quarantine suspected cases. Videos and pictures of some of the quarantine facilities circulating on social media also didn’t help our case, but things have been streamlined since then,” another government official said.
“In fact, after families of Covid-19 cases, referred to hospital quarantine, protested (against the) bad conditions at a hospital in Srinagar, a hotel under the tourism department was made available. Here, asymptotic family members of Covid-19 cases will be kept,” the official added.
The government’s assurances of providing proper quarantine facilities has encouraged people to self report since, the official said.
No authority can fight crisis without people involved.After spending hrs in the field, I can confidently say #Srinagar is now more determined than ever. Lockdown, self reporting, medicare, sanitization, contact tracing getting effective. Together we will #BreakTheChain
— Shahid Choudhary (@listenshahid) March 30, 2020
Choudhary in a tweet Monday said the J&K administration’s lockdown, self-reporting, medicare, sanitisation and contact-tracing efforts were becoming more effective.
However, many district magistrates have still had to warn people of criminal proceedings to ensure travel history is reported.
The neighbour of a family quarantined in Srinagar told ThePrint, “Instead of issuing threats, administration should instil confidence about clean quarantine facilities. Maybe publish pictures or something else. The health infrastructure is in bad shape and for people with little awareness about the virus, the administration should take responsibility of building confidence. For example, our neighbours were counselled properly. People in J&K are not suicidal, they just need to be assured.”
Meanwhile, the administration has begun to designate and isolate areas with reported Covid-19 cases as red zones.
Aggressive contact tracing of positive cases key to control spread of #Coronavirus. Yesterday several areas surrounding location of positive cases or untraced contact cases had to be sealed in Jammu, Srinagar, Pulwama, Shopian, Rajouri. @diprjk (1/2)
— Rohit Kansal (@kansalrohit69) March 31, 2020
Movement to and from a ‘red’ or ‘sensitive’ zone is completely barred. By isolating these areas, which typically have an active case of Covid-19, the administration is looking to limit the transmission of the virus as well as carry out measures to tackle the infection as prescribed by the World Health Organization (WHO). This includes contact-tracing, sanitation, testing and sending residents into quarantine, either at home or at a dedicated facility.
With the cases going up Tuesday, the administration has designated 20 villages in the districts of Bandipora, Pulwama, Shopian, Srinagar and Budgam as red zones.
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