Did ‘VIP culture’ invite trouble for Kashmir during COVID-19 pandemic?

The woman who tested positive for COVID-19 in Kashmir was Senior Superintendent of Police Imtiaz Ismail Parray's mother-in-law. File photo: Twitter

As the situation with regard to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic is becoming explosive around the globe, particularly in Europe, health experts warn that Jammu and Kashmir too is a “ticking bomb” that will explode if the alleged ‘VIP culture’ is not contained and due procedures strictly adhered to by those with a travel history to countries infected by the virus.

What is seen as a red flag here is an incident involving a close relative of Imtiaz Ismail Parray, Srinagar-based Senior Superintendent of Police (Crime), with a travel history to Saudi Arabia, who arrived in Srinagar on March 16.

The relative happens to be the mother-in-law of the police officer. She stands accused of violating the necessary protocol, escaping procedural screening meant for ‘symptomatic’ patients at the Srinagar airport and also allegedly using her relative’s influence to exit through the VIP gate without the mandatory quarantine.

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Unfortunately, the old woman tested positive while her son-in-law had been in self-quarantine. Thankfully, the tests of two other close relatives of the woman were negative.

The mother-in-law of the police officer is the only positive COVID-19 case in the Kashmir valley so far, but health experts are concerned that she might have unwittingly put lives of others at risk through social contact. The old lady hails from Srinagar’s Khanyar locality.

According to the information provided by health officials, a medical team was available at the airport to screen her at the VIP gate too. “The details were collected from her for a self-declaration form. However, she needed controlled quarantine for a fortnight. But she left for home instead of a quarantine facility.”

On Friday, SSP Imtiaz Ismail Parray presented his version of the story. “My mother-in-law is doing well at SKIMS (Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, Soura, Srinagar). The rest of my family is also following necessary protocol. Although no direct contact was made yet, I am also going into isolation… urge all to leave nothing to chance and follow govt (Government) directives strictly,” he wrote on Twitter.

The police officer’s decision to opt for self-quarantine was hailed by a few of his colleagues and administrative officials, including Srinagar district development commissioner Shahid Choudhary.

“Proud of you @imtiazismailp sb,” Choudhary wrote in response.

Rayees Mohammad Bhat, a police officer and wrote, “Be smart. Be like Imtiaz sir.”

However, the public did not take this too lightly and sharply criticised Parray. He was accused of using his influence to get her relative out without attending mandatory quarantine.

What is the version put out by the officer?

According to the family, the woman preponed her travel plans and flew to Mumbai via Kerala and Hyderabad on March 14 without changing her flight.

She was first screened at Mumbai. She flew to New Delhi afterward where a second screening was done. A close relative told The Federal that she then flew to Srinagar via Chandigarh and a third screening took place at the Srinagar airport.

Parray told The Federal that there were only three possibilities for him to be infected by the virus: one, he must have gone to the Srinagar Airport in person to receive her mother-in-law; two, he could have spoken to the police officials present there to get her out from the VIP gate; and three, he might have used influence to convince the doctors present there to allow her relative out without following due procedures.

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“I rule out all the three possibilities,” he told The Federal.

The CCTV footage of the airport has helped support the officer’s claim about his presence at the airport during his relative’s arrival.

Meanwhile, one more allegation against the woman is that she kept using her influence right from the New Delhi airport and then allegedly left the Srinagar airport without following the due procedures.

Yet another allegation is that she developed symptoms only after she came home.
The incident has stirred a debate in Kashmir about VIP culture and how people wielding influence get away without following protocol even during one of the worst humanitarian crises the world is facing after the Spanish flu, which was a century ago.

Many argue that the SSP’s alleged interference has put lives of other Kashmiris in danger. They say that, given her history of travel, it was important for the mother-in-law to have either opted for hospital quarantine or at least take up home quarantine.

Kuldeep Khoda, former Director General of J&K Police, speaking to The Federal argued that everyone, especially law enforcement officials, should strictly adhere to government directives — especially when such instructions are supported by medical advice — and not put anyone else’s life at risk.

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“It is a question of security as well as health of everybody. Protocols should be followed in letter and spirit. I can’t understand the logic behind flouting government directives. Anyone who does it, does it at his/her own peril while also putting lives of others at risk,” he said.

Apart from this episode, two Kashmiri female doctors working at the valley’s two well-known hospitals — Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) and Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS) — have been kept under observation at SKIMS after they complained of respiratory issues and other COVID-19-related symptoms.

Earlier, several doctors working at the Government Medical College in Srinagar alleged that there was “inadequate supply of protective gear and other equipment” which is needed at the moment. Doctors said gowns, masks, gloves, and sanitizers for medical staff are not available in adequate numbers, thus increasing chances of them getting infected.

“See, it is a war-like situation. Like, a soldier cannot be allowed to fight the enemy without wearing a bullet-proof jacket, you can’t let doctors treat COVID-19 patients without protective gear. It is as simple as that,” a senior doctor working at Srinagar’s Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial (JLNM) hospital told The Federal.

Other doctors that The Federal spoke to highlighted two important points: one, the authorities initially failed to plug arrivals from foreign countries, especially from China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and did not do enough to put them under observation or quarantine; and two, now they are quarantining Kashmiri students who arrive from low-risk (in terms of COVID-19 threat) countries like Bangladesh.