On May 23, says the 28-year-old, he boarded a Shramik Special train from Mumbai, along with 135 residents of the Union Territory of Ladakh’s Kargil district, to return home. “After reaching Udhampur, nearly 30 of us boarded a bus. We arrived on May 26 and were put in institutional quarantine, with our samples collected for Covid-19 testing on June 1.”
Refusing to reveal his identity, he adds that for the next two weeks, none of them heard anything on their test results. “We asked everyone — the medical team, Chief Medical Officer, Chief Executive Councillor (of the Kargil Hill Council). We even asked others on Facebook to share their stories. Many said they had been waiting for their results for days too,” he recalls. “On June 12, all 30 of us gathered outside the quarantine centre and protested… We were anxious, nervous.”
Finally, on June 14, his results came positive for Covid-19. “I had already spent 14 days in quarantine. No one was clear if I was still carrying the virus, and so I had to undergo re-sampling on June 16,” he says. That result too was positive, and now he is waiting for results of the third test, done on June 24.
Having declared itself Covid-free on May 15, Kargil district is seeing a surge in cases this month. Of Ladakh’s nearly 1,000 cases, 70% are in Kargil. Authorities say one reason is the long wait for test results, of students and professionals returning to the state due to the lockdown – leaving others susceptible to exposure to them.
Says Feroz Ahmed Khan, Chief Executive Councillor (CEC) of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Kargil, “Those who returned from other states mixed freely with residents since their results were not out… That set us back.”
Kargil has no testing lab, with the nearest 200 km away, in Chuchot Yokma in Leh district.
“Earlier, we were sending most of our samples to the NCDC in Delhi. In June, the number of cases in the Capital increased and results of tests from Kargil started getting delayed. Recently, we have begun to send our samples to Chandigarh, and we hope this will reduce delays,” says Dr Abdul Jalil, in-charge of the only dedicated Covid-19 hospital in Kargil, with 100 beds. As of June 24, 63 beds were occupied.
Khan says that apart from the hospital, they have 10 ICU beds, a Covid Care Centre in each of the 12 blocks, isolation beds, quarantine centres, and beds in hotels — about 1,000 beds in all. While manpower has been an issue – Dr Jalil says they have only 40 doctors across the district –so far Kargil hasn’t had a problem as all of its cases are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms.
Many from Kargil waiting for their test results accuse the Chuchot Yokma facility of giving preference to samples from Leh over those from their district – tapping into an old resentment against the more prosperous Leh.
Among them is a 25-year-old research scholar at Delhi University who returned to Kargil on May 14 and remains in home quarantine since, waiting for results of a second sample. “The laboratory has been conducting 80-90 tests daily as per the press release of the UT administration. Of these, at least till June 17, not more than 10 tests were from Kargil, despite the number of patients being more here,” he says.
Khan says they are trying to see to it that more samples from Kargil are tested at the Leh lab.
Kargil Deputy Commissioner Baseer Ul Haq Choudhary did not respond to calls and messages. CMO Dr Ibrahim Khan said he could not speak to the press.
Meanwhile, waiting for lab reports, patients like the DU student are battling Covid stigma. “On May 28, when my test results came positive, my name, address and phone number went viral on social media. Who put it out? The Deputy Commissioner set up a committee to investigate, but I am yet to hear about its findings,” he says.
On top of it, Kargil residents are now on edge over the border tension with China. Sajjad Hussain, a social activist, says the mixed messages from the government aren’t helping, despite the site of the June 15-16 night clash being 400 km away. “Since the Kargil war, there has been no ceasefire violation from Pakistan’s side in the district. Now people fear there might be shelling. The UT administration should reach out to stakeholders such as village heads to soothe nerves.”
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