In Gongma village, the roads have been deserted for weeks before the janata curfew swept people off the streets. Gongma is part of the Chuchot area in Ladakh. Along with the neighbouring hamlet of Yokma, it is the epicentre of the coronavirus cases in Ladakh.

Gongma, about 18 kilometres away from the district headquarters of Leh, has been isolated since March 8, days after a pilgrim back from Iran tested positive for Covid-19. The administration notified the containment of Yokma, also in Chuchot, on March 17. “Nobody’s going out of the containment area,” said Abdul Qader, the numberdar, or headman, of Yokma. “People from our village who went outside are not allowed to return. They are staying with relatives outside.”

The cold, sparsely populated desert region has recorded 13 cases so far – two from Kargil district and 11 from Leh district. Of these, Qader said, 10 cases were from the hamlets of Gongma and Yokma in Chuchot.

Confirming that villages had been contained, Ladakh divisional commissioner Saugat Biswas said security personnel had been deployed, “as per the Covid-19 protocol”. “Basic medical facilities and even banking facilities are running,” he said. “Ambulances are placed outside at exit points.” He could not confirm how many villages had been isolated in the Union Territory of Ladakh.

Mumtaz Hussain, councillor from Chuchot in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, said Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel and local police forces were stationed around the boundaries of the village. Hussain, whose family lives in Gongma, went to Delhi to help extricate the Ladakhi pilgrims still stuck in Iran. He has not been able to enter the village on his return.

Within the containment zone, all shops are shut apart from a few small groceries and pharmacies. “If we need anything else, the administration brings it from Leh,” said Qader. “There are three or four temporary distribution centres set up by the cooperative where rations may be bought.” Medicines were also distributed by government workers in the village.

People only ventured out for a few minutes in twos and threes to buy what they needed, Qader said. Otherwise, everyone stayed in. “For the last two days, terror has spread in the village,” he said.

Screening pilgrims

Panic spread after a taxi driver from Gongma tested positive for coronavirus after testing negative twice. He had been a regular visitor to the hospital in Leh, where his father-in-law, also a pilgrim who returned from Iran, was admitted, said Qader.

“After he tested negative twice, people from the hospital dropped him home,” he said. “But a couple of days later, he tested positive for the third time and was taken back to hospital with his family. That is when people said, what is this joke? He tested negative twice and sent home. That is when there was a furore.”

Reports quoted Rigzin Samphel, Ladakh health secretary, who said there was no violation of protocol – a second sample had been taken because doctors were not satisfied with the first test. A third sample had to be collected because there was “some confusion” and the testing centre had not received the second sample, he said.

Almost all of those who were infected, he said, were pilgrims who had returned from Iran and their relatives. The first patient tested positive on March 6 and days later, his 34-year-old son, a soldier in the Ladakh Scouts regiment, was also found to be infected. The pilgrim’s other son, a daughter-in-law and an infant in the family also tested positive.

Chuchot, a Shia-majority constituency, has a large number of residents going for ziyarat, or pilgrimage, to Iran. Abbas Abidi, former councillor from Chuchot, said the administration should have been more vigilant in screening returning pilgrims.

“Right now, they are cooperating very well; people are also cooperating,” he said. ”But there were lapses on the part of the government. We all know China and Iran are the epicentres of the outbreak. When people arrived from Iran on February 27, they were let straight in. Security was so lax, no one even knew those people had come from Iran. These people went to their homes. Whenever people come back from ziyarat, 100-200 people go to visit them, they shake hands, embrace, eat together. Thankfully only two families who came back from ziyarat were infected.”

Samphel was not available to comment on screening measures for travellers from Iran. However, over the last few days, the newly created Union Territory prohibited the entry of foreign tourists. As of March 18, labourers from other states were also forbidden to enter until March 31.

Rations on credit

Residents of Gongma, isolated since March 8, had expected the restrictions to be lifted in two weeks. But the fresh cases have meant restrictions will remain in place for some time to come, Qader said. While there are no shortages at the moment, the economic strain of a long lockdown is beginning to show. There had been heavy losses, Qader said.

Farming has been stalled and daily wage labourers have taken a hit. “The immediate loss is to taxi drivers and milk distributors,” Qader said. “They can’t go outside to sell milk and there is no one to buy it.”

Qader is part of a village committee helping out those in need. “For now, we have got rations on credit,” he said. “We distributed it to those who can’t pay and made a note of it.”