On March 23, a 63-year-old man landed at Srinagar airport with his wife and two nephews. They had just flown in from Delhi. After the family revealed their travel history to the authorities, they went through the mandatory thermal screening for the coronavirus, left the airport and headed home.

“Even though my parents had no symptoms, I was apprehensive,” said the 63-year-old man’s son. “I had read a lot on the internet about the signs and symptoms of Covid-19 and I knew that the virus has the potential to spread through domestic travellers.”

To be safe, he dialled the Covid-19 helpline number put out by the local administration to ask for advice. “It took me half an hour to reach them because the call just didn’t connect,” he said. “When I explained the situation to them, they asked me whether my parents were showing symptoms or had been screened at the airport. I revealed all the details, expecting some guidelines to follow.”

Instead, the official on the line told him: “Ann cokrah wokrah ti beh ghari. Yi bemeair chani kiheen. Yi che asi paanaiy baneavmich. Go buy a chicken and enjoy yourself at home. This disease is nothing. We have just created it in our head.”

Two days after the travellers returned, the 63-year-old developed a sore throat.“He went to a local dispensary, from where he was asked to go to SKIMS [the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences] in Soura,” his son recounted. “He was admitted there and kept in quarantine. He tested negative for Covid-19 but he is yet to complete the quarantine period.”

His wife has isolated herself at home. “Fortunately, she doesn’t have any symptoms but we thought we should take care,” the son said. “The local government didn’t issue any guidelines for travellers coming from other station. My father stayed with us for three days before he had a sore throat. What’s the purpose of quarantining him now or keeping my mother into isolation?”

He also demanded why the government waited till March 25 to suspend all domestic flight operations.

A crucial delay

Across states, officials have been slow to monitor and quarantine domestic travellers who could carry the virus to different parts of the country. On February 26, the central government issued an advisory saying travellers from China would be quarantined, adding that people from other Covid-19 affected countries may be quarantined. Over the next few weeks, it slowly widened the restrictions for international travellers, cancelling visas, enforcing quarantines for travellers from certain countries and finally suspending all international flights after March 22.

But domestic flights continued until midnight on March 24 – when the 21-day lockdown began.

The same day, the Jammu and Kashmir administration had ordered that the Union Territory’s borders be sealed and those entering Jammu and Kashmir by road through Kathua district be quarantined.

Until then, quarantine measures for travellers entering the Union Territory from other states were patchily followed, if at all. Jammu and Kashmir had already shut down interstate buses and banned international travellers on March 17. It also started quarantining passengers from Ladakh, which saw an early outbreak of cases, as well as students flying in from Bangladesh.

However, many domestic travellers who entered Jammu and Kashmir till March 24 said they went through thermal screening and had to give travel details, but did not receive any instructions to report for quarantine or self-isolate at home.

Passengers are checked for temperature in Jammu and Kashmir.

Spread through domestic travel

Yet, the spread of Covid-19 cases in Jammu and Kashmir has been driven to a large extent by those with a travel history within India. On March 28, Jammu and Kashmir government spokesperson Rohit Kansal said that out of 33 Covid-19 cases detected in Jammu and Kashmir until then, 11 “could be traced to a single religious congregation.”

This turned out to be the Tablighi Jamaat conference in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area. Other states were also slow to track travellers to the conference, which has accounted for several cases across the country, including 10 deaths.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the 65-year-old man who had attended the conference lived in Srinagar’s Hyderpora area. He had visited Delhi and Uttar Pradesh before returning to Kashmir. After his return, he had visited several places, including religious functions in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district.

When he first started feeling unwell, he reported to the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences at Bemina. From there, he was referred to the hospital’s Soura branch. A day later, doctors at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar suspected that he might have been infected by the coronavirus and referred him to the Chest Disease Hospital, where he was finally admitted. He died at the hospital on the morning of March 26.

Doctor’s in Kashmir warn that the week’s delay in enforcing quarantine for everyone entering Jammu and Kashmir could prove costly. “If the kind of screening and mandatory quarantine we are doing today had been done before, the situation would have definitely been better,” said a doctor at one of Srinagar’s major hospitals.

According to him, domestic travellers had been at high risk of infection at ports of travel used by international travellers.

The quarantine that wasn’t

Yet in many cases, the authorities only quarantined domestic travellers after they had been home for days. Take journalist Aabid Shafi and his brother, who drove their car from Delhi to their home in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, arriving on March 23. They went through the routine thermal testing at the Lower Munda toll post, some 10 km from the Jawahar tunnel, which is the gateway to the Kashmir Valley.

“Once we reached home, we rang up the nodal officer for Covid-19 in our village and informed him of our arrival,” said Shafi. “The next day, he came to our house and took down all the details. He also advised us to visit a hospital and get a medical check-up done. When we went to hospital on March 26, we were checked for symptoms and prescribed home quarantine for 14 days.”

According to Shafi, even before the doctor’s advice, they had self-isolated at home. But then on March 27, officials from the Pulwama district administration came to their home and asked them to report to a government quarantine facility. “First of all, according to government guidelines all asymptomatic people with domestic travel history should self-quarantine at home,” said Shafi. “Secondly, what’s the logic behind quarantining us at a government facility four days after our arrival? Shouldn’t have they done it immediately?”

Still, Shafi and his brother did report at multiple government quarantine facilities in Pulwama district. “But there was no space for us,” he said. “They had put two-three people in each room. We finally went to a nodal officer at a government hospital in Pampore. He told us that they have run out of space. He also said you can go home if you don’t have any symptoms tonight. He asked us to come back the next day and said that we would probably be sent to a quarantine facility at Islamic University of Science and Technology [in Awantipora, about 15 kilometres away].”

According to Shafi, they decided against going to the quarantine facility after seeing the arrangements in these places. “They were treating us as if we were positive cases,” he said. “They didn’t give us any transport facility to reach the centres. Besides, I don’t see reason in quarantining myself at a government facility after having spent time at home.”

So far, Shafi and his brother have managed to stay quarantined at home, though they keep getting calls from the district administration, asking them to report at one of the government facilities. One senior official, Shafi said, threatened legal action if they failed to show up.

Pulwama deputy commissioner Raghav Langer did not respond to calls or messages from Scroll.in.

A municipal worker sprays disinfectant amid coronavirus fears in Srinagar.

‘Compromise for God’s sake’

The grim state of government quarantine facilities has meant there is much resistance from travellers who are asked to report there. Viral social media posts about these facilities speak of poor hygiene and the lack of proper food. Facilities for international travellers, for whom quarantine is mandatory, are not better than those arranged for domestic travellers.

One medical student who flew into Srinagar from Dhaka on March 19 is still in quarantine. “From the Srinagar airport, we were driven to Haj House, where 40-50 students like me were sheltered in two large rooms,” he said. “There were only two washrooms – one each for boys and girls. The entire facility was so untidy that it became unbearable to stay.”

After protests, the authorities shifted the girls to a hotel the night they arrived. For the boys, said the medical student, officials threw open four more rooms, each fitted with a washroom. “But the washrooms had no water at all,” he said. “Social distancing in a space like that seemed a joke.”

For three days, nothing changed. “Finally, we packed our stuff and gathered outside the building,” he said. “We told the officials to give us a proper facility. One of them told me ‘you have to compromise for the sake of God.’ I told him I can’t compromise on my life.”

On March 21, the male students, about 15 in number, were shifted to a private hotel in Srinagar. “It’s better here and, thankfully, we are finally able to actually quarantine ourselves,” he said. “If, God forbid, one of us had been infected, all of us would have tested positive had we stayed any longer at the Haj House.”