On Friday, Jammu and Kashmir recorded 1,937 fresh Covid-19 positive cases as 19 patients succumbed to the virus – the highest toll in a single day since the onset of pandemic last year. Two days earlier, the Union territory registered 2,204 new cases, its highest-ever daily spike.

On Friday, as India reeled under the second wave of infections, the country recorded 332,730 new Covid-19 cases, the highest number of infections recorded in a single day in any country since the start of the pandemic.

The numbers in Jammu and Kashmir have climbed rapidly. On April 1, the territory had registered only 461 cases, taking the total number of active Covid-19 patients to 2,874. Just over three weeks later, the total number of patients has risen by more than five times to 16,993. This month, 113 patients have died of the virus in the Union territory.

However, while health professionals in other parts of the country attribute the surge

to a new strain of the virus, doctors in Kashmir are yet to see evidence of the B.1.617 variant. “We have been sending the Covid samples of patients to New Delhi and Pune laboratories for testing,” Dr AG Ahanger, the director of the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences told reporters during a press conference on April 20. “There has been no change in the Covid strain that existed in Kashmir last year so far.”

On Friday, though, local media reported that a patient with the N440K variant has been found in Kashmir valley. In addition, 28 cases of the UK Covid-19 strain and other strains have already been reported in Jammu region, Health and Medical Education Commissioner Atal Dulloo told The Hindu.

High transmission rate

The rise in the number of Covid-19 cases may be driven by the high transmissibility of the virus, said Dr Muhammad Salim Khan, the head of the community medicine at the Government Medical College, Srinagar. “There are two differences we have witnessed in the virus’s behaviour this year,” he said. “Transmission is relatively fast and it’s affecting all kinds of age groups. Last year, we didn’t see many younger people having symptoms despite testing positive but this time even younger people and children are affected and showing symptoms.”

Khan also noted that on April 21, around 19% of the total 2,204 Covid-19 cases in the territory were travellers. “The positivity rate in the case of travellers in the previous year was less than 1% but now it’s around 4%,” he said.

With the onset of spring, the Union territory administration in Jammu and Kashmir had placed an extraordinary thrust on the tourism industry and cultural events in order to encourage tourists to visit the Valley. More than 2 lakh visitors have visited the tulip garden in Srinagar, Asia’s largest such garden in less than a month. Thirty three percent were tourists from outside the Union territory.

With the second wave of Covid-19 wreaking havoc across India, tourist footfalls have dropped considerably. Hotels and tour operators are witnessing mass cancellation of advance bookings.

Though tourists and travellers were tested on arrival, many have criticised the government’s reluctance to close down tourist spots and cancel cultural events. “If they can close down schools and universities, what was the need to keep these gardens and other spots open where thousands of people would be seen together?” asked Srinagar resident Gazanfar Ahmad.

However, a doctor at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital said it was wrong to blame tourists or gatherings at tourist spots entirely for the Covid-19 situation. The surge, he said, was primarily linked to resident not being serious about following Covid-19 protocols.

Srinagar tops the list

The largest rise in the Covid-19 cases has been in Srinagar. On April 20, when the Union territory recorded 2,030 new cases, 647 cases were from Srinagar district. The other nine districts of Kashmir valley together accounted for 439 cases. Out of the 9,881 active Covid-19 cases in Kashmir valley, 53% are from Srinagar district.

Since April 1, the Srinagar district administration has declared more than two dozen areas in the city as micro-containment zones. Such zones can be declared if an area has more than active Covid-19 cases. The micro-containment zone is usually declared within a 50-metre-75 metre radius of the epicentre of the cases and the entry inside or outside the zone is restricted.

There’s no clear answer why Srinagar has been hit so badly by the second wave of the pandemic. “Travellers load is high in Srinagar and all the main hospitals of the valley are here, so people from other districts and far-flung areas, eventually get to Srinagar,” noted Khan of the Government Medical College. “Besides, there’s more accessibility to healthcare and testing in Srinagar.”

‘Challenging situation’

Despite the rising numbers, though, the Jammu and Kashmir government on Tuesday ruled out the possibility of imposing a lockdown. However, it ordered a night curfew from 10 pm to 6 am across all 20 districts of the Union territory. The government also ordered public transport vehicles to ply at only 50% of their seating capacity.

“Only 50% shops in major market complexes/bazaars/malls within the municipal limits/urban local body limits shall be open on alternate basis through a rotation system,” read an order issued by the State Executive Committe, formed under Disaster Management Act, 2005.

Schools, colleges, private coaching institutes and universities have been already closed down and examinations have been postponed. On April 10, the government has also placed restrictions on gatherings and only allowed a limited number of people to participate in funerals, weddings or other social gatherings.

So far, more than 19 lakh people in the Union territory have been vaccinated. They include frontline health workers, doctors and government employees.

Jammu and Kashmir government has emphasised that the Covid-19 situation in the Inion territory is “challenging but not out of control.”

Building capacity

On April 21, Health and Medical Education Commissioner Atal Dulloo said that Jammu and Kashmir has made “ample preparations to meet the challenge”. In a statement issued by Jammu and Kashmir government’s Department of Information and Public Relations on April 21, Dulloo said the Union territory had 600 ventilators, 6,000 Covid beds in hospitals, 10,000 bulk oxygen cylinders and 3,500 medium-sized cylinders.

Around 36 oxygen generation plants are in the process of being installed, of which 23 will be functional by April 25, Dulloo said.

Over the past week, social media in Kashmir has been filled with appeals to community organisations and mosque management committees to gear up for an unfolding crisis. “Unfortunately, people are still not taking it seriously,” said the doctor at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital, who requested anonymity. “It’s time for community centres like mosques to sensitise people about the situation and also take measures like arranging oxygen cylinders and beds at the community level.”

Spike in Ladakh

Covid-19 cases have also surged in the cold desert region of Ladakh. On April 17, the Union territory recorded its highest ever daily spike this year with 362 new cases. It has witnessed four Covid-19 deaths this month – the first since January 30.

Ladakh recorded 198 fresh cases of Covid-19 on Thursday, with 183 cases from Leh district alone. The Union territory also recorded the death of a Covid-19 affected patient.

Leh district has been bearing the brunt of the second wave of Covid-19. Out of the total 2,041 active positive cases in the Union territory, 1,939 were in Leh district alone. Kargil district had only 102 active Covid-19 cases.

On April 17, Ladakh district magistrate Shrikant Balasaheb Suse ordered government and private schools to stay closed until April 30. Three days later, the administration ordered closure of all higher educational institutes including colleges and universities till April 30 in both Leh and Kargil.

The administration has also put a cap on the number of participants who can join social gatherings and other events.

“We have also made a negative RT-PCR [Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction] Covid-19 test, done not more than four days back, mandatory for any outside labourer arriving in Leh,” said an official from Leh district administration, speaking off the record.

On April 23, the union territory administration also made a negative RTPC report mandatory for tourists visiting Leh. “Those who come with fake test certificates will be deported,” the official added.