In the past one month, several High Courts in India have pulled up governments for their failure to prepare for the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and pushed them to make improvements in their health systems.
But the Jammu and Kashmir High Court is not one of them.
It is yet to hear a petition filed nearly two weeks ago, on April 28, seeking its intervention in monitoring the preparedness of the union territory in dealing with the second wave of Covid-19.
“Nearly two weeks have passed and the court has not even listed the petition for hearing,” said Farhana Latief, a Kashmiri legal researcher, who filed the petition.
The delay in listing – or allotting a date for the hearing – comes at a time when the union territory has seen a 1300% increase in the number of active Covid-19 cases over a month. On April 1, Jammu and Kashmir had 2,874 active Covid-19 cases. By May 8, this number had climbed to 46,535 cases, with the territory recording its highest ever single day tally of 5,443 fresh cases on May 7.
Latief’s lawyers have filed three urgency memos, or pleas appended to a petition requesting the court to take up the matter on an urgent and prompt basis.
“The petition was mentioned thrice in the court of the Chief Justice, including on May 6,” Habeel Iqbal, one of the lawyers representing the petitioner, told Scroll.in. But he said there was no response.
Latief said she felt the need to go to the court because she feared Jammu and Kashmir was losing precious time in preparing for the full brunt of the second wave. “What we were essentially trying to understand was how has the government augmented their healthcare capacities since last year,” she said.
The petition sought directions from the court to press upon the government to expand capacity at district level hospitals to prevent the overburdening of tertiary care hospitals in Srinagar.
“We are not just talking about augmentation of capacities in terms of oxygen supply, but in terms of beds, ventilators, medical and paramedical staff,” Latief added.
Another prayer in the petition pertained to a consultative mechanism between the government and religious bodies under which only few worshippers will be allowed to pray in mosques on a rotational basis. “These gatherings have a potential to become a hotspot,” explained Latief. “Since it is the month of Ramzan, people feel obliged to pray in congregations.”
System under strain
Jammu and Kashmir government on Wednesday said it would add 1,050 oxygen beds to its existing capacity of 2,724 oxygen beds within a week. The government also said there was no lack of oxygen supply in the union territory and it planned to establish 21 oxygen plants in hospitals within the next 15 days.
However, the healthcare system, particularly in the summer capital city of Srinagar, is already struggling with the surge in the number of cases and mismanagement, doctors say.
“The biggest problem is referrals from district hospitals because there is no policy about it,” said a doctor who works in a Covid-designated hospital in Srinagar. “Even patients not in need of tertiary care are sent to Srinagar hospitals. This in turn adds to the burden of these hospitals.”
The doctor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, pointed out that there was a shortage of doctors and paramedical staff to deal with the pandemic. “It becomes more difficult when a doctor is infected with Covid-19 because he has to stay away from the hospital,” he said. “We definitely need more doctors and paramedical staff on an urgent basis.”
Another aspect which needs government’s intervention at the earliest is the soaring prices of oxygen equipment like concentrators and cylinders, the doctor added. “Due to the rise in prices of concentrators many are simply unable to buy it on their own, therefore adding to the burden of hospitals.”
Non-governmental organisations and charity groups in Kashmir say they are already inundated with hundreds of calls every day from patients needing oxygen support through concentrators and cylinders.
“Given the rise in the number of cases, we are already in a state of crunch now,” said another doctor at one of the tertiary care hospitals in Srinagar, who did not want to be identified. “The only reason why hospitals are able to cater to seriously ill patients is because a lot of burden is being shared by these NGOs who are providing oxygen support to scores of patients inside their homes. If they are not there, it will be a catastrophe.”
Lack of urgency
Across India, with state governments failing to tackle the surge in Covid-19 cases, several High Courts have brought a sense of urgency through their interventions.
In the second week of April, for instance, the Gujarat High Court took suo-moto cognisance of the worsening Covid-19 situation in the state. Subsequently, at least six high courts have held urgent hearings and passed multiple Covid-19 emergency orders. Even the Supreme Court, after an initial lull, has become proactive in holding the government to account.
But in Jammu and Kashmir, the high court has shown no such promptness. “People across the world depend on the judiciary for holding the governments accountable but unfortunately our case seems to be other way round,” said Iqbal, the legal counsel for the petitioner, by which he meant that by not hearing the petition, the court was shielding the government.
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