Govt Risking Lives’: Khelo India Games in J&K Amid COVID-19 Fears

Close on the heels of the government’s own advisory against holding gatherings across India, coupled with detection of the first two “high viral load” cases in Jammu and Kashmir on Saturday, 7 March, the Union Territory (UT) government arranged for assembly of 800 sportspersons from 10 States, including a number of local student players, at the inauguration of first winter games chapter of ‘Khelo India’ at Gulmarg.

Unfazed by apprehensions, about the outbreak of Coronavirus, expressed by the students’ parents and school administrations, Union Minister of State for Youth Affairs and Sports, Kiren Rijiju inaugurated the winter games. The ceremony took place on the four-foot thick snow accumulation amidst sub-zero temperature at the famous tourist resort of Gulmarg. The government has booked almost all hotels for five days.

Senior government functionaries including Advisor to Lieutenant Advisor Farooq Khan, Secretary Tourism Zubair Ahmad, Secretary Youth Services and Sports Sarmad Hafeez and Director General of Youth Services and Sports Dr Saleem-ur-Rehman were present when Rijiju set the event rolling and enjoyed an open-air cultural music outside the Gulmarg Club.

‘Govt Putting Lives At Risk’: Students’ Parents
Authorities refused to take cognisance of the apprehensions of civil society, parents and students who had called for postponement of the gathering amid reports of the Coronavirus.

The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had asked for cancelling mass gatherings across India and calling for necessary precautions in case such an event was important.

Apprehensions in Gulmarg were all the more critical as most of the viruses, including COVID-19, are known to survive and proliferate in sub-zero atmosphere and temperature below 26 degrees Celsius.

Ghulam Nabi Var, president of Private Schools Association of Jammu and Kashmir (PSAJK) said,“Holding of the National Winter Games in Kashmir, at a time of crisis all the world due to Coronavirus, is not understandable. Major tournaments and games have been postponed globally.”

Questioning the reason for persisting with the event, Var further said, “We fail to understand why the government is keen to go ahead with the winter games in Gulmarg in which more than 800 players and probably thousands of spectators from entire country and outside the country will be coming”.

“All will be huddled in a small place with snow and cold temperature everywhere and imagine what will happen if anybody has any symptoms of this viral disease,” he added.

“The government is putting lives of millions of residents and vulnerable section of society like old and children, at risk. We already have a weak health infrastructure and any outbreak could play havoc with life of people.”
Ghulam Nabi Var, president of Private Schools Association of Jammu and Kashmir

More than 100,000 positive cases have been detected in China, Iran, South Korea, Japan and several other countries, and over 3,300 persons have died across the world in the last two months.

Government of India has been putting in place facilities, holding thermal screening of incoming international passengers and testing of suspicious cases at different laboratories.

Not a Single COVID-19 Case in J&K, Says Govt
Amid testing and observation of hundreds of suspicious cases, not more than 32 have been found positive in India. As of now, there have been no fatalities.

Senior officials in J&K government declined to speak why the gathering of over 800 players from 10 States and local student players had been arranged for the Union Minister at Gulmarg when the atmosphere was not conducive. Government spokesperson and Principal Secretary Planning & Development Rohit Kansal told The Quint that until Saturday morning, “not a single case” had been found positive with CONVID-19 in the UT. He said that for the first time on Saturday, government had ordered closure of all primary schools in Jammu and Samba districts till 31 March and biometric attendance has been suspended in entire J&K.

“Yes, two persons with high viral load have been detected in Jammu. There is a strong probability of both being positive but we are waiting for the final test reports from NCDC (National Centre for Disease Control) New Delhi. These are expected by late afternoon today”, Dr Shafquat Khan, Nodal Officer for CONVID-19, asserted.

5 Ladakh Residents Put In Isolation
Officials later revealed that both the Jammu residents— a Ladakhi woman who had returned from a pilgrimage in Iran and a man of Satwari airport area of Jammu who had arrived in from South Korea—had reported symptoms of flu a few days back.

Their blood samples had been taken and they had been put in isolation. Both, according to officials, returned to home without knowledge and permission of the hospital staff.

“We have got them both back and placed them in the isolation ward at Government Medical College Jammu. We are just waiting for their final reports from NCDC”, Dr Khan said. He revealed that the lady had returned from the Iran pilgrimage with a group of 22 residents from Ladakh.

“If she is proved positive, it could be catastrophic in Kargil”. Kargil, a Shia-dominated district in UT of Ladakh, sends hundreds of pilgrims and students every year to Iran.

Dr Khan said that the J&K Government had immediately started screening everybody staying within 300 metre radius of the residences of the two isolated patients.

Dr Khan said that in all, there were 290 persons under observation in J&K. “Only 5 of them had been placed in an isolation ward at SKIMS. Four of them have been now discharged after their reports came negative. Only one is with us. We are waiting for his reports”, Dr Abdul Gani Ahangar, Director Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, told Doordarshan on Friday, 6 February. According to the officials, only two of the 290 persons under observation were in an isolation ward in Jammu and one at SKIMS in Srinagar.

A senior officer in Health and Medical Education Department said that in all samples of 28 suspected cases had been sent to NCDC. Of them, 21 have been proved negative. “Final reports in seven cases, including the two in the GMC Jammu isolation ward, are still awaited and expected today”, said the officer.

As regards the gathering of nearly 1,000 persons, including 800 players, at Gulmarg, Dr Khan disclosed that the Government had started screening of all incoming players, students and others at Lowe Mundi, near Qazigund, on Srinagar-Jammu highway. Besides, some medical teams had started examining the participant players and students at Gulmarg. “As of now, none of them has suspected symptoms of Coronavirus”, he asserted.

AHMED ALI FAYAZ/The Quint