Communications blackouts in Jammu and Kashmir are making coronavirus lockdown doubly frightening

Without high-speed internet, medical professionals and the public are deprived of vital information

Like many countries, India has entered a nationwide shut-in to protect its 1.3 billion citizens from coronavirus.

But communications blackouts in the conflicted region of Jammu and Kashmir make lockdown doubly frightening, confusing and dangerous, writes Puja Changoiwala, a freelance journalist based in Mumbai, in The BMJ today.

Before the global crisis hit, the Indian government had lifted a 7 month communications blackout in the region – but restricted internet access to 2G services, she explains.

This means that many doctors spend hours each day trying to access up-to-date medical literature and guidelines around the pandemic.

Abdul Raheem (not his real name), a medical professional in the north Indian state of Kashmir, says that with a lack of high-speed internet, “it is extremely difficult to remain updated. This also affects diagnosis, prescription and treatment.”

Without high-speed internet, the population is also deprived of information about best practice guidelines like social distancing and washing hands, said lawyer Nakul Nayak, a former Google public policy fellow who authored a paper on India’s internet shutdowns.

To help reach its citizens through multiple channels during the pandemic, the Indian government has launched an official coronavirus tracking app, WhatsApp and Facebook messenger chatbots, and a dedicated Covid-19 Twitter account.

But with the Internet restrictions, the residents of Jammu and Kashmir struggle to access these.

“Even simpler things like video-calling your loved ones to help you get through this difficult time is not possible on 2G networks,” Nayak said. “We cannot even imagine the mental issues that people might be facing.”

Nayak said that the restrictions are catastrophic for medical professionals in the region already suffering staff, equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages and now trying to understand a new disease.

“Doctors and healthcare workers have to adhere to best practice guidelines issued by organisations like the WHO, and yet, they are not able to access this content in the best possible way,” said Nayak. “Medical professionals are most critical to containing this pandemic, and they are deprived of information here.”

“Depriving citizens of internet connectivity right now is not just deprivation of fundamental rights, it’s criminal in act, and it’s going to be devastating for the region,” said Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Kashmir Times, the largest circulated English daily in the region. “I fear that the frustration will lead to increased mobility outside, as opposed to the universal guideline of staying indoors to limit covid-19 infections.”

Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, told The BMJ that Internet access could actually help to maintain peace by stopping panic.

“Governments need to recognize that internet crackdowns may make the pandemic worse by denying sick people the opportunity to find needed information and see how care providers are dealing with the disease,” he said.

On 19 March, Amnesty International called on the Indian government to adopt a “rights-respecting approach to protect public health,” asking the state to mitigate the risk to Jammu and Kashmir and restore full access to services immediately.

/Public Release. View in full here.