kashmir coronavirus
A security personnel wearing a facemask stands guard along a deserted street during a one-day nationwide Janata (civil) curfew imposed as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Srinagar on March 22, 2020. Photo: Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP
Tech

The State-Imposed 2G Internet is Making Things Worse for Kashmiris Under Coronavirus Lockdown

Doctors are unable to download guidelines, news updates are slow to load, and some students have had to stay away from home because of the lack of connectivity.
25 March 2020, 9:33am

Here we all are, cooped up at home, looking at the world from our windows, being beaten up when venturing out, and glued to our screens while shuttling from news to entertainment several times in a day. While most of the country finds this time confusing and a bit terrifying—using video calling to stay sane and not become a lonely garbage slug—for us in Kashmir, the lockdown is just among the many lockdowns we’ve lived under, with restricted movement and low access to amenities being no strangers. And while I am imagining most of you are relying heavily on your fast internet speeds to stream shows and chat with people you love, out here, we are still stuck with 2G speeds at a time when we’re craving for rapidly evolving news too.

Last Wednesday, Kashmir saw its first positive case of coronavirus. At the time of writing this, the newly-formed Union Territory of Kashmir had a total of seven cases, three of which were reported just yesterday. But the day after the first case came out, paramilitary forces were up on roads, putting up concertina wires, aggressively enforcing restrictions and prohibiting citizens from moving around—perhaps also because it was the only way to stop people from stepping out. It might be doing the same for the whole country right now but in Kashmir, authorities are used to putting up curfews as a quick solution, while on the other hand, it’s only curfews that make the citizens who have long lost their trust in the administration, stay indoors. Even as, for the first time in my life, it’s a pandemic and not politics that has made me and everyone around me stay indoors, I am cognisant of the fact that it’s easy for the government to revert to a tried-and-tested model of putting up a curfew in Kashmir. However, the collective frustration point is that while the rest of the country can receive news immediately and chat with their loved ones, we, once again, have been given only 2G internet speeds.

The internet in today’s times is no longer a privilege; it’s a necessity. It can save lives too. But not if doctors are finding it hard to download even the basic safety guidelines prescribed by various international agencies.

"It is so frustrating," Suhail Naik, the chief of Doctors Association of Kashmir tells VICE. “We are not able to keep ourselves updated with the latest medical literature generated by different research forums of the world. It is of utmost importance that at least during these times, the government must restore 4G internet services.”

The exasperation is discernible. Doctors fear that a large number of patients may be in need of online consultation as the number of cases can go up in the coming few days. "We are in the process of developing a website with IT engineers of the Valley,” says Naik. “But what to do of it if there is no high-speed internet?"

On Thursday, Iqbal Saleem, a leading surgeon from Government Medical College Srinagar—the Valley's premier hospital—also vented his frustration about his inability to access intensive care management guidelines owing to slow-speed internet.

It created an uproar among the netizens of the Valley, but met the deaf ears of administration.

Not restoring high speed internet in this crisis is seen as a collective punishment by the masses for being anti-establishment. Today, the internet is crucial not only for healthcare but for running day-to-day lives. In Srinagar, seven-year-old Ayesha and 10-year-old Khatija have gone to school for exactly 12 days in the last eight months—earlier owing to the curfew, restrictions and shutdown, and now, because of the coronavirus scare. Their school uploads video lectures on Google Classroom but they can't follow it on 2G. "It buffers a lot,” their mother who wishes to keep her name private, tells me. “So, it is futile." Several students trying to apply for admission into colleges have met with little success as well.

Earlier this month, Munaza Bhat, a Kashmiri scholar studying at a university in Italy, decided to come back to the Valley as conditions started worsening in Italy. But since the last two weeks she has remained in Delhi, reluctant to come back home only for one reason: slow internet speeds. “I want to come back but I have to attend live lectures online,” she says. “I don’t know how to deal with it.”

Today, there are rumours that 4G might be restored out here in 24 hours. However, there are still no clear directives in a confusing time like this. But if you need any tips on how to survive a lockdown, feel free to ping me. The internet speed means I might be slow in responding, though.

Follow Hanan Zaffar on Twitter.