Free Quarantine is not at all fine

Anurag Bhat
With more than 15,700 cases registered and counting, the Jammu and Kashmir government is hardly any close to the so called “flattening the curve” of coronavirus cases in the UT. A double digit increase in the number of new cases being registered every day has further worsened the situation. While the pandemic has brought together several departments of health, education, municipality and revenue to tackle the virus, the UT government has also witnessed support from religious organizations offering food and community shelters (now converted to quarantine centers). But even with all the combined efforts from the government and allies, the situation seems more in disarray than ever. While human psychology perceives the sins of commission worse than the sins of omission, sins of both kinds often result in equal or similar damage.
I landed at the Jammu International airport on Thursday (23rd of July) at around 3 PM. The flight and the reception at the airport seemed organized, people were divided into civilians and defense personnel and swab testing was conducted for all the passengers. The civilian passengers, once their samples were collected, were given a choice of a “PAID QUARANTINE” or a “FREE/ADMINISTRATIVE QUARANTINE”. All passengers were informed that they will be quarantined till their test results arrive, which usually takes 24-48 hours. Once tested negative, the passengers will no longer be required to stay in quarantine. As I enquired about the paid quarantine, I was given an estimate of 2.5 to 3 thousand rupees per day per person, which I could not afford and hence, I opted for a “FREE/ADMINISTRATIVE” quarantine facility, which turned out to be neither free nor administrated. We were asked to get on a bus that would take us to the facility, but despite multiple efforts of us asking about the location of the facility, we were denied any information by the administration (J&K police staff) at the airport. We got on the bus and we were eventually transferred to a quarantine facility in Bantalab (Jammu District). It was community hall (ashram) owned by the Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSBB) Trust.
There were 20 other people that arrived with me in that quarantine center which already had more than 30 inmates since more than 2 days who were desperately waiting for their results to arrive. We were asked to form a queue, our names were registered we were directed towards the community shed. It was spacious but the beds were mostly concentrated under the ceiling fans.
As soon as the enrollment formalities were over, the administration (three teachers serving the UT’s education department) left, leaving behind a police constable responsible to look after all the inmates. That’s it. No sanitizers, masks or any protective equipment was made available at the facility. I went to the police constable (the only person responsible to take care of us) to ask for water. He asked me to call on a number while pointing towards the number written on a wall next to the entry gate. He said that the number belonged to shop located on the other side of the road and the shopkeeper could get me anything. I asked in a joking manner; “Kuch bhi?” (Anything?) and he replied “Oh Kuch bhi!”. He also told me there was one direct pipeline which he claimed was the only source of drinking water but nobody used it and people rather preferred to get it from the shop. It was very evident because there were a lot of people crowded around the gate while the shopkeeper delivered everyone’s orders. It was mostly packets of chips, cigarettes and bottles of water. It reminded me of a video that went viral from a quarantine facility in Agra. The video featured people trying to get water bottles and biscuits through the gate of the facility while someone wearing a PPE threw biscuits from a distance towards the gate. It seemed like the worst possible place that a person could be in but it was even worse at the Bantalab facility as people here had to pay for what they got while receiving it exactly like the people in Agra did.
As I entered the facility and started talking to the inmates already present there, I was informed that there was a family of four people that was tested COVID positive on the same morning. Although they were shifted to Government Medical College Jammu, the quarantine facility was not sanitized post that. Nobody knew which beds they used or where they sat. I had no other option but to look for a bed and hope it wasn’t used by anyone from the family that tested positive. I chose a bed and pulled it as far as I could towards the edge of the shed and attempted to disinfect the bed with my hand sanitizer. I did not take a mattress or a pillow because all of them were used and none of them even looked clean. Soon I saw people gather in a line near one end of the shed as two people served rice and lentil soup (Daal-Chawal) for dinner. Somehow, most people already had a melamine plate and almost all plates were the same.
I tried to speak to Kuldeep (one of the inmates) about the food and plates and if I could get a clean plate. He asked me to look for one, wash it and use it. Angered by his response, I tried to tell him that the government was obligated to give me a clean plate at the very least, and to my surprise, he started laughing while explaining to me that everything inside the facility was being offered and managed by the RSSB trust and if I want anything else I should just order it from the shop.
Next morning (24th of July), 4 people just left the quarantine center and came back within a few hours. I spoke to one of them. Avtar Singh, 63, is a carpenter from Kalanaur (Punjab) who had been working in Jammu city for the last 40 years. He went back to his village due to the lockdown but could barely manage with his eldest son (Manjeet Singh, 32) being handicapped. He returned to Jammu on 21st of July and voluntarily registered himself and 3 other colleagues at the Bantalab quarantine facility but none of them were even tested since then. It turned out that the reason for which they left was to get themselves tested at the Government Medical College Jammu. Avtar Singh said that he was tired of hearing “Gaadi aayegi aur test karegi” (a car will come and conduct the test) since the past three days while multiple cars came and went away but no tests were conducted.
Later that noon, a team of 5 people (three teachers from education deptt., one doctor from health deptt., and Naib Tehsildaar Anayat Ali) came in with the test reports for people who were brought in the previous morning. Two out of those people were tested positive. I asked the team if they could sanitize the facility as 6 positive cases were reported from the same facility on two consecutive days. They dismissed me by saying that it doesn’t concern me as my name was not on the list. It did not make any sense to me either, so I asked the doctor for his name and he replied by saying he wasn’t liable to tell it to me. Meanwhile, Zorawar Singh (one of the teachers), in-charge of the center told me that I should focus on social distancing myself now that I know that there is a high risk of infection inside the facility.
Later that evening Dr. Madan Sharma, Senior Pharmacist (Health Deptt., CMO Jammu) visited after he learned that there was one person in the facility (apart from Avtar Singh’s group) who was still not tested. He said, “People aren’t following the social distancing norms and it’s our responsibility to take care of ourselves” as a response to people complaining about the poor administration of the facility. I asked him if he could send someone to sanitize the facility, to which he replied that “This is not our section’s job. We are only responsible to conduct the tests. Maybe someone from Municipality may come.” Of course, no one came.
The District Magistrate Jammu, Sushma Chauhan on 19th of July announced that there will be weekend lockdowns. But for the inmates at Bantalab facility, it meant that the people released on the weekend would not find any mode of transport. Many people including me received their results through text messages on the Friday evening itself but we would not be allowed to leave the facility until someone from the health department visited. Some influential people ran some calls and we were allowed to leave the facility just like that. The people who left were happy, the ones who did not, had no other option but to wait while the facility’s administration was least concerned.
This two day event raised some serious questions about the UT government’s handling of the pandemic. No one from any of the departments really seemed to know what was supposed to be done and when, or who was supposed to do it. The administration really lacks coordination in efforts and vigilance for the quarantine facilities. A person can easily be infected inside a quarantine facility and walk out with a test result identifying him as negative, while in reality the test was taken way before he was even exposed to the virus. Food, water and sanitation are the basic needs for anyone, healthy or diseased. But unfortunately the condition of people in Bantalab quarantine facility was even worse than cattle. The only thing these people got more than what cattle get was an extension cord for them to charge their phones.