When Masrat Zahra, a 26-year-old photographer, looks outside her window, she sees a scene familiar to many around the world these days.
“Almost every shop is shut. Streets are empty, deserted. You will hardly see any person on the road,” she said.
But there’s a key difference in how Zahra and millions of others living in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir — a territory that’s part of a larger, disputed region between India and Pakistan — are living through the coronavirus pandemic: excruciatingly slow and sometimes nonexistent internet.
“Our basic rights have been denied. The internet is a basic right, [and] we are without that. So, we are living a very hard life right now.”
“Our basic rights have been denied. The internet is a basic right, [and] we are without that. So, we are living a very hard life right now,” Zahra said.
Kashmir’s internet woes began on Aug. 5, 2019, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party revoked Kashmir’s special semi-autonomous status and imposed a communications blackout, among other restrictions. Since then, the government has restored some access to the internet, but has restricted speed to 2G (second-generation technology) in the Kashmir region, making it virtually impossible for people there to keep up with crucial information about the pandemic.
While daily life in the US and elsewhere can feel like a deluge of COVID-19 news and updates, Zahra says that most people in Kashmir haven’t been able to access basic information on how they can protect themselves.
“We are not able to download guidelines that are put up by world bodies. Like [on] how to wash your hands. So, it’s really hard for the people of Kashmir to be in 2G,” Zahra said, adding that it’s been difficult to keep up with the latest figures about the spread of the virus or messages from local officials.
“We cannot do anything. People are really frustrated. There is anxiety everywhere,” she said.
Officials in Kashmir have put up posters and taken other measures to convey information to the public offline. But many in Kashmir say those methods are not as effective and don’t reach as many people.
The work of filling in the information gaps left wide open by the internet restrictions is falling to people like Mehak Zubair, a host for the breakfast show on Radio Mirchi in Kashmir.
Her show, which typically offers a mix of happy stories, local celebrity guests and occasionally news, is sounding very different these days.
“My entire show is now about coronavirus. And I do a four-hour-long show. Because the internet's speed is very, very slow — excruciatingly slow — we have to make sure that we do not leave out anything. We have to make sure that we give out information as much as we can.”
“My entire show is now about coronavirus. And I do a four-hour-long show,” she said. “Because the internet's speed is very, very slow — excruciatingly slow — we have to make sure that we do not leave out anything. We have to make sure that we give out information as much as we can.”
But she often finds herself in the same conundrum as others in Kashmir — having trouble opening the latest communications and directives from local government officials and communicating the latest information through social media.
“I don't know how to do it without the internet … I genuinely don't,” she said.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, other news outlets in Kashmir, including television stations and newspapers, have also stepped up their coronavirus coverage. But the situation is not ideal, Zubair said. People might miss a broadcast or neglect to read an important story. “But social media, your phone is in your hand 24/7,” Zubair said.
“When you don't have the correct information, what happens is misinformation. A lot of rumors surface because a lot of information that is out there cannot properly reach people,” she said, adding that some people are not even aware that their local government is taking measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, leading some to panic.
The internet restrictions are affecting many other parts of life in Kashmir.
Those isolating themselves in their homes haven’t been able to video chat and get in touch with family and friends who live in other parts of Kashmir, or outside of the region.
And the more than 1 million students staying home since schools in the region closed nearly two weeks ago are now left with few options.
“We are taking measures to teach students, but online classes are not possible for us and we are suffering very badly.”
“We are taking measures to teach students, but online classes are not possible for us and we are suffering very badly,” said Javid Hussain, who works for the education department of the regional Kashmiri government.
Since students can’t access online materials, Hussain said all they can do right now is tell students what books to read.
He and other officials have also been trying really hard to get in touch with India’s central government — to urge them to lift the restrictions. But he said they’re not getting any information.
“They have not even given us time when the restrictions will be lifted,” Hussain said.
Indian government officials did not respond to a request for comment from The World.
People in Kashmir are not the only ones dealing with government-imposed internet restrictions during this pandemic. They’re happening in Ethiopia, Myanmar and Bangladesh, according to the advocacy group Access Now.
Many are calling on these governments to restore internet access because the slower the internet, they say, the slower the response to the pandemic.
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