NEW DELHI — More than 8 million people who live in Kashmir, the disputed region between India and Pakistan, are unable to depend on the internet to get reliable information about the coronavirus pandemic, work from home, or attend classes online.
Kashmir was thrust into a digital black hole in August after India’s Hindu nationalist government revoked an article of the country’s constitution that guaranteed the region a degree of autonomy, and shut down all communication, including the internet and phone lines. The government justified the move saying it was to prevent militancy and curb the spread of misinformation, but critics said it was to stifle dissent. In March, the government finally restored the region’s internet, but only at highly restricted speeds that make accessing anything beyond simple text messages over WhatsApp nearly impossible.
A new government order, which was released Tuesday, has extended the region’s existing restrictions on internet speed until March 26 to “prevent misuse of social media applications” and following “recent terror activities” in the region. But locals said that the restrictions on internet speed are unacceptable at a time when access to timely and reliable information about the coronavirus is crucial.
“I can’t open even basic websites that provide information and advice about the pandemic,” Nayeem Rather, a freelance writer based in Srinagar, the largest city in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, told BuzzFeed News. “Most people in Kashmir don’t really have any information about the coronavirus or what is going on in the world right now. It’s a crisis.”
Mir Moien, a medical student from Kupwara, a small town in northern Kashmir, said that the most he’s able to do right now is a Google search to find out information about the pandemic. “But I can’t actually click on any search results to read more,” Moien said. On WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned instant messaging app that most Indians use to communicate, most information about the pandemic comes through charts and videos that are impossible to download over the slowed-down 4G networks, according to Moien. “It’s a catastrophe,” he said.
Instead of the internet, Kashmiris have been relying on television news, radio alerts, and awareness posters that authorities have been putting up in public places to make people aware about the pandemic, but locals told BuzzFeed News that these steps aren’t very effective. “Most television reports focus on politicians and their promises about keeping people safe,” said Rather. “They don’t really talk specifics like telling people where they can go to get tested, and what steps to take to prevent spreading the infection.”
Authorities in Kashmir have been uploading advisories and videos on Twitter urging people to wash their hands and engage in social distancing to slow the spread of the virus, but the restrictions on internet speed means that most Kashmiris can’t see these.
“[The government’s] messages aren’t reaching the people,” said Rather, “because the same government has gagged the internet. I don’t think anyone is actually watching the videos.”
The lack of reliable information has allowed rumors and misinformation about the coronavirus to spread through Kashmir both over WhatsApp and through word of mouth. One rumor that went viral on WhatsApp, for instance, said that eating onions and garlic improves immunity against the virus. Another said that “herbal medicines” cure COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“There’s no way for us to fact-check these things over the internet right now,” said Rather. “People are panicking.”
Masrat Zahra, a photographer based in Srinagar, told BuzzFeed News that she’d been trying to watch videos on YouTube about the proper way to wash hands, wear masks, and take other precautions, but couldn’t. “That’s something that needs high-speed internet,” she said.
She’s also frustrated, she said, about being stuck at home with bad internet. “How can you make video calls to friends and relatives at these speeds?” she said. “It’s just not possible.”
The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic last week, but India’s numbers remain surprisingly low. On Wednesday, the country’s official count was 147 cases and three deaths. But in Kashmir, where more than 2,000 people have been quarantined at home, according to government data, locals fear that the lack of access to high-speed internet would make things worse.
“I think people here still don’t have any idea of how big this is,” said Rather. “I’m afraid that if the [coronavirus] situation explodes in Kashmir, things will be really drastic.”