South Asia is home to over 1.8 billion people from diverse sociocultural backgrounds. By now, every country in the region has confirmed cases of COVID-19 and has announced some form of physical distancing and lockdown. As of April 28, 2020, the official numbers are: Afghanistan 1,828 cases (58 deaths); Bangladesh 6,462 (155); Bhutan 7 (zero deaths); India 29,451 (939 deaths); the Maldives 245 (zero deaths); Nepal 54 (zero deaths); Pakistan 14,079 (301); and Sri Lanka 596 (seven deaths). Amid this pandemic, the region is faced with geopolitical and communal struggles that create distractions from tackling real challenges such as limitations in healthcare facilities, a lack of medical supplies to fight the virus, and the existence of pervasive poverty and hunger.
The spread of COVID-19 has created scapegoats in communities across South Asia. In India, a group of Orthodox Muslims known as the Tablighi Jamaat broke the curfew by organizing a large gathering, which led to hundreds of positive COVID-19 cases. This has sparked communal attacks on Muslims who have no association with the Jammat, playing out in a society already grappling with the Hindu-Muslim divide as a result of far-right politicking. In Sri Lanka, the government has made cremation compulsory, which goes against the beliefs of Muslims and Christians. In some instances, Christian and Hindu minorities in Pakistan are being denied essential aid.
There are also concerns that governments may take advantage of the COVID-19 emergency to consolidate absolute power. In Sri Lanka, the parliament has been suspended and parliamentary elections have been postponed. There are reports of police brutality in some parts of India. In Pakistan, the military has been deployed to assist with the preventive measures, but for the populations who have long advocated demilitarization of their areas, it brings back bitter memories of military rule during “the war on terror.” Those in the region that cherish democracy, media, and individual freedoms, along with broader human rights, have to ensure these values are not forgotten during the time of the pandemic.
Geopolitical rivalries remain prevalent in the region. According to Reuters, the Indian Army claims to have recorded 1,197 Pakistani violations of the 2003 ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir. On the other hand, the Pakistan Army claims 705 ceasefire violations by India – Reuters could not verify the data. The two states must adhere to the terms of the ceasefire and international laws. In Afghanistan fighting between the Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government continues. Despite an agreement between the United States and the Taliban, over the last two months, the insurgents have carried out 2,804 attacks. A humanitarian ceasefire is needed based on the wishes of the Afghan people and the United Nations’ appeal.
At the community level, enforcing physical distancing remains a major challenge. Bangladesh has drawn international headlines due to a massive gathering of religious Muslims, which also shocked many in the country. Some 50,000 gathered for the last prayers of a popular cleric. In Pakistan, the government has admitted that it will not be able to enforce physical distancing and isolation is becoming harder as Muslims around the world enter the holy month of Ramadan. The religious leadership in the region can play a major role in advising their followers to stay home during Ramadan. In some of India’s cramped urban slums, distancing would be a luxury. Large numbers of South Asian migrant workers are having difficulties getting back home from within the region and the Gulf. Regional and international initiatives are urgently needed to deal with the return of migrant workers.
Adding to the public confusion are conspiracy theories about COVID-19. One in five Pakistanis believes that COVID-19 was deliberately “spread by a foreign power.” Some radical preachers in Afghanistan claim that if Muslims die from the virus, they will be considered a martyr. Some far-right Hindu activists in India had spread false promises that consuming cow urine may prevent infection. Governments and civil societies need to better tackle these issues by increasing public awareness based on facts and science coming from medical experts.
Poverty and hunger remain the key challenge for the region that houses half of the world’s impoverished communities. Estimated poverty rates are more than 50 percent in Afghanistan; 24 percent in Bangladesh; 8.2 percent in both Bhutan and the Maldives; 21 percent in India; 25 percent in Nepal; 33 percent in Sri Lanka; and 40 percent in Pakistan. World Bank predictions present a grim economic outlook for the region, projecting its worst performance in the past 40 years. The growth forecasts for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka for 2020 are in the negatives. Economists in Bangladesh have predicted that the government’s poverty slashing efforts will be in vain if the COVID-19 impact is not firmly managed. Millions have lost their jobs and food prices have gone up, putting the survival of many at risk. Governments, the World Food Program, charity organizations, and philanthropists ought to consolidate their collaboration on food rationing to the affected communities and sustain it for months to come.
The stimulus packages provided by the governments are not enough. Challenges remain due to limited resources at governments’ disposal. India has pumped a $23 billion stimulus package into its economy to sustain over 1 billion people. In comparison, Germany is pouring in 750 billion euros ($815 billion) into its economy with a population of 83 million. Bangladesh’s stimulus package is a more balanced one at $11.5 billion. The World Bank is allocating $1.4 billion in aid for South Asian countries to tackle this problem. Pakistan has asked for debt relief for all developing countries in the wake of this catastrophe, which will be essential for the revival of the economies in the region. The International Monetary Fund and other lenders must seriously consider debt relief packages to the region.
Healthcare systems in the region are struggling to cope with the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended a “test, test, test,” policy but testing capacity in the region is minimal. In Afghanistan, one governor in the province of Faryab said he had sent samples of suspected cases to a regional lab and has been waiting for a week for results. In Bangladesh, which has a very high population density, the testing rate remains the lowest in South Asia, even after expanding it by 10-fold within a month. In India, the public complains about the cost of testing. The lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers is another major issue. In Pakistan, hundreds of doctors protested against the government for not providing sufficient protective gear. China’s and WHO’s medical supply assistance seems to be a drop in the bucket and more needs to be done.
These challenging times have also created some opportunities in the region. Afghanistan for the first time started producing PPEs and its girls’ robotic team has come up with affordable automated ventilator prototypes. Bangladesh has mobilized to make PPEs both for its population and for export. Bangladesh is also preparing for an enormous harvest and the prime minister has issued a directive that says “leave no land uncultivated.” Pakistan has provided cash assistance to the needy in an unprecedented way and also started producing its own medical products. The Indian state of Kerala has reportedly flattened the curve by mass-scale testing and taking early physical distancing. Bhilwara, in the western state of Rajasthan, has seemingly turned from a hotspot to a zero-case example.
There is also a glimpse of cooperation in a region where more is needed. Historically, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has had some achievements but lately the India-Pakistan rivalry has made it nearly dysfunctional. To fight COVID-19 the Indian prime minister proposed a joint SAARC emergency fund during a high-level e-meeting attended by heads of states (to which Pakistan sent a ministerial-level official). All South Asian states have contributed to the fund, including Pakistan, which has pledged $3 million. India has already started using the fund to send medical assistance to Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal. Pakistan has also kept the Afghanistan-Pakistan border open for the transfer of essential goods. The World Economic Forum has been mobilizing South Asian policymakers through a COVID-19 regional action group. Functional challenges such as migration and food production are being addressed as part of Track II cooperation.
The good news is that the COVID-19 numbers are low in South Asia in comparison to Europe and North America, but these numbers are not the full picture. Although we cannot paint the whole region with one brush, the region is carrying out significantly less testing and there is less physical distancing. Given the lack of healthcare infrastructure and levels of poverty in South Asia, a greater number of people are at risk of contracting the coronavirus and dying from it or hunger. Actions need to focus on increasing the region’s testing capacity, raising awareness about physical distancing and hygiene, producing PPEs, and fighting hunger. South Asian states must not be distracted by battles that can cost them the war. Stakeholders must cease scapegoating communities, shelve interstate animosities, and turn to national and regional cooperation. Governments, international organizations, civil societies, the private sector, and philanthropists all have roles to play.
Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Previously he has worked with several developmental organizations in Afghanistan. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Follow him on Twitter at @Saberibrahimi.
Syed Mafiz Kamal is a Senior Analyst at the Dhaka-based Centre for Research and Information. He also advises various government and international agencies on the policy reform agenda. Previously he has worked in various organizations, including the Policy Research Institute and the United Nations. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Follow him on Twitter at @SyedMKamal.