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COVID-19 in India: The bright and the dark sides

Amrita Dhillon

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photo: interaffairs.ru

Many fortresses have collapsed and the invisible enemy has entered everywhere. Indians are at the doorsteps of one of the biggest threats looming. Indian government along with the state governments have announced a 21-days lockdown and requested all the citizens to stay at home, however, few of the essential services like groceries, pharmacies are open. 

It’s not easy for any country to let its economy stand-still and bear losses every single minute but India took that decision ultimately to protect hundreds of thousands of lives. A stand-still economy has bought days of despair and paralysed commerce across various key sectors throughout the nation but ultimately it will be protecting the bread-earners of the society.

Listening to Prime Minister Modi’s speech about the lockdown, he rightly said when countries like Italy which ranks next to none in health facilities cannot manage with the Pandemic, Indian infrastructure and population will have a great fall of the time. 

What will Lockdown do?

It is for the first time in history that such a huge mass of 1.3 Billion has been asked to self-quarantine themselves. This may not completely stop the virus from spreading but slows down the rate it was expected to create havoc. It will help flatten the curve and break the chain which is most important at this stage and that is what all other countries which have lockdown are trying to do. 

If we look at the figures, of the first 100 to 1,000 cases in Italy and the United States then we will find it took seven days in Italy to reach 1,000 cases with a rate of increase between 37%-90%, and Ten days in the United States to reach the first 1,000 cases with a rate of increase between 31%-58%. Whereas in India, it took 16 days to reach 1,000 cases with a rate of increase between 10%-29%. 

Moreover, after this big disaster, a country with a massive economy like the United States didn’t ask for a complete lockdown in their second-largest state New York till 25,000 positive cases and 250 deaths. By a lockdown, India still a step ahead of the first world countries.

What Indian government is doing other than lockdown?

Meanwhile trying to set up isolation wards to increase their capacity, Indian railway has turned its train coaches into hospitals and have asked their manufacturing units to make beds etc. to fight the problem.

India has also started private testing for this which will reduce the pressure on government hospital where testing is free for the public. Private testing cost (4,500 Rupees/$60) may seem very high to people but currently, the testing kits are exported and thus costing heavily. But by approving Indian companies to prepare locally which is estimated to be in the market from two to three weeks the cost will be reduced. 

However, The cost is still low if we compare the cost of private testing labs with the UK which costs 375 pounds and the United States labs which costs anywhere between $900-$3700.

India even brought its people back and providing hotel etc. to people where they could not. These cases would have been less if people took government advice of home quarantine seriously.

The Ugly Side

It will be wrong to compare India with First world nations which have the advance infrastructure and abilities. As per the healthcare capacity, India till now has dealt with the crisis pretty well.

Despite being one of the major economies, India still struggling with third world issues, for instance, 70% of Indian lives in rural areas or slums where they do not have options to self-isolate themselves into a pristine environment. Rather, they live amidst the fear of contamination by their neighbour or the people they’re sharing public toilets with.

Another issue is the healthcare facilities, which is not same in both urban and rural India, in small villages, or small cities far away from the commercial hustle may barely have a hi-tech hospital with isolation facilities. Which is another migraine for the government and local administration, as recently after the lockdown was announced many of the labourers and migrant workers moved back to their villages amidst chaos and panic to starve in big cities due to lack of their daily wages.

Governments on both the state and central level announced free food and requested house-owners to waive the rents for migrant workers. However, in a tech-haven like India, an ugly reality shows that a section of people and government are still not on the same digital-virtual-page.

Another similar story popped-out from the heart of the nation – New Delhi, where police found a group of around 2,000 people were hiding inside a mausoleum, out of them, many tested positive with COVID19. Moreover, many of the same group have travelled to different states and few of them have been tested positive. It is said, many non-Indians are found inside the group who may be one of the potential carriers of the deadly virus. Though it’s all about time which will tell where these migrations will take the toll of Coronavirus impact in India

Indeed the bigger problem is not the rural working labour population of India, a bigger threat came out of the incoming overseas crowd. Many Indians have found hiding their overseas travel information, including celebrities who tested positive later and met many people after their arrival. It is an arrogance, where NOT the government but so-called ‘educated and ignorant Indians’ to be blamed for.

How to fight this Pandemic

First of all, it is not only the government’s fight all the Indians are the foot soldier to this war against Corona. As the Prime Minister said, it’s a 21-day war and the best medicine is self-isolation.

Government is doing its part. But if we are comparing the response with the American or European governments, then its fault on our side, globalisation comes with a price and an open democracy like India are always at the receiving end of such prices. Indians need to drop their obsession with the Western media certifications. Media is one of the most responsible pillars for this fight against the pandemic and it need to act accordingly.

It’s a global problem and we all need to step up to fight this, religious organisations and corporations should come in front and equip the foot soldiers at the time of the pandemic. Those volunteers inside the non-government organisation who are distributing food owe us applauses.

 From our partner International Affairs

Amrita Dhillon is Founding Editor of The Kootneeti (A New Delhi-based publication on International Relations & Diplomacy)

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South Asia

The Need for Pakistan’s Digitalisation Policy

Syeda Dhanak Hashmi

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Change is the only constant and one has to keep evolving through new trends in order to compete with the changing dynamics of the world. There is no denying the fact that any country’s economic growth is now directly linked to one factor i.e., adoption of information and communications technology. The adoption of digitalisation is the new reality where majority of population has access to mobile phones and internet than to basic necessities of life. Digitalisation is not a choice, it is the need of the hour, therefore, the governments are now determining their policies and strategies for digitalising every sector, to promote and strengthen their socio-economic fabric.

Keeping in view the current scenario, the COVID-19 has had a major impact on almost all socio-economic sectors, the digital world has never been more important than it is today, Digitalisation is the new normal where consumers are buying everything online whether it is to buy groceries and essentials or to socialise and virtually reach with friends and family. During this critical time, many of these adoptions will persist long even after the situation has stabilised.

Globally countries are adopting new ways through digitalisation to ease the life of their citizens by providing them with improved and rapid amenities. The access to free internet services made it possible to pave the way for effective digitalization. An exponential increase is observed in the number of internet providers and consumers which demonstrates that the world is adapting with the concept of digitalization. It is witnessed that the developed countries has already shifted all their services from the outdated ways to online portals to facilitate the masses. In recent years, Pakistan is also evolving its IT sector promptly by introducing the latest technological mechanisms in the country.

The present government has taken up the task to digitalize the entire country and is working hard to create an e-governance system to bring down corruption, to ensure accountability process and also to augment the productivity in the country. The government has been taking great strides in the advancement of technology- from the Mohafiz app to digitizing the Postal service and the introduction of Tax Asaan mobile app which provides taxpayers with quick access of verification features like active Taxpayers list (ATL), NTN/STRN inquiry and exemption certificate etc. and many more. The PTI government has been proactive in the inclusion of technology within various segments and has also launched the online FIR system where people can submit their complaints online, and will be facilitated by government officials.

Nevertheless one might assume that digitalisation and government don’t blend,but in reality this fusion is helping the government agencies and officials to represent their agendas and administrative progress directly to the people through social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc.).Perhaps the defined role of government social media accounts is to serve as a source of unrestricted updates. This includes everything from present initiatives to upcoming policy reforms and breaking news. Therefore, news should be a foundation of your content strategy as a government account. For instance, we are currently seeing social media crisis management in action for government organisations, including real-time updates in response to COVID-19. This illustrates that social media actually serves as a first hand source of information and provides people with timely updates. This is the brilliance of digitalisation and government that the voters and opposition are already there and the government has only one job that is to publish content which engages the attention from the public. This also suggests educating your followers by clarifying potential misinformation, keeping in view the fact that how quickly fabricated content can spread through social media, the government accounts serve as an important source for authentic information.

Statically, as per Pakistan’s Digital2020 Report, Feb 2020: there were 76.38 million internet users in Pakistan in January 2020 which illustrates that the number of internet users has increased by 11 million (+17%) between 2019 and 2020 and internet penetration in Pakistan stood at 35%. As far as the social media users in Pakistan are concerned, the number has increased by 2.4 million (+7.0%) between April 2019 and January 2020 which shows that there were 37.00 million social media users in Pakistan in January 2020 and the penetration rate stood at 17%.The source of this penetration depends widely on mobile connections in Pakistan. Reportedly, there were 164.9 million mobile connections in Pakistan in January 2020. The number of mobile connections increased by 9.6 million (+6.2%) between January 2019 and January 2020. Surprisingly, the number of mobile connections in Pakistan was equivalent to 75% of the total population in January, 2020.

With these growth trends projected to persist in the future, Pakistan is dire need of a comprehensive ‘Digitalisation Policy’. There should be a policy that must be implemented in its true spirits, and the government should devise an efficient monitoring mechanism to evaluate the vitality of that policy.

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South Asia

South Asia: A COVID-19 Outlier?

Noor Aftab

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International observers remain baffled at the rate of spread and impact of Corona on one of the most populous regions in the world. South Asia is home to more than a 5th of the world’s population. As is the case with other trends related to Corona, it is still not clear why the virus did not see the surge in the region that was experienced in other parts of the globe.

South Asia had been deemed as the perfect hotbed for the Coronavirus. It is densely populated, has poor public health institutions, and is geographically close to China, where the virus originated. Its people are also affected by severe levels of poverty, malnutrition, and hunger. While the countries share a similar heritage, the region happens to be one of the most poorly connected in the world, owing to bad road networks and toxic bilateral relations between some of the countries.

Despite strict guidelines from respective governments, social distancing norms are incompatible with South Asian society. It is a privilege only the elite can afford, as a vast majority of the people live in close proximity with their family members. The region also comprises of fairly religious societies, and governments have faced challenges in the prevention of congregational worship. In Pakistan, Khan was severely criticized for allowing communal prayer during the month of Ramadan.

It can be argued that the relatively lower numbers can be accounted for by low testing rates but if the health care systems in these countries had been choking up, it would have been very difficult to hide.

India, the economic giant in the region, can boast of imposing the strictest lockdown in the world. While the fatality rate is increasing with every passing day, the number of deaths is nowhere near that of Europe or the US. Migrant workers paid a heavy price for the lockdown, which was announced without prior notice, leaving millions displaced. The economic cost of the lockdown has been astounding, as an estimated 122 million Indians lost their jobs in April alone. India’s unemployment rate is now at a record peak of 27.1%,

Similarly, in Bangladesh, researchers from Dhaka University predict that around 15 million people from different sectors will become unemployed in the country due to slowdown of businesses. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the Federal Minister for Planning and Development, Asad Umar, predicted that around 18 million people might lose their jobs as a result of the lockdown.

Modi and Khan have recently eased lockdowns in India and Pakistan respectively, in spite of increasing cases, as they expressed concern for low-income groups and daily wage earners in their countries. Their concerns regarding their economies may be well-founded. According to a recent Yale study, social distancing measures may be more effective in saving lives in higher-income countries. Whereas, in lower-income countries a complete lockdown may be counterproductive, significantly increasing the economic costs. Economic benefits generated by social distancing are estimated to be 240 times larger for the United States, or 70 times larger for Germany, compared to the value created in Pakistan. The value of savings would be 59% of the GDP for the US, 85% of the GDP for Germany as opposed to 14% of Bangladesh and 19% of India’s GDP.

There are several theories about the conservative spread of the virus in South Asia. None of them have been substantiated as yet. It could be that the pandemic was taken more seriously in these developing economies because there was an acceptance of the fact that they weren’t well equipped to deal with the crisis in case it hit them with full force. Some experts credit the warmer and humid climate of the region to have kept the spread of the disease in check. Others are talking about the protection offered to South Asians by the vaccine for Tuberculosis, BCG and possibly a weaker strain of the virus in this region.

One of the more plausible explanations for this trend seems to be the extremely young population of the region. The average age of an Indian is 26.8 years. The number is less than 25 years in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. In contrast, the average age of a citizen is 45 in Italy and above 40 in Germany, France and the UK. According to the Yale study, Populations in rich countries tend to skew older, and so the mortality rate is expected to be higher in those countries, in spite of the disparity in healthcare capacity.

According to Jacob John, a virologist from India, it is not sensible to compare the situation in South Asia with Europe yet, as the region is over a month behind in terms of timeline. Therefore, the April of Europe should be compared to June in India. The epidemic is developing in different countries at different rates and it has not yet reached its full maturity in the region.

There is little doubt about the fact that Covid-19 represents one of the greatest challenges for global leaders of our times. Policy has to evolve constantly according to the trajectory of the virus in the concerned country. The choice between lives and livelihoods can never be an easy one to make.

While it’s too soon to declare any country’s approach a success, it can be acknowledged that South Asian countries enforced stringent lockdowns at a relatively early stage compared to many in the West. However, locking down for over a month hasn’t necessarily slowed down the spread of the disease and the reversal of restrictions could lead to spikes in rates of infections. This in tandem with increasing economic constraints makes it a complex dilemma for policymakers. As the virus is yet to peak in the region in the coming months, the real challenge for the leadership lies in expanding their capacity to deal with the worsening situation.

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South Asia

The new political game in Afghanistan

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Afghanistan remains the conflict zone for the last 4 decades. Political dimensions changes not only effect inside Afghanistan but it really impacts on global politics. The fundamentalist moments are present inside Afghanistan and the Kabul government is suffering from the administration issues in different provinces. In the start of New Year, the hopes for the peace in Afghanistan were in peak. The 19 years of war, which was one of the longest conflicts in the history of Afghans, as well as the USA, look likely to be end soon. The deal called US-Taliban peace deal brings a new shining moon for the people of Afghanistan that they can see peace and prosperity.

During the 2019 elections, Ashraf Ghani started its second presidential tenure by winning the election but his rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah didn’t accept Ghani success. Due to this political instability, it directly sabotages the peace process. The USA also tries to play the role of a mediator but was initially fail due to the non-serious attitude of the Afghan politicians. In response, the USA announced to reduce their aid for Afghanistan. Afghan government several times also raises their concern regarding the peace deal. Prisoner exchange is one such example.

In a recent development, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah signed a power-sharing deal to end a months-long political stalemate. Reports stated that Abdullah would lead the council for peace talks and his team members would be included in the cabinet. Abdullah Abdullah, as the President of the High Council for Peace and National Reconciliation has now the responsibility to bring the Taliban to the talk’s table and achieve peace for Afghanistan. Furthermore, the report added that 50 per cent of the cabinet appointments will be made by Abdullah, and Gen Dostum will be honoured with the highest military rank of marshal and any dismissal or installation of seats will come into effect on reasonable grounds and with the consent of both parties. As this politician instability seems to be end soon. On the other hand, the Taliban response regarding this new development was that Afghans sides should focus on the real and sincere solution of the issue. The solution of the Afghan issue lies in the implementation of the Doha Accord, with avoidance from creating further hurdles. As the Taliban already believes that the Afghan government is the puppet regime of the USA so for any political development will not really impact on their movement.

However President Ghani is looking more towards the offensive used of the military. The recent attacks on 12 may which was carried out on a hospital’s in Kabul and on a funeral in Nangarhar Province resulting in the deaths of 56 people including newborn babies. No group has taken the responsibility but the Afghan government put the responsibility on the Taliban affiliated group Haqqani network. Meanwhile, President Ashraf Ghani also announced for the offensives military operation against insurgent groups including the Taliban. On the other side, the Taliban called for a transparent investigation on this attack. The Taliban Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said that we firmly call for the transparent and impartial investigation of these attacks in order to expose the dark faces of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes and bring them to justice. Furthermore, he added that Attacks on clinics, funerals and public infrastructure have no place in our policy. In addition to, the US Representative Zalmay Khalilzad also said that the United States’ assessment, the ISIS-Khurasan conducted the attacks on a hospital in Kabul and a funeral in Nangarhar.

Furthermore, the Taliban also appointed Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the founder of the Taliban group, as the new military chief of the group following recent upheavals, involving a spike in attacks against Afghan forces.

One of the biggest problems of Afghanistan is the division on the basis of ethnicity. Majority of the Afghans are Pashtuns and then come minorities which includes Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara community etc. This ethnic division really impacts on social issues as well as the national cause.

Here the concern is that the Taliban will not remain and wait for the negotiation with the Afghan Government. After this, their attitude will also change towards offensive and movement, the activity will take some speed. Now it’s time for the Afghan politicians to have a serious attitude for bringing the peace possible.

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