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South Asia’s Weakening Resilience in the State of Pandemic

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Authors: Shanjida Shahab Uddin and Fahd Mannan*

Before Covid-19, the Spanish flu was the deadliest pandemic that hit the world, including the South Asian countries. It was estimated that around 18 million people died in this region due to that pandemic in 1920. A century later, the world is again hit by a deadly virus,Covid-19. The South Asian region detected its first conformed Covid-19 case in Nepal on January 24. Till date, this virus has spread in all of the South Asian countries infecting and causing the death of hundreds of thousands of people. Several challenges have already emerged during efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 in almost all South Asian countries, which were already mired in age-old challenges, including disunity and procrastination in the adoption of political decisions, poor healthcare systems, high population density, poor infrastructure and poverty. Although all these challenges are common in almost all eight South Asian countries, country like Bhutan exemplified how to overcome these challenges and outshine in curbing the transmission of Covid-19. Other countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are still struggling hard to curb the transmission of this deadly virus.

Lack of Unity in Regional Politics

Political disunity in South Asian countries once again appeared as a major obstacle in fighting Covid-19. However, positive moves had been witnessed immediately after all South Asian countries were found to have been affected by this virus. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called a video conference under the platform of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)which was joined by all the South Asian leaders, except Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, to share their views regarding curbing this virus. On behalf of Imran Khan, his Special Assistant on Health Affairs, Zafar Mirza, participated in that video conference. A Covid-19 Emergency Fund was also created in the hope of collectively fighting against this pandemic. Although it is an encouraging and constructive move, Pakistan did not agree to contribute to this emergency fund based on the argument that this fund should be managed by the SAARC Secretariat General in Nepal, not India. Despite Pakistan’s absence in the initiative, all other South Asian countries have immediately contributed to this fund. Pakistan’s abstention from this recent move under the platform of SAARC proves that Pakistan will not support or facilitate any kind of initiative under the leadership of India. This kind of act proves that the political disunity still prevails between the major countries – India and Pakistan — and it strongly persists even amidst a common dire need in a time of crisis.

Poor Healthcare, Low Testing

Once known as the “sub-continent” of South Asia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were already dealing with a fragile healthcare system before Covid-19 hit. The healthcare system for billions of people in these three countries can best be summed up as inefficient while that for women and children is close to nil. Together with high population densities, low literacy rate and lack of awareness about basic hygiene made the overall healthcare system insubstantial against the deadly Covid-­­19. An insufficient number of hospitals, lack of doctors, scarcity of healthcare equipment and paucity of funds made dealing with Covid-19 a challenging task. And due to fast transmission of this virus, hospitals are being flooded with a surge in patients. This situation is making the already distressed healthcare system more convoluted and resulting in a shortage of ventilators, medicine and doctors, and most importantly masks, gloves and personal protection equipment (PPE). And the low testing rate of this virus in South Asian countries worsens the situation. For example, Bangladesh is the third country to be the most affected in South Asia after India and Pakistan with a total of 202,066 confirmed cases as of 18 July 2020. With a population of 165 million people, the country conducted 1,020,674 tests so far since 8 March and currently testing 6,195 of every million people as of 18 July 2020. In contrast, the Maldives, Bhutan and Nepal outshined in terms of the number of people tested per million (the Maldives 43,758 as of 22 May, Bhutan 25,375 as of 5 June and Nepal 21, 419 as of 14 July). Being large countries, India and Pakistan are also struggling with poor testing rates. For instance, India is currently testing only 9,736 people from every million as of 18 July. Bangladesh has an even more shocking obstacle: getting tested costs a minimum of $2.36 to a maximum of $5.86. No South Asian country is placing any charge on Covid-19 tests, something Bangladesh imposed recently. This will largely limit poor people’s access to getting tested.

Economic Fallout

Covid-19 swept the globe with periodic lockdowns, a state of quarantine and the idea of social distancing. The South Asian countries will also have to follow these stringent measures to curb the fast transmission rate of this virus. However, such stern steps to contain this pandemic largely disrupted market supply chains and caused sudden drops in demand. Due to the need to maintain lockdowns and social distancing, most of the countries in South Asia, which are densely populated, decided for continuing the state of emergency. Under this situation, educational institutions, offices, restaurants, shopping malls and other public places went under complete or limited lockdowns. If we see the case of Bangladesh, the country imposed temporary bans on commercial goods import and international passenger flights for almost two months. Following the sweeping measures to curb this virus, the country also went for a nationwide full lockdown, imposed travel restrictions in and out of the country and sealed borders with immediate neighbours. These had a large impact on the country’s economy. Experts are assuming that the country might be in for both external trade shocks and internal demand shocks. The impact on the inflow of remittances in the country might also be largely affected since the major remittance generating countries are still following complete to limited lockdowns shutting most of their businesses. These have already left thousands of migrant workers without a job. Apart from remittance, the country’s garments industry is the biggest contributor to the economy. However, this industry is also facing debacles since major clients in the US, UK, Germany, France and Italy shut their stores and modified their orders in tune with people limiting their spending. Almost all other countries are also facing more or less the same economic losses due to the restrictions coming with Covid-19. Therefore, it is predicted that the South Asian region may experience its worst economic fallout in 40 years followed by spiralling recessions.

Amidst all the grim scenarios in every aspect of these major nations, small countries like Bhutan have excelled in managing this pandemic. Of the eight countries of South Asia, Bhutan has still managed to maintain a zero death rate during this passing of this deadly virus. Bhutan has also managed to keep the number of confirmed cases low compared to other South Asian countries. Bhutan started its fight against this virus with a minimal amount of testing kits provided by World Health Organization (WHO) and a shortage of healthcare workers and essentials. The country took this situation very seriously and once it confirmed its first two cases, it immediately started tracing and testing people who had symptoms or came into contact with confirmed cases. Through the dedication of both the government and the masses, Bhutan successfully implemented its national preparedness and response plan with a commitment to regularly carry out testing. Therefore, there are lessons to learn from small countries like Bhutan to overcome the grim resilience situation prevailing in other South Asian countries. And major countries need to take collective short and long term steps by putting their disunities aside to gear up the region’s resilience against this pandemic.

*Fahd Mannan is Sub-Editor at The Daily Star, Bangladesh. He can be reached at zoahebman[at]gmail.com.

Shanjida Shahab Uddin is Research Officer at Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS). She can reached at shanjidashahabuddin[at]gmail.com

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South Asia

Indian Imbalanced Balance

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A serious crisis is looming over journalism in India, which is increasingly vested in the hands of authority. On the one hand, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee asks for “discussion and dissension” for a vibrant democracy. “There should always be room for the argumentative Indian, and not the intolerant Indian. The media must be the watchdog, the mediator between the leaders and the public,” Mukherjee said while paying his regards to Ramnath Goenka – former press baron. On the other hand, Indian media has lost its credibility regionally as well as internationally owing to quality of Indian public discourse. According to criminal lawyer Rebecca Mammen, “The true test of a robust democracy is the independence of its media. Over the past few years our media has become the mouthpiece of the party in power. Coupled with the fact the corporate owners of media houses share close links with the government, the Indian media has tragically lost its voice.”

The mainstream media is vested in the hands of a selected few and refuses to question authorities.         The ‘Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index, which was released on April 20, has ranked India at 142 among 180 countries reflecting poor credibility due to pressures by government. According to the Report, the Indian media is reeling under a Hindu nationalist government, which has time and again tried to gag journalists. Moreover, India’s influential TV news channels function largely as government mouthpieces.A European non-governmental group “EU disinfo lab” had uncovered a network of 265 ‘fake’ news outlets sponsored by an Indian network to influence the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) with content against to Pakistan.

The crisis in the Indian media will have deeper impacts on Indian democracy. With a feeble opposition, weak institutions, and an inadequate media, Indians have no checks and balances. For instance, maligning Pakistan High Commission, Colombo(PAHIC) during a recent Indo-China conflict was an Indiangovernment instructed media strategy to divert public opinion from their failures in North. In other words, media strategy inadvertently defines poor political will of India to stand up to China while feel strong enough to bully the smaller neighbourhood.

The sane voices in Indian media have continuously shrinking space.Having almost 400 news channels, Indian media has failed to highlight serious matters, such as beef ban, human rights violations in Indian Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IoJK), and numerous discriminations against Indian Dalits. “Over the last few years – especially after Prime Minister Narendra Modi won the general election of 2014 – the Indian mainstream media has allowed itself to be undermined by the transcendent political power that he represents,” said Pamela Philipose, The Wire. “A new note of muscular nationalism has crept into media discourse.  Also conspicuous is the curbing of dissent and the rise of the surveillance state – developments that bode ill for the independence of the Indian media,” says Philipose.

In a similar manner, a political scientist Giles Vernier argues that “a new note of muscular nationalism has crept into media discourse.  Also conspicuous is the curbing of dissent and the rise of the surveillance state – developments that bode ill for the independence of the Indian media.One reason why we don’t see much criticism in the media is that the government, in the person of the Prime Minister, has the ability to completely dominate the media’s agenda, by saturating the public and media sphere with the message, image, and his voice.”

Journalists should be critical of government’s handling of its internal and external matters to keep it on the right track. TV channels will call speakers of their choice, who would heavily lean to one side of discussion and pretend that it is balanced.

In the current atmosphere, with enraptured legislative issues and social perspectives, with populist political leadership, with developing bigotry against minorities and dissenters, the media can and ought to be an encouraging sign for liberal, mainstream and law based thoughts, yet additionally to guarantee that outrageous perspectives does not get into the papers or on TV. Rather, the media in India has become some portion of the issue, either excitedly partaking in preparing of contempt against the helpless, or carrying on in an insincere path by permitting the most exceedingly terrible components a free run of significant reality on their foundation. Whole ages of columnists are growing up with the possibility that they are playing out an important help; they have scarcely any good examples to gaze upward to, since their own managers, who should know better, are either sold out, ideologically dedicated to fanaticism or are indecisive, without firm feelings or just fearful. In any case, Indian reporting is in a profound emergency, all for the sake of ‘balance.’

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South Asia

This is Pakistan

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With an unprecedented progress in politico-socio-economic domains, Pakistan has a new face in the world. It has not only successfully corrected misplaced perceptions about it, but the internal and external circumstances around it have also changed, which has helped shaping Pakistan its renewed look according to changed regional and international environment. The successes at the security front has also led to the economic progress in Pakistan.

In result of Pakistan’s fight against terrorism and anti-extremism operations, it lost tens of thousands of people, including soldiers and civilians. Pakistan’s strong resolve together with sustained military operations against terrorist elements, however, brough back peace and stability in the country. According to Security Report 2019 by Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), “Pakistan witnessed a further decline in the number of terrorist incidents and consequent casualties… terrorist attacks this year decreased by around 13 percent as compared to 2018.” The report clearly depicted a gradual decrease in terrorist attacks and casualties since 2009. In this regard, Pakistan’s National Action Plan (NAP) helped eliminating the menace of terrorism from the country. The improved security situation in the country resulted in the economic dividends in the shape of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Pakistan is also appreciated for its nuclear material safety. In its annual report, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) – a leading United States non-proliferation watchdogdivulged that “Pakistan’s improvements in the Security and Control Measures category are significant because strengthened laws and regulations result in durable boosts in Pakistan’s score as well as provide sustainable security benefits.” While appreciating Pakistan’s further improvement in nuclear materials’ safety, Laura Kennedy, a former United States diplomat, tweeted that “one welcome bit of news reported by #NTIindex is that #Pakistan ranked as most improved in security of those countries holding nuclear materials.”

Pakistan’s fight against Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19) is used as a role model by developed countries of the world. The Government of Pakistan (GoP) revealed a PKR 1.13 trillion relief package to help to the powerless and securing industry and other organizations. The concept of ‘Smart Lockdown’ also reaped its dividends and Pakistan has come out from the dangers of this deadly virus.

On the socio-economic front, Pakistan is making progress as well. For instance, the current account deficit has reduced from US$ 20 billion to US$ 3 billion together with a significant decrease in trade and fiscal account deficits. The stalled construction of Diamer-Bhasha dam has also been approved, which will result in additional water supplies for better agricultural production. There has been increase in the rights activism i.e., Transgender Pride March, Aurat March, Climate March, and Student Solidarity March. Women sports stars of Pakistan won international medals and recognitions.For instance, 8-year-old Pakistani Taekwondo star Ayesha Ayaz won a bronze medal for Pakistan at the 7thFujairah Taekwondo Open Championship in United Arab Emirates (UAE); Hajra Khan won 3 Guinness World Records; Mahnoor Shahzad won the Annapurna International Badminton Tournament; Nida Dar became the first Pakistani woman to sign a deal with an international cricket league, Sydney Thunder; Shahida Abbasi from Hazara won one of the total two gold medals for Pakistan at the South Asian Games 2019; and Mallak Faisal Zafar won first position in the Basic Novice Girls II category at the 24th International Eiscup Innsbruck 2019. Test cricket also returned to Pakistan.

Culturally, Pakistan is projecting itself more prominently. Pakistani celebrities are mamking it to international fashion weeks – Mushk Kaleem and Alicia Khan walked the ramp for Milan Fashion Week 2019. Pakistani film Laal Kabootar won the Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival for the Best Feature Film Award. ActressMahira Khan was appointed National Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, strengthening the bond between the people of Pakistan and the international community. Moreover, Mehwish Hayat was appointed ambassador to UK based international humanitarian charity, Penny Appeal.

On the entrepreneurial front, 9 Pakistanis made it to Forbes’ coveted 30 under 30 Asia list: Ahmed Rauf Essa: Founder, Telemart; Karishma Ali, President, Chitral Womens Sports Club; Laila Kasuri, Water Analyst, Global Green Growth Institute; Hanaa Lakhani, Hasan Usmani,Gia Farooqi and MoneebMian, Cofounders, Roshni Rides, Zain Ashraf, Founder, Seed Out; and Zainab Bibi, Founder, Pakistan Society for Green Energy (PSGE).

Regionally, Pakistan’s foreign policy is paying its dividends. Pakistan’s relations among Iran, Afghanistan, Sri-Lanka, Russia, United States and others has improved significantly. Overall, there is many encouraging events happening in and around Pakistan.

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South Asia

Post-Pandemic Politics

Usman Ghani

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Franklin Roosevelt has rightly put it, ‘In politics, nothing happens accidentally. If anything happens, it’s palpable that it planned this way’. Numerous features have been defining pre-pandemic world politics over the years. The current situation shows that pandemic will only reinforce largely five global fault lines that have been characterizing the global environment even in the pre-pandemic phase. Form this we can extrapolate the future course of global politics. 

The first and the obvious feature is the rising multi-polarity with power being diffused vertically and horizontally between countries and within countries because citizens become more impart by accessible cheaper technologies. Therefore, global power especially economic power continues to be redistributed while the state power also continues to be eroded by the greater influence of non-state actors both good and bad. In today’s world, no single power can achieve outcomes on its own. It can only do so in conjunction or with the cooperation of other states. Since the Second World War, this pandemic is the first global crisis in which US leadership has been absent.

Secondly, the resurgence of competition and tensions between the big powers in the global environment have come into sight. US-China confrontation has become the most consequential and geopolitical development, which is going to influence and shape the world in the coming years. It can be seen that an outbreak of trade and tech war during the pre-pandemic will continue in the future. Political tensions are also at a record high. President Donald Trump of the United States has been using hostile rhetoric against China. Because of the severe actions taken by the US, China has reached its limits and started pushing back.

Thirdly, global powers are retreating from multilateralism and a rule-based international system. The renunciation of international agreements and treaties has been witnessed over the months. The irony is that the pandemic demands greater solidarity and cooperation but quite the opposite has happened, where there is an absence of international solidarity and much less collaboration. The USA has renounced a long list of treaties including the Iranian nuclear deal, Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Intermediate Nuclear Force Agreement (INF), and recently the Open Skies agreement. It has also walked out of key multilateral institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the WHO more recently.

Another feature is the rise of populist leaders who are often described as strongmen. Although it’s debatable how much they deserve the description of strong men. Populist leaders act unilaterally with impunity as well as seek to rewrite the rules of game either in the world or their region depending upon their capability to manage. They are mostly disdainful toward international norms. In South Asia, the grimmest example is Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is taking brutal and illegal actions not only in occupied Kashmir but also within India by pursuing communal politics.

Ultimately, there would be an emergence of anti-globalization sentiment due to multiple factors. The UN will be celebrating its 75th anniversary which is going to be a historic moment while American threatens to leave the World Health Organization (WHO) permanently. In this unenviable situation, the UN has been under great strain because its main agency which deals with the health crisis is under attack due to curtailment of funding by Donald Trump. Furthermore, certain leaders of the west are going to reject the existing trading regimes because they cannot compete anymore. The prevailing situation in those countries demands to remake global supply chains and they intend to reduce their dependence on China. Apart from that, plans are considered to move towards setting up local hubs of manufacture and supply.

In a nutshell, there is going to be a reversal of many aspects of globalization. Protectionism, trade wars, and to some extent travel restrictions will be a new reality. Right-wing populist leaders will use the health crisis to reinforce their policy preference for closed borders, strict immigration laws, and the ban on the free movement of labour that has been seen in recent decades. The future course of the most important bilateral relationship of our century which is between China and the United States will have a huge impact on the global economy as well as on the international order and multilateral institutions. Pandemic has further strained the relationship and resulted in trading accusations and allegations from both sides. Summarily, that has been described as the new cold war by many. The question arises whether these two global powers will arrive at modus vivendi or will there be a standoff. This has become a more enduring feature of the global landscape.

To round off the whole debate, the World is possibly at one of the history’s most unsettled periods in international relations with the atomization of the international system. This is an uncharted territory which the world has not seen before. For Pakistan, there are going to be strategic, political, and economic implications because it seeks to form good relations with both countries. Pakistan ought to understand that in the long run, its strategic future lies with China rather than the US.   

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