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.
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.