South Asia fast becoming new COVID-19 hotspot
With an exponential increase in the COVID-19 cases, South Asia is fast becoming the new hotspot of the deadly disease. The public health crisis has significantly worsened in India and Pakistan due to a premature reopening of businesses, stretching the already fragile health systems in the two countries to their breaking point.
The seriousness of the situation is reflected in the official figures, with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh occupying the third, seventh and tenth spots in the world, respectively, in terms of the emergence of new cases. Each country now exceeds the number of reported cases from China, where the pandemic originated. Limited testing also implies that the outbreak in these South Asian states could actually be far worse.
India’s spike arrived as its economy reopened after the world’s biggest lockdown. A very serious situation is unfolding in that country’s capital, New Delhi, and financial hub, Mumbai. With the highest coronavirus count in Asia, India’s daily tallies are now higher than any country, except for the United States, Brazil and Russia. Given the rapid increase in the number of cases, India could soon top the list of the most affected nations.
The strict lockdown may have helped India contain the spread of the deadly disease, but the country failed to substantially increase its testing facilities. The shutdown also triggered massive migration of workers in the country’s history, creating serious humanitarian problems and badly affecting the economy. This also increased pressure on the government to ease the restrictions.
The situation in Pakistan is much more serious since one out of four people who are now tested are found positive. In a rare instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) urged the country to re-impose intermittent lockdowns. This is because Pakistan has witnessed a massive rise in the spread of the disease over the past three weeks by lifting all restrictions on people’s movements and reopening businesses. Pakistan is perhaps the only country that has prematurely reopened most spheres of life when the disease was far from reaching its peak.
In reality, the country never fully shut down and the situation almost became chaotic during the holy month of Ramadan as markets and shopping malls began to operate again and religious congregations were allowed. As a result, the situation is now getting out of control, particularly in big cities, and hospitals have started turning away patients since most of them have run out of space.
With one-fourth of the world population, South Asia is extremely vulnerable to the pandemic. The spread of the deadly virus could also be more devastating, given the extremely poor health infrastructure and fragile economy of the region.
A Punjab provincial health department report warned of a catastrophic situation last month. The document estimated that 670,800 people only in the eastern city of Lahore could be suffering from the infection. “No workplace and residential area of any town is disease-free,” the report based on both random and targeted testing warned. But the situation in Lahore could just be the tip of the iceberg. The country’s most densely populated city of Karachi may even be in a worse state.
In order to contain further spread of the infection, the report presented to the provincial government on May 15 asked for a stricter lockdown for at least four weeks before Eid. Doctors and epidemiologists too have long been warning about the impending public health disaster and had been desperately calling for tough measures.
It is not surprising that there has been an astronomical rise in the number of registered coronavirus cases and related deaths after the government decided even to do away with the lockdown pretense. These numbers are likely to multiply further since the effects of a complete reopening will take time to crystallize.
With one-fourth of the world population, South Asia is extremely vulnerable to the pandemic. The spread of the deadly virus could be more devastating, given the extremely poor health infrastructure and fragile economy of the region.
A recent World Bank report presented an alarming economic outlook for the region in the midst of a crisis that could result in the worst economic performance in the last 40 years. The report maintained that regional growth could produce a GDP contraction. With a chunk of its population mired in poverty, the crisis will have serious social and political consequences for South Asia.
Governments in the region are faced with a serious challenge as they attempt to balance public health and livelihood. Given the fragility of health care systems and rising number of cases, the decision to save the economy is indeed a risky one. What makes the situation more dangerous is that the region remains at risk of increasing violence and there seems to be no sign of easing of tensions despite the pandemic.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.