As COVID-19 brought the developed world to its knees the challenge is far bigger for the developing world. Countries that are already struggling with their enormous populations, high rate of poverty, unemployment, impacts of Climate Change and security challenges of all types imaginable. South Asia as a sub-region stands in the same line. The impacts of the pandemic are likely to reverse the progress made by the region by multiple years, as a vast majority of the population is dependent on informal economy and impoverished while the states have little capacity to mitigate the socio-economic impacts.
India is the most affluent country in the region, yet it is one of those struggling with the gravest of challenges. The population of India an enormous 1.3 billion is roughly six times that of Pakistan, the second largest state in the region. With a much better state of economy and a relatively better health system than Pakistan, though not compatible with the developed world’s standards. India’s Covid-19 handling policy has been of shutting its borders at the initial signs of trouble; on March, 13 India suspended all existing business and travel visas for a period of one month initially, only days before it went for an all-out lockdown over a territory of 3,214 km, in more than thirty-five administrative units including the occupied territory of J&K on March 25th. The lockdown was announced without any prior ultimatum thus leaving thousands of migrant workers stranded in unpredictable circumstances. Estimates suggest, 120 million people associated to informal economy were immediately affected from the imposition of the lockdown. India had around 600 verified corona cases by March 21st, 2020, yet the largest and harshest lockdown couldn’t curtail the spread and with over 4,50,000 cases, making the country among the top four worst hit countries, India eased the lockdown. During that period, with minimum immediate relief half of the country’s population has impoverished yet it has failed to utilize the lockdown to equip the country’s underfunded health system, with hospitals struggling to accommodate critically ill patients in the major cities. A major reason for the failure could be the high population density hindering proper implementation of SOPs with poor health infrastructure further complicating the implications.
Investments in health infrastructure has certainly helped, the South Asian states for a long time may not be able to allocate as much for the sector as required but they will have to shift their priorities
Sri Lanka was swift to react to the early warnings issued by the World Health Organization, the government rapidly mobilized its military for establishing quarantine facilities and implementing a strict lockdown that lasted for two months. The state funded health services, that possess considerable expertise in managing epidemics, responded efficiently. The impact on the economy has been massive as agricultural harvest was affected and tourism was suspended, two of its major income sources. The island nation’s valuable investment in the health sector and swift action has paid the country well in the current situation, it has recorded a total of 1,950 cases and 11 deaths with the number of active cases dropping and the number of deaths remaining stagnant for a couple of weeks. It is now preparing to go into a General election on August 5th, twice delayed earlier, while the country is opening its doors for tourism on August 1st. The real test of Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 policy would be post August 1st when it would open its doors to visitors and open up for election at the same time. However, impressive Sri Lanka’s handling of COVID is, it is still unmerited to compare Sri Lanka to either of the two countries in discussion; India and Pakistan. Sri Lanka is an island nation with a population of 22 million people only and no land border connections. Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP is much higher than both India and Pakistan and its investment in the Health and Education sector in the previous decade had equipped the country to fight the pandemic better than its neighbors.
The Government of Pakistan’s first response to the outbreak in China’s Hubei province was temporary suspension of flights as it created a committee to monitor the situation. Pakistan demonstrated its complete trust in the measures taken by the Chinese government and didn’t follow the global suit of evacuating its citizens from China. The measure was criticized both internally and abroad but it paid the country well by enhancing the trust between the two countries and keeping the virus at bay for much longer than otherwise could have been possible. The government’s reluctance in suspending religious congregations however did not do the country much good. As the pandemic spread from the religious city of Qom in Iran, the lack of facilities at Taftan, the border city between on Pak-Iran border, where the Shiite pilgrims were quarantined aided the initial spread of the disease in the country. Shortly after the congregation of Tableeghi Jamat in Raiwand further spread the virus to the nooks and corners of the country. However, a country wide lockdown helped contain the virus to a larger extent for the next two months. The lockdown was supported by the country’s newly introduced social security program ‘Ehsaas’ which dispensed 148 billion Rupees in 12.3 million people under the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Programme. The country meanwhile equipped its health system with additional ventilators, oxygenated beds and acquired services of professionals on special packages while establishing special Isolation Hospital and Infections Treatment Centers and laboratories. It increased its testing capacity to 50,000 tests a day before the lockdown was eased. Pakistan was among the first countries to introduce the test, trace and quarantine (TTQ) strategy for identifying the spread and hotspots of coronavirus. The TTQ strategy helped identifying 130 hotspots in 30 cities across the country to implement a smart lockdown and reduce the spread of the virus. The challenge is still looming high and huge on the country as another religious occasion is due in less than a month and considering the government’s reluctance in obstructing religious activities in the recent past it is unlikely to taken any stringent measures, There’s no ideal solution or best strategy for the situation that the low-income countries are facing, neither a guarantee that what worked for one would work for the other too. But one thing is for certain; investments in health infrastructure has certainly helped, the South Asian states for a long time may not be able to allocate as much for the sector as required but they will have to shift their priorities if they wish to sustain the pressure of changing times.
This article was originally published at: https://dailytimes.com.pk/637868/south-asias-covid-responses-a-comparison-of-india-pakistan-and-sri-lanka/
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.