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Walking the Line: Bringing A Balance Between The Lockdown’s Economic And Healthcare Consequences In South Asia

Approximately a year ago on this day, the first few cases of COVID-19 had been diagnosed and classified as a variant of the SARS strain, and in a few months, we would go on to experience how vulnerable we were to the novel coronavirus, and how easily it spread from person to person. Within the next month or two, the WHO would announce that such a strain had caused a pandemic, leading to the shutdown of the entire global economy. We had hit the pause button a year ago, and it is now time to face the consequences of such a move – especially in South Asia.

In a report titled “Nine Months of COVID-19: The Impact on South Asia”, Hudson Institute’s Director of Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia (and Research Fellow) Aparna Pande had co-authored along with former Pakistan Ambassador to the United States, Hussain Haqqani, as an update to the Institute’s earlier publication under the same category, “Crisis from Kolkata to Kabul: COVID-19’s Impact on South Asia”, published in May 2020. The dates of publication are of interest, but we will get back to that later in this article.

“A lot has happened in the world’s most populous region since the “Crisis from Kolkata to Kabul: COVID-19’s Impact on South Asia” report was published in May 2020. This document serves as an update on the progression of the pandemic in South Asia.”, states the report.

According to the report and the Ministry of Health and Public Welfare (as of November 5, 2020), Indian authorities in charge of testing for COVID-19 had tested over on hundred fourteen million (114,000,000) samples for the disease, at which time there were an estimated eight million cases and a quarter of a million deaths. The report goes on to analyze the impact of various political decisions on a nationwide scale, and took into consideration various socio-economic factors to weigh the medical and economic consequences the pandemic had had in the region over a period of eight months.

South Asia bureau chief of the Financial Times, Amy Kazmin, had written in a July edition op-ed that “for all the human suffering and economic damage it inflicted, India’s lockdown failed to flatten – or even slightly bend – the country’s coronavirus curve.” And in extrapolation to various regions across South Asia, various countries have been observed to have poor healthcare infrastructure, and are home to a large portion of their respective populations living below the poverty line. All of these factors had been taken into consideration when stating that they had set the foundation for various uphill battles when it came to tackling health crises.

“The economic consequences of COVID-19 on South Asia are proving to be even greater than the healthcare challenges in the region. Different South Asia countries have dealt with the pandemic in various ways, but the economic costs overall seem to be higher than the healthcare consequences”, co-author Haqqani says. “In order to ensure a safe return to normal life and a resumption of economic activity, South Asian governments would benefit from focusing more on the development of human capital.”

At the end of the subsection, however, the authors note that while the global economy had been shutting down, the focus of India’s political and influential leaders have stayed inward. “India may seek to play a bigger role in the world, but the focus of its media, elite, and leadership appears to be inward. At a time when the Indian economy slowed down drastically and China took over additional territory along their contested border, the focus of mainstream media was on the death of a Bollywood actor.”, it quotes.

Focusing away from India in the later part of the report, the authors go on to analyze the impact of the pandemic in other countries, specifically Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

The general trend, as seen in Pakistan, appeared quite successful – the country had managed to bend the curve down to a steady 1,450 daily cases (from 6,000); however, recent trends in the country do not seem as promising as it once was. The report also goes on to note that while results had seemed optimistic, the Pakistani government had acted too slow, too inefficient, and had to limit testing for the disease in order to achieve such numbers. Approximately 1.5% of the country’s population had been tested for the disease to date, and a seroprevalence study conducted in cooperation with the WHO had estimated eleven percent of Pakistanis to have developed COVID-19 antibodies. With such stark figures, the accuracy of figures as reported by the Pakistani government are under scrutiny.

Moving forth, the Afghanistan government had reported that nearly a third of the population had been infected with the novel coronavirus strain, and that despite the ten-million estimation, various experts believe that the numbers could be much higher, in fact. “The proportion of Afghans living in poverty may increase from 55 percent in 2017 to between 61 percent and 72 percent in 2020 because of declining incomes and rising prices of food and other vital household goods.”, according to the World Bank.

Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka had performed similarly, with Bangladesh catching up to India as the country with the largest infected population in South Asia. Across the continental region, testing quality has fallen quite significantly, with forged and faked test certificates readily available for a price. With significant losses in jobs and a sinking population with respect to the poverty line, it is high time we consider the overall economic effect of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown, while also balancing personal healthcare alongside.

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