South Asia Brief

South Asia’s Looming Disaster

India has announced a complete lockdown for 21 days. But with community spread of the coronavirus already underway, is it too late?

A woman walks with children wearing protective masks during a curfew in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Mumbai, India, on March 24.
A woman walks with children wearing protective masks during a curfew in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Mumbai, India, on March 24. Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief, a weekly look at the most important news from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—a region that comprises a quarter of the world’s population. Given the severity of the coronavirus crisis, this week we’re focusing almost entirely on how the region is coping with COVID-19 and what happens next.

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Community Spread Has Begun

Most South Asian countries locked their borders down last week or even earlier, but the number of confirmed coronavirus cases keep rising, particularly in Pakistan and India. This trend suggests that the region has likely moved from phase two of the virus outbreak, when transmission is traced to people who have arrived from foreign countries, to phase three, when the disease is spreading more widely among communities.

“We don’t have public evidence we’re in phase three in India,” said Ramanan Laxminarayan, the director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Disease Dynamics, on the phone from New Delhi. “But there’s anecdotal evidence. The data and modeling show we should be in phase three. And it’s very hard to prevent this next phase from taking place.”

We’ve seen this pattern in China, Iran, Western Europe, and the United States: The coronavirus spread starts off slow and then grows exponentially. “And by then you’re far behind, and catching up is really difficult,” said Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. Jha believes it’s more likely that India has between 5,000 and 10,000 cases—10 or 20 times the official numbers—but that most are undetected due to limited testing. If the number of cases doubles every five days, India and its neighbors are less than a month away from a potentially unmanageable number of cases and deaths.

It’s not as if South Asian countries aren’t taking action. India, the region’s largest economy, has ground to a halt since the weekend. Authorities urged people to take curfew orders seriously, shutting down domestic commercial flights and rail services. In a televised address to the nation on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a strict 21-day nationwide lockdown. “If we are not able to manage the next 21 days, we will be pushed back by 21 years,” he warned. “For 21 days, forget what it means to step outside your home.”

In Pakistan, the military has been called in to impose restrictions on public gatherings. Nepal’s government declared a countrywide lockdown until at least March 31, with people barred from leaving their homes except to buy medicine or groceries. In Sri Lanka, the government extended a nationwide curfew to promote social distancing and accepted a $500 million loan from China for its public health efforts. Even in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are skeptical of global health organizations, a spokesman for the militant group confirmed that it was ready to cooperate with World Health Organization.

“The lockdowns are pretty serious measures,” said Laxminarayan, referring to India’s move. “And people are taking social distancing seriously. But it’s not so easy to practice physical distancing in the way that’s needed.”

Last week, I pointed out how India has lower ratios of hospital beds and doctors per capita than developed economies—a shortage that also holds true for its neighbors. Barring the Maldives and Afghanistan, most South Asian countries underspend on health care. Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India spend 2.4 percent, 2.8 percent, and 3.7 percent of their GDPs respectively on health expenditure, compared to 8.9 percent for Italy and 17.1 percent for the United States.

But there are several other problems that will manifest as the region attempts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

First, consider the workforce. According to data from the International Labor Organization, in India, Nepal, and Pakistan, a respective 80.9 percent, 90.7 percent, and 77.6 percent of the population is employed in the informal sector—working for daily wages, usually without contracts, health care, or pensions. (Bangladesh is a relative bright spot, with only 48.9 percent in the informal sector.) For most of these informal workers, taking a day or two off from work—let alone a month—can be ruinous. It’s quite likely that these workers will continue to seek work, potentially exposing themselves to the coronavirus.

Second, social distancing is easier said than done for migrant workers and slum-dwellers who live in close quarters with several other people, often with shared public toilets and limited access to clean water and disinfectants. South Asia has some of the world’s most populated cities, and also the most densely populated ones: Mumbai, Kolkata, and Karachi are the top three. That makes unfettered community spread more likely. South Asia’s cities are also among the world’s most polluted, meaning people are likely to suffer from asthma or other respiratory illnesses, weakening their bodily response to COVID-19.

In other words, things will get much worse before they get better. Harvard’s Jha predicts that as many as 40 percent of Indians could get infected with the coronavirus, which could mean between 300 million and 400 million infected, up to 70 million needing some hospital treatment, and as many as 8 million to 20 million needing intensive care in hospitals. “That’s not fathomable in terms of what the hospital system can possibly accommodate,” Jha told FP. “A lot of people could die outside of health care facilities.”

In Other News

Pompeo in Kabul. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew home after spending Monday in Kabul trying to mend fences between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. The talks failed, leading Pompeo to announce a $1 billion cut in U.S. aid to Afghanistan. Pompeo did not make clear which areas the $1 billion cut would impact.

Facebook and India. The Financial Times reports that Facebook is in talks to buy a stake in India’s Reliance Jio telecommunications firm, a deal that would be worth several billion dollars. Jio, which has captured a large cellular market share in India by slashing costs, is valued at more than $60 billion. India is one of Facebook’s most important markets, with more than 400 million users of services such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram.

Zia’s out of jail. Former Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, now 74, has been released from jail on humanitarian grounds due to deteriorating health. She was convicted in a corruption case in February 2018. Zia and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party say the case—brought by the government of her longtime rival, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina—were fabricated.

Delhi crime. Last Friday, India executed four men convicted for the gang rape and murder of a young woman on a Delhi bus in 2012. The case prompted widespread protests and some changes to Indian law regarding rape trials. The executions mark the first use of capital punishment for sex crimes in India since 2004.

That’s it for this week.

We welcome your feedback at You can find older editions of South Asia Brief here. For more from FP, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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