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South Asia Brief

India’s Lockdown Helps Its Rich but Ignores Its Poor

The coronavirus crisis will disproportionately harm the millions of migrant workers and homeless people at severe risk of being exposed.

Migrant workers surround buses amid the nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus at Lal Kuan bus stand in Ghaziabad, India, on March 29.
Migrant workers surround buses amid the nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus at Lal Kuan bus stand in Ghaziabad, India, on March 29. Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. This week, we focus on the coronavirus crisis once again, exploring how various countries are imposing lockdowns.

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Social Distancing Is a Privilege

Look closely at the picture above. Migrant workers in Ghaziabad, part of Delhi’s National Capital Region, pack into (and on top of) buses to get back home as hundreds more look on, waiting for a ride. For these men and women, social distancing is an unimaginable privilege. The photograph was taken on Sunday, five days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown. It’s just one of many such images emerging from across the world’s second-most populous country.

Last Tuesday, Modi gave Indians four hours’ notice before imposing the lockdown. The televised announcement recalled a similar speech in November 2016, when India suddenly discontinued around 80 percent of its paper currency and promised to replace it with new rupee notes. The replacement notes took several weeks to fully circulate, leading to a cash crunch that disproportionately harmed daily wage laborers, migrant workers, farmers, and small businesses.

The current nationwide lockdown is once again going to disproportionately hurt the country’s underclasses. There are around 45 million migrant workers now trying to head home from their jobs in the cities, millions of homeless people left stranded, and hundreds of millions of daily wage laborers who will now struggle to put food on the table. One layer up in the social strata, hundreds of millions of Indians are living in small apartments, often with several people to a single room.

When so many people are living cheek by jowl, it takes only one person to spread the coronavirus. The lockdown is only a week in, but many families are already struggling with basic necessities and storage. (Only one-third of Indian households have refrigerators.) As Rana Ayyub reports in Foreign Policy, there are already cases of people dying of hunger. Soon, entertainment, education, and mental health will become a worry. Only 66 percent of households have TVs, and more than half of the population still doesn’t have access to the internet. The next few weeks will exacerbate familiar socioeconomic divides in the country.

Different models. Not all South Asian countries have taken the same approach as India. In Bangladesh, which has a population of around 164 million, the government warned about shutting down public transport a week before it actually did so, giving many migrant workers a chance to get home. The country has declared 10 days of national holiday—a euphemism if there ever was one—until April 4.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, which has a population of close to 200 million, Prime Minister Imran Khan has argued against a countrywide lockdown. “If I impose a total lockdown, what will happen to our country’s poor?” he said on March 22, speaking directly to Pakistanis and urging them to stay home only if they can afford to. “Panic can cause more damage than the coronavirus,” Khan said. Pakistan has shut down large malls and schools, letting individual states and provinces manage other aspects of supply chains and public movement.

Which South Asian response model will work best? Only time will tell, but for now the rates of coronavirus testing remain very low compared with those of most developed economies—which likely means there will be a lag between real and reported cases.

Global cooperation? The coronavirus crisis is a moment for leaders to appear strong. As Michael Kugelman writes in Foreign Policy this week, India’s Modi has been trying to position his country as a leader in crafting a global response. New Delhi has kick-started a regional emergency fund and proposed a G-20 videoconference. But not only are countries too focused on their domestic crises to consider collaboration, as Kugelman points out, but Modi may also find that he has his hands full with India’s worsening situation.

As shown below, the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus continues to rise across the region, especially in India and Pakistan.


FP Conference CallFor more on how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the global economy and how governments can respond, join me on Friday at 11 a.m. EDT for an FP Insider conference call with Raghuram Rajan, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and former governor of India’s central bank, and Adam Posen, the president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Reserve your spot now.


Question of the Week

The tiny island nation of the Maldives has just 17 confirmed cases of the coronavirus—enough to drive most tourists away. What percentage of the country’s GDP comes from tourism?

A) 3.9 percent
B) 19 percent
C) 39 percent
D) 69 percent

Scroll down for the answer. 


In Other News

Rajapaksa releases war criminal. The United Nations says a presidential pardon in Sri Lanka for convicted war criminal and former army sergeant Sunil Ratnayake is “an affront to victims” of the country’s civil war. Last week, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is himself accused of overseeing war crimes, ordered the release of Ratnayake, who was sentenced in 2015 for slitting the throats of eight Tamil civilians and dumping their bodies into a sewer.

Taliban strikes amid peace efforts. Afghan officials reported that Taliban insurgents killed 27 members of the Afghan security forces over the weekend in separate attacks across the country. Political disagreements and the continued fighting are holding back efforts to conduct the intra-Afghan talks between the elected government in Kabul and the Taliban.

India’s historic rate cut. India’s central bank slashed its interest rates to the lowest level on record last week while also promising to inject nearly $50 billion of cash into the financial system. The Sensex, India’s main stock index, is trading at its lowest level since 2017.


And the Answer Is …

C) 39 percent.

The Maldives is the country most reliant on tourism, followed by the British Virgin Islands, Macao, Aruba, and Seychelles. Fingers crossed these countries can bounce back soon.


That’s it for this week.

We welcome your feedback at newsletters@foreignpolicy.com. 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 managing editor of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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