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South Asia Brief

First the Pandemic. Then a Killer Cyclone.

India and Bangladesh reel after Cyclone Amphan kills dozens and displaces thousands, creating conditions for the coronavirus to renew its spread.

An aerial view shows flooded houses after a dam broke when Cyclone Amphan made landfall in Shyamnagar, Bangladesh, on May 21.
An aerial view shows flooded houses after a dam broke when Cyclone Amphan made landfall in Shyamnagar, Bangladesh, on May 21. MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief. This week, a deadly super cyclone smashes into India and Bangladesh, Pakistan’s Supreme Court bans coronavirus restrictions, and Afghanistan’s rival leaders form a power-sharing deal.

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Cyclone Amphan Slams India and Bangladesh

At least 80 people have died after a powerful super cyclone tore through the coast of eastern India and Bangladesh on Wednesday, destroying shacks, upending trees and electricity poles, and causing flash floods. The death toll may still rise as rescue teams scour coastal areas to assess the destruction.

Cyclone Amphan could have been far worse. As recently as Monday, Amphan was classified as a Category 5, the highest possible designation for storms, with winds over 156 miles per hour. But Amphan weakened to a Category 2 by landfall, with winds around 100 miles per hour. Officials in India and Bangladesh evacuated more than 3 million residents along the coast of the Bay of Bengal, almost certainly saving tens of thousands of lives.

The last super cyclone to hit India, the 1999 Odisha cyclone, killed more than 10,000 people and displaced many more.

The pandemic made things harder. Both India and Bangladesh surmounted immense odds in safeguarding their coastal residents, many of whom may have been scared to move to government shelters where they risked catching the coronavirus. The pandemic’s real impact in combination with the cyclone will only be seen in the coming weeks, however, as millions set about repairing their homes and renewing their supplies of food and water. The coronavirus has already hit vulnerable populations such as the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, and a period of displacement will increase the chances of transmission across the region.

Kolkata’s damages. This one is personal, because I grew up in Kolkata in the 1980s and 1990s and still have family and friends there. The city is the former capital of the British Raj and has landmarks that are hundreds of years old and often fragile. Images on television and social media tell a story of a shaken metropolis. The storm ripped trees out by their roots, damaging roads, cars, and homes. Flooding has damaged warehouses and led to lost inventory. Some residents will likely spend days without electricity. And it all comes as the city was already reeling from months of inactivity amid a national lockdown.

When I was CNN’s South Asia bureau chief between 2014 and 2018, I covered several natural disasters in the region, but Kolkata was often spared. Not this time. The capital of West Bengal is one of the worst-hit cities, as the eye of the storm passed right by it. For most Kolkatans, this is the worst cyclone in living memory.

Some of Amphan’s impacts may take days and weeks to reveal themselves. When a prominent bridge collapsed in Kolkata in 2016, I wrote at the time that many buildings and bridges are of poor quality because of “lax regulations, rampant corruption, poor building materials, and badly trained workers.” That context is important to keep in mind as structural damages to haphazardly placed buildings and electricity poles—especially in the city’s slums—emerge in the coming days, causing a cascade of other problems.

Climate change. While Amphan is a singular event, one cannot ignore the impact of climate change in the region. As the waters of the Bay of Bengal get warmer, they are more likely to trigger more powerful storms with greater frequency. The matter is compounded by two other factors. First, hundreds of millions of people live in coastal areas, most of them quite poor and residing in weak and densely packed buildings. And second, some of the region’s best natural defenses, such as the mangroves of the Sundarbans, that weaken the impact of storms and sea surges have been eroding over the last few decades because of industrial pollution and man-made construction. As sea levels rise, eastern India and Bangladesh will only become more vulnerable to climate-related disasters.


What We’re Following

Coronavirus cases rise, but not exponentially. The total number of cases in South Asia topped 200,000 today, but it is doubling only around every two weeks, as shown below. By comparison, at the height of the outbreak in New York, cases doubled every three days. But there are several causes for concern. In Pakistan, the country’s Supreme Court ordered the government to lift restrictions, saying the virus “apparently is not a pandemic in Pakistan.” The decision is binding. Across South Asia, which has more Muslims than any other part of the world, the end of Ramadan this weekend marks the beginning of Eid festivities, when people usually travel to visit families and friends. Without restrictions, the virus could easily spread further.

The Afghan power-sharing deal. In a major step for Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed a power-sharing deal with his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. Each leader will appoint half of the government cabinet. While Ghani will have undivided executive governing authority, Abdullah will take charge of peace efforts with the Taliban. Meanwhile, the U.S. special envoy to the region, Zalmay Khalilzad, met Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday and called for a reduction in violence. According to the United Nations, civilian casualties in Afghanistan jumped to 380 in April—up from 208 in the same period last year.

Sri Lanka’s civil war anniversary. On Tuesday, Sri Lankans marked 11 years since the end of the country’s civil war. Rights groups continue to exert pressure on Colombo to investigate allegations of human rights violations in the war. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who served as the defense minister during the conflict, remained defiant this week. “In a small country like ours where our war heroes have sacrificed so much, I will not allow anyone or [any] organization to exert undue pressure on them or harass them,” he said.


Question of the Week

Cyclone Amphan got me wondering: Who names these storms?

A) The United Nations
B) The National Hurricane Center in Miami
C) The World Meteorological Organization
D) The World Health Organization

Scroll down for the answer. 


South Asia Inc.

Jio Platforms. It’s almost like investors are racing to join India’s Reliance Industries juggernaut. The Financial Times reports that the U.S. private equity giant KKR is in talks to buy a $1.5 billion stake in Jio Platforms, the Reliance-owned cellular and wireless data company. United Arab Emirates’ Mubadala and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund are both in discussions to invest more than a billion dollars each. If the deals go through, they would join recent investors such as General Atlantic, Vista Equity Partners, and Silver Lake, as well as Facebook—which spent $5.7 billion for a 9.99 percent stake in the Indian company.


Odds and Ends

Girls who build. A group of girls known as the Afghan Dreamers are working on making ventilators out of car parts for coronavirus patients. The Afghan teenagers used a motor from a Toyota Corolla and another part from a Honda bike to make their prototype model. They estimate they can make a functioning ventilator for $600. The heartwarming project has even won the approval of President Ashraf Ghani. Read more about it here.


And the Answer Is…

C) The World Meteorological Organization

If you guessed the United Nations, you’re not entirely wrong. The organization is part of the U.N. and is based in Geneva. The group has regional committees that update the names of storms every year. The first storm of the season always begins with the letter A, and storm names often reflect the language and sensibility of the region in which they occur, the BBC reports. The most notorious names, such as Katrina and Gustav, are retired.


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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