South Asia Brief

The Coronavirus Reaches Rural India

Data shows the world’s biggest democracy hasn’t flattened the curve—it’s only delayed its peak.

Migrant workers and families line up to board a special train to return to their hometowns outside a railway station in Secunderabad, India, on May 23. 2020.
Migrant workers and families line up to board a special train to return to their hometowns outside a railway station in Secunderabad, India, on May 23. 2020. NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief. This week: The coronavirus reaches rural India, kills a Rohingya refugee, and leaves the Taliban’s top leadership seriously ill.

Plus, Mike Pompeo berates China over its dispute with India and Google steps in to mediate a digital spat between the two Asian powers.

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Coronavirus Threatens Rural India

The math is catching up with India.

For two months, epidemiologists and journalists have wondered why countries in South Asia hadn’t recorded more coronavirus cases. But the latest data seems to suggest they haven’t flattened the curve—they’re just behind it.

On Thursday, India recorded more than 9,000 new infections, placing it seventh in the list of countries with the most cases, as shown above. At the current rate—total cases doubling about every two weeks—India could soon rise to fourth place, behind only the United States, Brazil, and Russia. With a growing ratio of tests returning positive, experts estimate India is weeks and maybe even months away from a peak. But predictions remain fuzzy: India’s testing rate of about 3,000 per million people is 20 times lower than the U.S. rate.

Rural outbreak? Perhaps the most concerning news is that migrant workers who left India’s big cities to return to their home states after the hastily announced lockdown on March 24 brought the coronavirus with them. Of the 3,872 new cases recorded after June 1 in the state of Bihar, 71 percent were linked to people who returned in May, when the government ran special buses and trains to transport migrant workers.

A rural outbreak is especially worrying because India’s health care problems—chiefly low numbers of hospital beds, doctors, and nurses—are worst in its villages, which are often remote and where literacy rates tend to be lowest. A rapid spread of the virus in rural areas could be especially difficult to track, let alone contain.

Overwhelmed hospitals. India’s cities are not without their problems. HuffPost India published an increasingly familiar story of a desperate family being turned away from several overcrowded hospitals in New Delhi. After forcing their way into a hospital and begging a doctor to help, they learned it was too late. “Hours after we took an alive person out of his house in our car, we returned after cremating him,” writes a family member.

Regional reopening. Despite the data, India is moving ahead with a planned reopening. While data on so-called informal sector workers and daily wage laborers is difficult to procure, estimates suggest that more than 100 million Indians are out of work. In neighboring Bangladesh and Pakistan, major cities are already humming back to life. It seems that much of the region has arrived at the same conclusion after months of shutdowns: They can’t sustain any more economic pain. And that means it’s quite likely South Asia will become a major coronavirus hub by the summer’s end.

Our weekly chart on the rising number of cases across the region:

What We’re Following

The India-China standoff. While neither New Delhi nor Beijing took U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate the dispute between them seriously, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo openly rebuked China this week. Speaking at an event at the American Enterprise Institute, Pompeo described China’s movement of troops to its border with India as “the kinds of actions that authoritarian regimes take.” The two countries plan to hold high-level talks on Saturday.

The Taliban’s leader has COVID-19. As Lynne O’Donnell and Mirwais Khan reported for Foreign Policy this week, the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, is gravely ill with the coronavirus. But things may be more serious. While there has been no official confirmation, Taliban figures in Pakistan say they believe Akhunzada has already died. “Nearly all the Taliban leadership in Doha has the bug,” one official said.

First Rohingya refugee dies of coronavirus. It was perhaps only a matter of time. A 71-year-old Rohingya refugee died on May 31 at an isolation center in Bangladesh. Fewer than 400 Rohingya in Bangladesh’s refugee camps have been tested for the virus so far. Aid workers have warned for months that if the virus starts spreading in Cox’s Bazar, it will be unstoppable.

Question of the Week

The Maldives will reopen its borders to foreign visitors in July. “We cannot keep our borders closed for long,” said the country’s minister for tourism in a statement issued last month. The island country has a population of about 500,000, and its economy relies heavily on tourism. Our question: How many international tourists visited last year?

A) 700,000
B) 1.7 million
C) 3.7 million
D) 7.7 million

Scroll down for the answer. 

South Asia Inc.

Digital dispute. Google stepped in this week to remove the app Remove China Apps from India’s Google Play Store after it was downloaded nearly 5 million times last week. As the name suggests, the app promised to delete Chinese-made software from users’ smartphones. The digital kerfuffle took place just as tensions between India and China escalated along their unmarked border.

There’s a real irony to the Indian movement to go local. Most Indians use low-cost Chinese-made smartphones manufactured under generic-sounding brand names such as Vivo, Oppo, One Plus, CoolPad, and Gionee.

 Make in India. Perhaps related to the previous story, India launched a $6.65 billion plan to boost electronics manufacturing this week. New Delhi plans to offer global smartphone makers hefty incentives to manufacture in India—a move that would allow it to compete with China for post-pandemic jobs as companies diversify their supply chains.

Odds and Ends

Almost immediately after Bollywood (and Hollywood) star Priyanka Chopra shared her thoughts about George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis on Instagram last week, social media erupted with criticism. Some pointed out that Chopra has previously endorsed controversial fairness creams—an industry based on an unhealthy obsession with whiteness—and others called out Chopra and other stars for failing to act on issues within India.

We’ll publish an article about this issue from the journalist Raksha Kumar tomorrow, so check back in. My own thoughts are that India has even greater policing problems than the United States, ranging from its brutal actions in Kashmir to how social divisions of caste, class, and gender play out in police work every day across the country. So-called lower castes and the poor face the brunt of police brutality—but there are certainly no mass protests arguing against it.

Perhaps the ongoing demonstrations in U.S. cities will make Indians and South Asians at large rethink problems within their own societies, too.

And the Answer Is…

B) 1.7 million.

The Maldives welcomed 1.7 million international tourists last year. It was hoping to increase that number to 2 million this year, but it has been unable to attract any tourists since March.

That’s it for this week.

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

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