South Asia Brief

News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia—a region that is home to one-fourth of the world’s population—written by the Wilson Center's Michael Kugelman. Delivered Thursday.

India Is Hurtling Into a Coronavirus Crisis

Delhi officials say the city could have more than half a million cases by the end of July.

By Ravi Agrawal, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
A firefighter sprays disinfectant as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in a containment zone in Chennai on May 11, 2020.
A firefighter sprays disinfectant as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in a containment zone in Chennai on May 11, 2020. Arun Sankar / AFP

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief. This week: India now has the fourth most coronavirus cases in the world, conflicting reports about the India-China standoff, Nepal votes on a new map, and a note about racism and skin color in South Asia.

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Delhi Raises the Alarm 

As we predicted last week, India has continued to rise up in the rankings of countries with the most coronavirus cases. Last week it was seventh; this week it is fourth, with just shy of 300,000 confirmed cases.

But now a growing number of government officials admit things will get much worse, especially in New Delhi, which is fast becoming one of the main coronavirus hot spots in South Asia. Total cases in Delhi are doubling every 12 days—much faster than the current national average of 22. On Tuesday, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia told reporters that the city-state could have as many as 550,000 coronavirus cases by the end of July. He added that the capital would need 80,000 hospital beds at that point—it has only 9,000 today. Sisodia’s words come as reports continue to emerge of patients being turned away from hospitals in Delhi and in Mumbai.

Test, test, test. But how? Right from the start of the pandemic, health experts have pointed out the immense importance of testing. Without data and information, after all, officials are flying blind. FP’s Colm Quinn examined global testing data and found an unsurprising—but still shocking—correlation. While countries with low average incomes—$1,025 and less—have tested an average of 0.13 percent of their populations, countries with high average incomes—$12,376 and higher—have tested 5.2 percent of their citizens. Put another way, being in a rich country makes it 40 times more likely you can get a coronavirus test than if you were in a poor country. Most of South Asia’s countries fall under the World Bank’s “lower middle income” category—countries where 0.34 percent of citizens have been tested.

The debate over reopening. South Asian countries have mostly reopened their economies, as we’ve reported. As a result, the coronavirus crisis in the region is highly likely to accelerate. The economist Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak’s recent work has been focused on the complicated choices between lockdowns and the easing of restrictions. In his latest article for FP this week, Mobarak points out that it’s important to consider that the majority of South Asians live in rural areas where work options fluctuate alongside the agrarian cycle. Lawmakers should look closely at the so-called lean season—the period right before harvest when old grain stocks are depleted—and make sure that it doesn’t coincide with a period of lockdowns. But one-size-fits-all policies won’t help. As Mobarak puts it, “governments should pursue smart containment strategies that pay attention to the regional variation in disease risk, to specific activities that are critical for maintaining food security, and to the specific sectors the poor depend on for maintaining their livelihoods, instead of extending broad-based lockdowns that impose large human costs on the poor.”

Regional cases rising. We’ve discussed India extensively, but keep an eye on Bangladesh and Pakistan, which together have a larger population than the United States. The two countries now have a combined 200,000 cases, doubling around every two weeks, as our weekly chart details. Both countries have largely lifted their lockdown restrictions.

What We’re Following

The India-China standoff. Citing unnamed officials, Reuters reports that Indian and Chinese military commanders have agreed to confidence-building measures such as pulling back some troops from each side of their disputed border. The question is how much to believe these statements: Are they real, or simply face-saving measures? It’s difficult to say. The journalist Ajai Shukla, a former army colonel, tweeted on Thursday, citing satellite imagery and other sources, that China had not removed any troops from the areas within Indian territory its military recently occupied. And writing in FP this week, Anik Joshi makes the argument that one needs to examine the growing Pakistan-China friendship to properly assess the India-China relationship today. “India’s growingly comfortable relationship with the West heralds a clear choice in any global conflict,” he writes, predicting more tensions between New Delhi and Beijing.

Cartographic war. Keep an eye on this one. Nepal’s Parliament will vote on a new map of its border with India this weekend, claiming a tiny portion of land on its northwest tip as Nepali territory. Some Indian media have claimed that China is behind Nepal’s move to assert itself. But India also published a new map of the region last November, taking in some disputed land with Nepal under Indian territory. Landlocked Nepal depends on imports from India, which effectively blockaded the country in 2015 over ethnic minority issues, stirring up heavy resentment against New Delhi, but it is also increasingly beholden to China, which has begun to make large investments in Nepal’s infrastructure.

Sri Lanka’s election. Colombo has decided to hold general elections on Aug. 5, representing a four-month delay from the originally scheduled date in April. Sri Lanka has so far seen among the slowest rates of viral spread in South Asia, likely because of its relatively strong health care system, a small and manageable population, and the fact that it is an island country.

Question of the Week

Global protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have set off important discussions across South Asia about race and caste in society. For example, many writers have drawn attention to the skin-whitening industry, which employs popular film stars to promote the idea that whiter skin is somehow better than dark skin. And that brings me to my question this week: What is the estimated size of the global skin-lightening-cream industry?

A) $4 million
B) $40 million
C) $400 million
D) $4 billion

Scroll down for the answer—and some more thoughts and reading on racism in South Asia.

South Asia Inc.

Pakistan’s budget. Prime Minister Imran Khan presents his second annual budget on Friday. It won’t make for pretty viewing. GDP for the year ending in May is expected to contract by 0.4 percent—far below the pre-pandemic forecast of 3.3 percent growth, as Reuters reports. While Islamabad has reversed its lockdown measures, the World Health Organization says the country should adopt a more nimble “two weeks off and two weeks on strategy” to suppress the spread of the virus. Such a move would not only be unpopular but would also go against a recent Supreme Court order to reopen the economy.

A different bank crisis. “Employees are in panic mode,” according to an umbrella body of bank unions in India. While the country eases its lockdowns and requests for loans rise steeply, bankers are being forced to spend more time in the office—and they’re worried about safety. At least 11 bank employees have died of COVID-19 so far across the country.

And the Answer Is…

D) $4 billion. I couldn’t find authoritative data, but several sources point to a 2017 study putting the global market for skin lightening products at $4.075 billion and estimating that it was expected to double in size by 2026.

A few more thoughts: The former West Indies cricket captain Darren Sammy took to Instagram this week to point out how his colleagues in India’s T20 cricket league used a derogatory word as a nickname for him. But why did they do so? I enjoyed reading Sambit Bal’s thought-provoking essay in Cricinfo about the regional obsession with fair skin and also the “subcontinental abomination … of addressing people by their physical attributes.” Some of the words and phrases people use, Bal writes, “might not feel racist in the way the world understands it. But even without the scars of slavery and subjugation, colourism carries some of the worst features of racism; it is discriminatory, derogatory and dehumanising.” Well put, and I hope Bal’s views are widely read and pondered over. You can read the full essay here.

That’s it for this week.

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