Strengthening Regional Cooperation in South Asia to Address COVID Challenges

11.17.2020 | Articles | Posh Raj Pandey

Introduction

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. As of October 18, 39,596,858 people have been affected and 1,107,374 lives have been lost due to COVID-19 worldwide. Almost all the countries are now in the grip of the virus[1]. South Asia, comprising Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, constitutes over 21 percent of the world’s population. Together these countries have reported a total of 84,51,815 positive cases and 1,29,209 deaths, reportedly 21.3 percent and 11.7 percent of global infections and deaths respectively (Table 1).

 

However, South Asian countries have not been affected equally by COVID-19 and the measures taken to contain spread of infection have been heterogeneous across countries. India, with its population of 1.3 billion, accounts for about 90 percent of South Asian COVID-19 cases while Bhutan has the lowest number. Bhutan and Sri Lanka largely avoided community transmission and recorded a small number of infections per capita. Maldives has an extremely high ratio of cases per million people, but its recovery rate is high, and the case fatality rate (CFR) is low. For India and Nepal, per capita cases are at a high level and the number of new cases is still rising, though with frequent oscillation. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan recorded moderate levels of per capita infection compared to India and Nepal, but these countries suffer from relatively high case fatality rates. Most of the South Asian countries have significantly improved testing for COVID-19 recently. Currently only Bangladesh and Nepal are testing below the benchmark range – between 10 and 30 per confirmed case – recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO)[2] . Low testing rates could be a result of supply constraints and reduced demand for testing. The stringency index shows that Bangladesh implemented the most stringent measures to contain the spread of virus followed by Nepal, India, and Bhutan (Table 1).

 

The pandemic, together with containment measures such as lockdown and other non- pharmaceutical measures triggered simultaneous supply and demand shocks in South Asia. The gloomy global economic environment intensified these shocks. Restrictions on mobility, value chain disruptions, uncoordinated border crossings, reduced international trade flows and travel bans have driven down economic activities and forced reduction in production levels. On the other hand, aggregate demand has contracted due to reduced income because of reduced working hours and lay-offs, home confinement and increased uncertainty. As the health crisis turned into economic calamity, the pandemic had a devastating impact on lives and livelihoods in South Asia. Travel bans prevented tourists from reaching South Asia. Cancellation of orders has had huge impact on export sectors, for example, readymade garments in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, handicraft in Nepal, apparel, leather good, handicraft, carpet, gems and jewelry in India and textiles in Pakistan.[3]

 

[1] https://covid19.who.int/table

[2] https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance-publications

[3] United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). COVID-19 and South Asia: National Strategies and subregional Cooperation for Accelerating Inclusive, Sustainable and Resilient Recovery. Bangkok. 2020. Available at: https://www.unescap.org/resources/covid-19-and-south-asia-national-strategies-and-subregional-cooperation-accelerating