Countries in South Asia have been easing restrictions and reopening their economies, despite increasing coronavirus cases in recent weeks. The global lockdowns in response to the pandemic have caused widespread economic disruptions in countries from Europe to Asia to the United States, which leads the world in coronavirus cases and deaths.
But for developing countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the calculus is even more dire, as leaders must choose between lives and livelihoods — with few able to strike the right balance.
South Asian countries also face unique challenges in fighting the pandemic because they must juggle diverse populations and highly dense environments, making social distancing virtually impossible in some areas.
Leaders in India and elsewhere initially took forceful measures to curb the spread of the virus. While the measures likely slowed infection rates, they also wreaked economic havoc, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable. For these legions of poor people who work in the informal economy, staying at home essentially amounts to a death sentence, forcing them to choose between catching COVID-19 or not having enough to eat.
In the face of these hardships, South Asian countries are reopening their economies, causing spikes in COVID-19 cases. India, for example, is now the third-worst country affected by the coronavirus, trailing only behind Brazil and the United States. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, reports have emerged that overwhelmed hospitals are turning patients away. Even the country’s health minister has tested positive for the virus.
During a virtual panel organized by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on June 17, former ambassadors and experts from South Asian countries discussed how governments should respond to the crisis in ways that can ensure their countries’ economic survival without putting lives at risk.
Experts from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka said they’ve all experienced mixed reactions to how their home countries have handled the pandemic.
Despite strong responses from governments in terms of economic stimulus packages and support for vulnerable communities, some experts say governments have not implemented lockdown measures forcefully or long enough. Others lament that citizens themselves are not taking the virus seriously. And while there have been some successes, experts warn that countries should learn from their failures and prepare for an uncertain future.
India faced unique challenges in dealing with coronavirus, given that much of its 1.3 billion people live in highly dense areas. The country imposed the largest coronavirus lockdown in the world on March 25, leaving an estimated 100 million people out of work.
“The strict lockdown initially had the impact of generating mass awareness about the virus, its impact and need for precautions,” said Arun Singh, former Indian ambassador to the U.S.
The country had responded to the pandemic even earlier, initiating screening of passengers coming from China, according to Singh. However, he said, authorities failed to screen passengers coming from Europe, triggering an outbreak in cases.
After the lockdown, the former ambassador said the containment of cases was well-handled — at first.
However, the nationwide lockdown — which was announced with almost no notice, leaving tens of millions of migrant workers scrambling to get home — had “dire effects” on the economy. According to Singh, this led Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to consider reopening the country.
Modi began lifting restrictions near the end of May, despite the number of COVID-19 cases soaring. India reported its largest single-day increase of infections July 5, with nearly 25,000 new confirmed cases.
The increase has led to growing pressure on hospitals in Mumbai and Delhi, according to Singh. However, the ambassador says the number of deaths as a percentage of the population is still relatively low.
He said that during the lockdown, health care systems were given time to build up their response capacity. India also converted several buildings into medical care centers, transforming the country into a hub of medical supplies. Currently, India is the second-largest supplier of personal protective equipment, coming in right behind China, according to Singh. The country also has reportedly provided medicines to over 100 countries.
Economically, Singh said India has distributed stimulus packages to the poorest parts of the country, but he added that, “Much work, of course, lies ahead to reduce the absolute numbers and revive the economy.”
That work may be even greater than Singh originally predicted. Since the USIP discussion, India’s coronavirus numbers surged after the economy reopened, forcing Modi to reinstate mandatory lockdowns for certain cities as medical facilities come under increasing strain. India now has the third-highest number of cases in the world.
Pakistan does not have as many coronavirus cases as India, although the true numbers in both countries is difficult to gauge because of the lack of widespread testing.
Meanwhile, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has received mixed reactions to his government’s handling of the pandemic.
Much like India, Pakistan has seen its number of cases surge. And much like Modi, Khan — who rode to power as a self-declared populist champion of the poor — faces the dilemma of balancing the threats posed by the disease with the threats posed by shutting down the economy.
Maleeha Lodhi, the former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., said the country initially imposed a two-week lockdown but soon lifted restraints after worries about the economic fallout.
“[It was] an unprecedented crisis that warranted quick action but also involved making excruciating choices,” Lodhi said at the USIP event.
Lodhi said the prime minister opposed stringent lockdowns, citing the potential economic catastrophe for the most vulnerable populations. Instead, he insisted on a “smart lockdown” that didn’t impose enforced restrictions. He also encouraged the public to follow health guidelines to keep numbers manageable.
“It seems that South Asia is witnessing a delayed virus curve arising,” Lodhi said, noting the spike in cases came later — mostly in the last month.
Lodhi said the government faced a double bind: addressing the pandemic’s health challenges and its economic hardships. This choice between lives and livelihoods is a dangerous gamble, Lodhi said, as governments “simply don’t know” how long the pandemic will last.
But she argues that “trying to make a choice between lives and livelihoods is actually a false choice…. Without saving lives, you can’t save livelihoods.”
Pakistan lifted restrictions May 9 and has reported at least 240,000 new cases since then. Before the lockdown eased, Pakistan reported roughly 25,000 cases.
Pakistan’s current ambassador to the U.S., Asad Majeed Khan, recently spoke about the pandemic on The Washington Diplomat’s Global 360 webcast, where he admitted that “the situation has clearly deteriorated in Pakistan since the lifting of the lockdown.”
“But if you look at the size of Pakistan’s population and the level of population concentration in Pakistan, I would say that the numbers — particularly in terms of rate of infection but also in terms of the casualty rate — the number is still relatively low,” he told us.
“Obviously our health system is fragile and is under a lot of pressure, but overall the capacity of the system has not been exhausted,” he added.
“For any government, I think COVID-19 is a unique challenge and each government is doing things in the sense that there are no other examples to follow. Being a poor country, obviously our resources are limited, but we are trying to do everything we can and we have also developed indigenous capacity,” he said, noting that stadiums have been converted into medical facilities and that testing capacity has increased from 1,000 tests per day to 20,000 a day, with an eye on reaching 30,000 tests per day soon.
Ambassador Khan also said his government is pushing for global debt relief and passed a stimulus package of $8 billion — “high by Pakistani standards.” In addition, it’s working to improve awareness about the disease to combat misinformation and complacency.
On that note, Lodhi lamented that many Pakistanis have waved the virus off as “no more than the flu.” At the same time, she pointed out that “the poor cannot practice social distancing…. This is a developing country challenge.”
Despite the rising numbers, Lodhi said her country’s response has been both good and bad. She cited critical assistance and supplies that the World Health Organization has given to Pakistan.
“WHO played a key part, and the kind of criticism it is facing is extremely unfortunate,” Lodhi said.
That criticism largely comes from President Trump, who recently withdrew the U.S. from the WHO, claiming it was being co-opted by China and slamming it for failing to curb the initial outbreak.
Lodhi pointed out that Pakistan initially relied heavily on both the WHO and China, receiving much-needed equipment and medical know-how. Yet despite those close ties, the WHO became critical of Pakistan, arguing that it lifted restrictions far too early.
Speaking on our Global 360 webcast, Ambassador Khan reiterated that his government — and his countrymen — face difficult choices. “If I have a family of five, and I have to bring food for my kids every evening, and for that I have to go and make a living as a daily wager — that’s the biggest challenge.”
He said that instead of criticism, what’s needed is greater international cooperation and assistance, because ultimately the disease doesn’t recognize borders.
“There is absolutely no other alternative than to get through this together.”
Bangladesh could see the significant economic gains it’s made over the last 50 years, especially in its all-important garment industry, wiped out from the effects of lockdowns imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The country reported its first case in March, with few confirmed cases in its first month.
This caused the country to become complacent, according to Tariq Karim, the former Bangladeshi ambassador to the U.S., who also spoke at the USIP online event.
“Bangladesh did not act early enough,” Karim said. “We, too, are in a learning curve, and the learning has been somewhat mixed.”
Karim said Bangladeshis didn’t think the pandemic would last as long as it did, so they didn’t take it seriously. In fact, many were preparing for the country’s independence celebrations on March 26.
“No one socially took it very seriously until the end of March,” Karim said.
When the WHO declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, the leaders of Bangladesh decided to act, but not with strict measures.
“We didn’t declare a lockdown,” Karim said. “We declared an extended public holiday.”
This “extended holiday” imposed a 10-day shutdown across the country, causing businesses to halt production. Many workers were furloughed or laid off as global orders ceased. This especially affected the garment industry, with nearly 1 million workers fired or furloughed by the beginning of April, according to a report by the Penn State Center for Global Workers’ Rights. Lockdowns also affected workers in the manufacturing, agriculture, hotels, transportation and tourism industries.
Even without the lockdowns, Bangladeshis will be hard hit by the pandemic because of the global disruption in supply chains, which help fuel the country economy. In fact, Bangladesh’s garment industry accounts for as much as 80% of the country’s exports and employs millions.
Karim said the economic fallout has canceled all the gains Bangladesh achieved in poverty reduction. Before the pandemic, he said Bangladesh was a “rising star” for its growing GDP. The country previously expected 8% GDP growth rate for 2020, but may now only see 1% to 2% growth, according to Karim.
The Asian Development Bank, however, believes Bangladesh will make a V-shaped economic recovery, growing 7.5% by next July, according to a report released June 18. This puts Bangladesh above all other South Asian countries, according to the ADB.
The country began easing restrictions near the end of May, despite a climb in coronavirus cases, but Karim said reaction to the lifting of restrictions has been mixed.
Criticism has not been widespread, as many people are eager to get back to work. But if cases rise sharply, it’s only a matter of time when the “threshold of tolerance snaps,” according to Karim.
“We are learning and we are adapting,” he said. “Perhaps we need to do that faster.”
Sri Lanka experienced the pandemic early on, reporting its first case Jan. 27. Nearly six months later, however, the country has reported only a total of 1,905 cases and 11 deaths as of June 16.
The government imposed a stringent, nationwide, 52-day lockdown, which the military rigorously enforced.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka, told the USIP audience that the newly elected president is also the former defense secretary — which is why the armed forces took over managing the crisis.
Social distancing and the wearing of masks was heavily imposed on citizens, with the threat of arrest if Sri Lankans did not comply with health guidelines or curfews.
Because of these strict requirements, Sri Lanka ranked among the best countries in the world for its response to the virus, according to a mid-April report by the Global Response to Infectious Diseases Index.
Despite its quick response to contain the virus, Sri Lanka’s economy — particularly its tourism and clothing sectors — has not been immune to the pandemic’s worldwide ripple effects.
According to Saravanamuttu, the apparel industry has no orders for September and October — while the country is “very badly in debt” to its surrounding neighbors.
Despite all of the uncertainty, Sri Lanka is preparing to hold an election on Aug. 5 — which would make it among the first countries to hold a national vote amid the pandemic.
While the government has issued various safety guidelines for the election, experts worry it might spark an outbreak in a country that has largely been spared from the virus.
Others worry that elections might give Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa — a controversial figure for his brutal crackdown on Tamil Tiger rebels — the two-thirds majority in parliament that he needs to strengthen his executive powers.
Saravanamuttu said the pandemic has provided the Rajapaksa government an excuse to function in an authoritarian manner. “What we are having is a militarization of governance under the cover of the COVID virus [response].
About the Author
Cami Mondeaux is a news intern for The Washington Diplomat.