The world is currently under distress, with the CoVID-19 pandemic infecting and killing tens of thousands of people in just a matter of days. Capitalist greed has led to destructive impacts on the climate and degradation of the environment, facilitating the rapid mutation of viruses. We are now facing a global crisis that may lead to greater catastrophes such as the looming economic recession and the possibility of more contagions in the decades to come.
Underdeveloped nations in South Asia are among the most vulnerable to outbreaks of disease, which overwhelms the region’s already subpar healthcare systems, as most governments in the region devote the least priority to public health spending vis-a-vis military and defense allocations in their national budgets. This reflects the generally militaristic approach and lack of readiness to fight the pandemic. For instance, India allocates only 1.6 percent of its annual budget for health, while devoting 15.5 percent to military expenditures. Pakistan’s health budget is not far off, capping at only 2 percent, compared to 16 percent for defense. Both Bangladesh and Nepal have the highest allocations for health in the region, with around 6 percent; and incidentally the lowest in comparison to its neighbors in military spending, amounting to 6 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively.
There is a rapid increase of CoVID-19 cases and casualties throughout the region, with an estimate of around 100 getting infected by the virus each day since the first reported case. The number of testing kits remain small. India’s testing as of March 31 only covered 16 percent per million population. Similar situations and trends can be observed in the neighboring countries of Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Hospital isolation rooms and ventilators, which are essential in treating the complications brought about by the infection, are also very limited across the region.
Several reports within the region state that the lax approach of some countries in light of initial news of confirmed cases contributed to the region’s current undesirable situation. This is supported by the fact that governments in the region did not immediately implement precautionary policies. In India, the first case of the disease was discovered last January 30, but a concrete policy was not declared until March 21; the first confirmed case in Bangladesh was on March 8 and it took two weeks before anything was done. Pakistan’s first reported case was on February 26, a precautionary warning was issued on March 13 by the President, and an official lockdown was declared on March 23. Nepal’s first case was on January 24, but imposed a community quarantine on March 24 following its second case the day before.
The introduction of an enhanced community quarantine or a lockdown was originally to implement social distancing, which aimed to slow the rate of the virus’s spread. Most countries in the region followed this tactic. Although its effectiveness in curbing the number of infections cannot be refuted, supplementing policies are still necessary to provide for those affected by lockdowns.
Residents in rural areas and small cities are the most vulnerable among the population, with far less access to goods and services during the lockdown. Daily wage earners, “no work, no pay” laborers, and the informal sector are also heavily affected since their livelihoods depend on them being able to work each day. Migrant workers have become refugees overnight, fleeing the cities and being forced to walk for days to their home provinces. In addition to the closure of public transport systems, stay-at-home orders during the lockdown prove the need for the government to provide sufficient and immediate economic relief to the vulnerable sectors of the population.
Despite the priority of taking care of people’s welfare, the lockdowns are being used as tools to achieve more power, contain outrage because of the absence of government aid and social services, and promote selfish interests. Police are authorized to exercise full control in the implementation of the quarantine. Military forces are also on standby.
The militarization of the community quarantine has intensified the attacks against the poor. This has done nothing to address food scarcity and the lack of preparedness of the existing health systems. Members of indigenous communities in Manipur, India have been subjected to police brutality despite being out only for essentials and observing physical distancing policies. Health workers lobbying for protective equipment in Pakistan were harassed and arrested. Illegal attention awaits those who ply the streets to work or to survive as not all have the privilege to work from home. Those who get caught are stuffed into cramped prison-like environments – highlighting existing inequalities, revealing the selectiveness of the lockdown, and unmasking the governments’ anti-poor and fascist tendencies.
In light of the current crisis, building people-to-people solidarity despite the premise of physical distancing is essential. Various creative platforms must be maximized. Discussions and dialogues regarding the pandemic and its comprehensive solutions must continue. A united call to for states to prioritize the health, safety, and rights of the marginalized sectors must be pushed forward.
The spread of the virus should be managed holistically with people’s rights at the core. Its socio-economic and political impact must be dealt with immediately with the imperative of securing lives. The people in South Asia demand for:
- Immediate economic relief for those severely affected by the community quarantine, most especially the basic sectors. Guaranteed food, livelihood, and income must be provided due to the current economic standstill. Governments and corporations must provide bailout options for their workers;
- Cancellation of debt as a form of substantial economic relief at the national level. The World Bank statement of the pandemic creating a ‘perfect storm’ for South Asia because of its adverse economic effects is detestably opportunistic and predatory. Imposing loans to address the pandemic is profiteering from the current ills of humanity;
- Increased government support to the healthcare sector must be immediately given; with an emphasis on mass testing and treatment, protective equipment for the frontline, as well as medical equipment and infrastructure; with the goal of pursuing genuine and effective health care systems; and,
- Transparency in government responses to the pandemic. Address the people’s demand for a comprehensive health solution to the current crisis with respect for human rights and social protection in policy making and implementation.
We are grateful to the healthcare workers at the frontlines of the battle against the virus. We stand in solidarity with people’s organizations and civil society organizations who, despite the risks, unrelentingly provide aid to those who need it most.
We enjoin all governments, CSOs and POs, and citizens to fight repression as well as economic subjugation and political opportunism.#
 Pakistan: 135.4; Bangladesh: 7.45; Nepal: 0.9; India: 178.4.