COVID-19 has caused huge damage throughout the world. It has brought US and Europe, the two most prosperous and scientifically advanced regions of the world, to their knees with maximum number of casualties and financial losses running into trillions of dollars.
However, challenges of the virus in South Asian countries have different dimensions. These countries have most densely populated cities and towns where millions of extremely poor people live.
As the sudden lockdown commenced in India towards end of March, millions of migrant workers, living in major cities in hutments, overcrowded dormitories and in slums, attempted to return to their villages hundreds of km away.
With all modes of transport completely shutdown, a large number of migrant workers started walking with their meagre belongings and at times with small and infant children.
Horrible stories emerged as they faced starvation, exhaustion as there was little provision of food and water over long distances, they aimed to walk for to their hometowns.
Dharavi, a locality in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is one of the largest slums in Asia where nearly 700,000 people live in an area of just over 2.1 square kilometres. With a population density of over 277,136/km2, Dharavi is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
Mahim Creek is a local river that is widely used by local residents for urination and defecation causing the spread of contagious diseases. There is an average of 1 toilet per 500 people. About 33% of the population of Dharavi is Muslim, much higher than around 15% average Muslim population in India.
Coronavirus cases appeared in Dharavi in April and it has now become a major hot spot among many more in the financial capital of India. Due to very limited testing among slum dwellers, the real numbers are unknown. As on 15 May the official figures had touched 1200 mark with 53 deaths.
Mumbai has already seen nearly 20,000 cases and more than 1000 deaths by 18 May. There are horrific scenes being circulated in social media of hospitals in Mumbai where patients are lying next to the corpses wrapped in body bags.
Gujrat, the state of Indian PM Narendra Modi is also severely affected by the crisis. It is feared that with an average of 6000 new cases and more than 150 deaths daily, India seems to be heading towards a major crisis. The total cases in India are approaching 150,000 and more than 4000 deaths by 26 May and the country is seeing a steep rise in daily cases.
For a few weeks, anti-Muslim hate campaign had drawn world attention after a few COVID-19 cases were detected at Tabligh Jamaat headquarters in New Delhi, following a devotees gathering in mid-March trapped due to lockdown announced by PM Modi at a four hour notice.
Pakistan is not far behind. The official numbers of coronavirus positive cases have crossed 50,000 with nearly 1100 deaths as by 25 May. The largest city, Karachi has more than 10,000 cases with nearly 200 deaths by this time. Pakistan allowed taraveeh prayers during the month of Ramadan with strict government guidelines which were very often not adhered to.
As of 25 May 2020, Bangladesh had a total of 32,078 confirmed cases and 452 deaths by 25 May. Emergency teams were rushed to Cox’s Bazar, the world largest refugee settlement housing nearly a million Rohingya refugees, a few days earlier to prevent a COVID-19 “nightmare” after a few confirmed cases were discovered.
Under financial stress, the South Asian governments are now resuming many services, including business operations and reopening modes of public transport. There are fears that this may aggravate the situation multi-fold.
The World Bank has already approved USD 2 billion aid to support India’s efforts for providing social assistance to poor, vulnerable households amid the coronavirus outbreak and help in effective and timely action to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by strengthening the country’s national healthcare system and mitigating socioeconomic disruptions.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the world bank have committed to providing $588 million to Pakistan for its emergency response to fight the coronavirus in the country and to cater the socio-economic impact of the pandemic.
The World Bank has also approved a $100 million package to help Bangladesh in mitigating socioeconomic disruptions due to the pandemic.
While it is true that Europe and US have seen devastation as far as the numbers of cases and deaths are concerned, the human suffering seen in India is unparalleled amongst its hundreds of millions of citizens living below the poverty line.