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Bohrawad, Sidhpur, India. Photo by Lisa Therese.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the entire globe, requiring quick action from governments and the populace to stem the flow of transmission. With many in quarantine or lockdown, the pandemic has changed the daily way of life for many around the world.

This week, we spoke with members of the Mittal Institute team in India, Nepal, and Pakistan to get a firsthand look into the situation on the ground in South Asia, from recent governmental guidance and regulations to the response of the population and how it will impact society. 

INDIA

Sanjay Kumar, India Country Director, Mittal Institute

Life is not the same for people in India. A nation of 1.3 billion is up against an enemy that is invisible, and yet seems to be invincible. The present generations have never witnessed such fear of any pandemic in their lifetime. As India prepares its defense against local transmission of the virus, public health measures, community preparedness, and the practice of social distancing have become critical. The fight is not going to be easy. On the eve of March 24, the central government in India encouraged people to stay home by announcing a nationwide shutdown from midnight onwards. This will be crucial to help prevent transmission of the virus in the coming days.

The central government has invoked powers under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, to enhance preparedness and response efforts. With COVID-19 declared a notified disaster, the State Disaster Response Fund — constituted under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 — is now available to state governments for response measures.

The first case of coronavirus in India was reported on January 30 this year. As of March 26, the Indian Authorities have confirmed a total of 694 confirmed cases, 44 recoveries, 1 migration, and 16 deaths in the country. The infection rate of COVID-19 in India is reported to be 1.7, which is remarkably lower when compared to the worst affected countries. The virus, which has literally brought the world to a halt, is set to impact India as well.

The outbreak of COVID-19 is equally dangerous for people from all sectors of society. Everyone is mandated to follow the protocol for social distancing. This pandemic will significantly affect workers in the informal economy in India, which consists of more than 93 percent of the workforce. As a result of social distancing and now with the lockdown, many informal workers will lose their wages during this time, and some are likely to go unemployed. Factory workers, small wage earners such as construction workers, domestic maids, street vendors, migrant laborers, and so on, will be the worst affected. Many of them will need to borrow money from informal financial institutions, such as moneylenders, to meet their expenses during this period of uncertainty.

At present, we do not have enough data to predict the number of people in India who will have a secured job once the pandemic is over. The entire Indian economy will be adversely affected, and businesses will require months to return to a normal cycle. On March 24, the central government declared several relaxations in compliances by extending deadlines and reducing fines, and is also planning a financial package to help the economy cope with these unusual circumstances.

During this deep crisis, there is a strong commitment to service among doctors, government officials, and the frontline workers who are risking their lives to provide essential services. Doctors who are treating COVID-19 patients are unable to see their families for days at a time. Policemen are bending over backwards to stop people from violating curfews and maintaining law and order to ensure smooth functioning of essential services. Officials and service providers are working day and night to ensure uninterrupted supply of services such as electricity, gas, and water. On March 22, at the behest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, people across India expressed gratitude and appreciation for the selfless services of doctors and frontline workers by clapping from their balconies and rooftops.

In the fight against this deadly virus, government and people are together. It is going to be a long haul, and inevitably so. However, it could also be interpreted as a time and opportunity to explore alternative ways to work. Each country is putting up a fight against this pandemic in its own unique way, and so does India. Some academic institutions have started using Zoom and Blackboard Inc. to run their classes. Virtual press conferences are becoming a reality. Television sets, computers, and mobile devices have become the most important tools of communication and entertainment.

The next few weeks are going to be very crucial for India. People will have to follow the curbs imposed during the lockdown. With all the uncertainties about the length and breadth of the problem, it is one of the most challenging times for India — as it is for the world. As the second most populous country in the world, the response of Indian government and citizens is crucial to contain this deadly virus.

Bauddha Temple, काठमाडौँ, Nepal. Photo by Sabin Basnet.

NEPAL

Pukar Malla, Nepal Programs Director, Mittal Institute

Nepal currently has three confirmed and one recovered cases, as of March 26, with 758 tests taken. Since March 24, the country has been in lockdown. The government took this critical proactive step, which has received public support, when only two cases had been confirmed. Since last week, most people have left Kathmandu Valley for their home districts, fearing the lockdown and a reduction in travel possibilities. The real number of cases can be significantly higher, given that the test rate is low and that many pre-lockdown travelers from various ports may not have strictly followed the government’s 14-day self-quarantine requirement.

Nepal has only one hospital, located in Kathmandu, that can conduct tests — but preparations are underway to increase testing capabilities in other hospitals. Our health system is weak and any outbreak can break us much faster than we can recover. While the world alarms arose over the past several weeks, most Nepalis did not appear to be practicing social distancing. Only once the government began announcing safety measures last week, and of course after the lockdown this week, did I begin seeing people behave differently. The government is taking active steps to increase temporary quarantine sites and hospital capacity across all provinces in preparation for further outbreak.

As we all anticipate that this lockdown period will lengthen, most Nepalis are worried about continued and effective availability of basic food and medical supplies. Looming large are economic issues for the daily wageworkers, as well as micro and small enterprise employees, who will lose jobs and market in the current and post-pandemic economic order.

Lahore, Pakistan. Photo by Muhammad Muzamil.

PAKISTAN

Mariam Chughtai, Pakistan Programs Director, Mittal Institute

The situation in Pakistan is similar to other South Asian countries. However, since the government acted quickly and enforced a lockdown at an early stage, the number of diagnosed positive cases in Pakistan has only recently, as of March 24, exceeded 1,000. But a young doctor recently died, and the country is reminded of a healthcare system that is fragile due to decades of neglect.

People are afraid as the country and all industry comes to a halt. Given global patterns, deaths will increase sharply in upcoming weeks. People have not yet internalized the difficult realities of how burials of coronavirus patients may need to be managed, perhaps en masse and without traditional religious rites. It is very difficult to maintain much focus given the physical and emotional trauma that will unfold ahead. Universities and schools are shut down until May 31, and rapidly shifting to online learning. We anticipate the unrest will go well into the summer, creating learning gaps for millions of children and young adults. This is an opportunity for EdTech to demonstrate its potential, and some universities are taking the lead in this effort. 

Prime Minister Imran Khan has committed to developing a food security plan before a formal curfew is announced. Almost 25% of Pakistan’s people live below the poverty line — about 87 million people. This means that the poor around me will either die of the virus or from the starvation that the halt to the economy and joblessness will create. Many people here are daily wageworkers.

The religious leadership in the country has cooperated with the government to discourage religious congregations, and people have largely complied. The Prime Minister is holding regular live sessions with the public and media, answering questions and providing guidance. These are watched live on TV and social media by millions — which has helped to develop a “name and shame” culture toward those who are not observing social distancing. Questions of class and privilege are being discussed, as the difference between being literate and being educated becomes obvious.

The collectivist culture in Pakistan gives me hope. Several initiatives have been taken up by civil society to provide food rations to underprivileged households and to those who typically live paycheck to paycheck. There is talk of a youth-led volunteer force, which will make sure food is delivered to every household at risk of hunger. That is a good model for a country with 64% of its people younger than 30 years of age, and an excellent education in social responsibility.

In the end, our greatest challenge will not be to survive the pandemic but to see how well our humanity thrives in the face of adversity. My prayers are with my colleagues across all borders.