It has been over a month that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Governments and institutions around the world are still struggling with responses to this public health crisis having tremendous additional secondary impacts, like social and economic displacement. Many places see impacts felt unequally by the minorities and the poor.
The virus has changed the global order and re-constituted our lives across borders. Countries, including the United States, which initially fiddled with low numbers, are now suffering enormously due to delays in recognising the gravity of the pandemic coupled with the absence of sensible public health measures to protect people and their lives.
Until three weeks ago, China, which was the epicentre, ranked number one globally with 82,000 infected cases and 4,600 deaths. As I write, there are many more epic centres globally. The US now has the largest share – close to 1,040,488 cases with 61,669 deaths – nearly one-third of the 3.2 million cases globally. China ranks number ten now behind the US, Spain, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Turkey, Russia and Iran . In total, close to 186,000 people died since the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan in December 2019. Following the Chinese experience, South Korea corrected its sloppy response, shut down large gatherings, and ramped up testing resulting in a sharp decline in infections and deaths. China is now gradually opening its factories, offices, and schools inching slowly to normalcy, though there is fear that the pandemic may rebound as a second wave in the absence of a vaccine.
For many densely populated countries in Asia – like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines – which were hit by Covid-19 around late March or early April, theemerging situations appear very explosive. It seems that these countries – as diverse as they are in terms of fragile economies, social life, religion, literacy, and health care systems– were caught off-guard by unprecedented challenges to combat Covid-19. The impending health crisis not only threatens many lives but wreck economies, including disproportionate tolls on the poor and the most vulnerable groups, literally wiping out the development gains in these countries achieved over the last decade.
In Bangladesh, the number of cases is doubling every 2.5 days, making the country’s caseloads the fastest-rising in the world. From 54 cases and 5 fatalities in the first week of April, Bangladesh has now close to 7,600+ confirmed cases with 168 deaths in a short period. As per the current statistics, there are 39 cases per million while the number of test/million is 332 in the country. Nearly 85 per cent of the cases are in Dhaka, a city of 18 million people with 23,000 persons/sq.km. The surge in Bangladesh is continuing along with the economic fallout from the crisis due to lockdowns, now extended for a second time to May 5. India and Pakistan are on extended lockdowns.
India, the second most populated country in the world, ranks 16th globally in terms of Covid-19 caseloads; currently, there are 29,000+ reported cases with 900+ fatalities; this translates into 21 cases per million, which is definitely on the lower side due to lack of adequate testing, now at 519 tests per million. The first reported case of Covid-19 was in the state of Kerala. New confirmed cases are being reported from large cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad. At present dense neighbourhoods in Delhi and Mumbai are emerging as country’s hotspots, with caseloads growing to triple-digits daily. Nearly half of India’s Covid-19 fatalities are in the state of Maharashtra. Meanwhile, Kerala has seemingly managed to flatten the curve. Strong health service and clear communication was the key to Kerala’s success so far in tackling Covid-19.
Pakistan is number 28 in the Covid-19 list of most affected countries with 14,000+ confirmed cases and over 300 deaths. Current statistics indicate 64 cases per million; the ratio of tests is 712 per million. The initial responses to Covid-19 contained mixed messages. Lockdown was unduly delayed and implemented in a flimsy manner. Hospitals and public health institutions are facing an acute shortage in the supply of testing kits, medical equipment – masks, attires, sanitisers – and personal protection gears. The government has asked people to stay home, self-isolate and maintain social distancing. Prime Minister Imran Khan agreed to undergo a test for the novel coronavirus to show that he was a responsible citizen after it was reported that a leading philanthropist of the country tested positive after meeting the PM.
Covid-19 situations in Indonesia and the Philippines are on similar paths. Indonesia, the world’s fourth populous country, ranks 37 on the Covid-19 list with 9,500+ reported cases and 773 confirmed deaths. The country has 35 cases per million people; so far, the test ratio is 291 per million. The Philippines is 39th on the list with caseloads of 7,958 infections and 530 deaths; the country has 73 cases per million and the ratio of tests conducted so far is 820 per million. Indonesia now has the highest number of confirmed cases in all of Southeast Asia. Singapore has the second-highest confirmed cases in the region, with Pakistan following; and Indonesia fairly close behind.
The numbers of reported cases in the countries above are still small as the cases have not surged yet to the peaks due to lack of testing. Testing, at this time, as noted earlier, is worryingly low in many Asian countries – ranging from 332 only per million in Bangladesh to 820 per million in the Philippines – against 25,000/million for Italy, 16,000/million in Canada, 13,000/million in the US, and 11,390 in South Korea. Think of major mega-cities in Asia – Mumbai, New Delhi, Dhaka, Karachi, Jakarta and Manila – and the density in these cities, including the urban poor who live in slums without any room for social isolation and distancing, resulting unwittingly in the community spreading in large numbers.
The severity of the pandemic is still hiding among the millions in these cities and countries. According to one expert, the cases in Indonesia could soar to more than 1.5 million across the country, with more than 140,000 deaths. The scenario for Bangladesh, India and Pakistan is no better. To date, the testing record is very poor in Asia, and as a result, there is almost no visibility of the infections. Until testing is ramped up quickly, along with strict lockdowns and other interventions, Covid-19 will ravage these countries and take more lives across the region.
Dr Mohammad Zaman is an international development specialist and advisory Professor, Hohai University, Nanjing, China. He can be reached at [email protected]