Report on “Covid-19 in South Asia: Regional Perspectives on Vulnerabilities and Dispossession”

While there has been a lot of discussion about how India has handled, and currently is handling the Covid-19 pandemic, it is also important to place it in the larger geographical context in South Asia to see how it has fared in comparison to its neighboring countries. It is also essential to understand how the neighboring countries themselves are handling the pandemic and how it has affected the lives of their citizens. Studying the experiences of the people in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan, as well as the responses of the states – then becomes necessary to understand how the entire South Asian region has been battling the pandemic Covid-19, which specific experience is unique to each country and what they could learn from the other in terms of mistakes and precautions. The webinar organized by Calcutta Research Group in association with Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, South Asia, invited a diverse panel consisting of Amena Mohsin, Hari Sharma, Saqib Jafarey and Reza Hussaini for a dialogue. Sukanya Bhattacharya reports on the webinar organized on 24th August (from 6-8PM IST).

Amena Mohsin from University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, located the Coronavirus pandemic as it played out in Bangladesh, within the urban clusters and their spatial politics. The bigger cities in Bangladesh are more affected by it, due to unplanned urbanization, governance and development issues. The emergence of the ‘New Poor’ category is also concerning as the previously vulnerable but non-poor groups are now at risk of going below the poverty line, in a stark increase from 9.4 million to 35.5 million people who now occupy the category.

Families in urban areas depended on remittances for daily expenses even more due to the pandemic with an increase in territorialization, ultranationalism and stigmatization. The return migrants were seen as deviants and potential carriers of the virus that reflected how xenophobia is becoming a global problem. The internal migrants consisting of women who work in readymade garment factories also suffered as local government did not provide them with any relief or aid and international orders to those factories were abruptly cancelled, leading to job loss or pay cut. 98% of internal migrant women workers lost their employment and are in a precarious position as landlords in the city are hostile to them and their families also do not want to take them back due to fear.

(‘Bangladesh’s Covid-19 stimulus: Leaving the most vulnerable behind’. Source: Atlantic Council, 8th April, 2020)

Mohsin raised the need to question the sustainability of the development paradigm with more research about the informal sector. Violence against women also increased due to lack of social activity and acute financial pressure on households. The indigenous communities of Bangladesh were hit hard due to their remoteness and inaccessibility to healthcare and electricity. Education has also been compromised due to lack of internet and smartphones for most students in the country.

Hari Sharma from the Alliance for Social Dialogue, Social Sciences Baha elaborated about the post-Covid situation in Nepal. With a lockdown imposed in Nepal, vulnerabilities of several groups emerged with the lack of internet affecting the education sector as well. The economy was also affected gravely as 28% of the GDP of Nepal is dependent on remittances from migrant workers. In comparison to other South Asian countries the Nepal government did not respond adequately to the plight of the external migrant returnees. Many of these migrants were waiting in other countries to be repatriated after they had lost their jobs, but the Nepal government could not deal with them appropriately. According to him, only South Korea treated the external migrants well and with care. The influence of India as a hub for employment of foreign migrant workers was also seen as many Nepalese migrants walked back home on foot due to India’s sudden unannounced lockdown. However, the Nepal government did not take adequate measures to quarantine or conduct health checkups. Due to this mismanagement, the returning migrants went back home to remote areas and there was deep community transmission even after two months of lockdown.

Covid-19 has also brought on a big humanitarian crisis with the social movements conducted by the civil society becoming restricted due to the pandemic. In contrast, the state became stronger and exerted its draconian control while it increasingly isolated and atomized its citizens with fear. The kind of social cohesion that was seen even after the infamous Nepal earthquakes were not seen during the pandemic as the social movements had ultimately failed to democratize and educate the society. With increasing dependence on the developmental state, the accountability of the state started to decrease. In such a context, Sharma stressed the need for a South Asian conversation on solidarity, empathy and best practices to manage the pandemic.

(‘Afghanistan reports 5 new COVID-19 cases, bringing total to 21’. Source: Xinhuanet, 16th March, 2020)

Reza Hussaini, from the Afghanistan Public Policy Research Organization, spoke of his unique experiences as an Afghan citizen. Covid-19 had hit Afghanistan when it was already undergoing political conflict due to the dispute over the President’s elections. However, the people of Afghanistan also showed high resilience even though their living conditions were steeped in insecurity, displacement, poverty and lack of access to healthcare. The low death rate in Afghanistan due to Covid may have been because of its young demography with 63% of the population being below 25 years of age. However, the available data and figures are also quite unreliable since there is low testing and the health system is quite weak. Consequently, the Afghan workers who migrated to Iran did not undergo any necessary testing or restrictions. The state could not control the movement of the infected people in order to control the spread of the virus. The stigmatization associated with the virus also forced people to hide which made matters worse. Covid-19 is not a health emergency for Afghanistan but a livelihood crisis. With stable livelihood avenues being disrupted, the United Nations Development Programme predicated a 13% rise in poverty rate despite a severe lack of available data. The migrants who returned also faced loss of employment and worry for the safety of their family. In addition to that, the government and border patrol were incredibly brutal to the migrants who wanted to return.

The undergoing developmental projects in Afghanistan also came to an abrupt halt with a rise in child beggars and hospitals becoming more understaffed with not enough professionals to manage the pandemic. Hussaini also noted a rise of fatalistic thoughts in people as the institutions that are supposed to protect and help them were gradually failing.

The final speaker of the panel was Saqib Jafarey from the University of London, who considered the situation in Pakistan in the light of the concerns raised by the other panelists. Pakistan is faced with a double crisis as the task of repatriating migrants was quite unsuccessful. The dispute between the Pakistani and UAE government about the returning migrants who were infected also exacerbated the situation. Surprisingly however, remittances went up by 50% during the months of June and July even though a lot of people lost their jobs.

What made Pakistan’s experience during the pandemic quite unique and different from its neighbors was the unique nature of its state where the military and the civil state are enmeshed in a conflictual as well as cooperative structure. Even though the civil state did not want to impose a lockdown, the army forced one upon the nation. Quite differently to the self-proclaimed welfare state of India or Bangladesh, the people in Pakistan do not perceive the state as an institution which delivers social welfare as most of the budget goes towards the military while the civil society and private sector play a big role in education and health. The charitable sector is particularly important for doing social services. A mass exodus of migrant works (as had happened in India) did not happen in Pakistan due to the civil society and initiatives by charities who mitigated the immediate and urgent problems of the returning migrants.

The geographic composition of Pakistan is changing as a result of the pandemic, the bigger cities are slowly losing their population intensity. A lot of people in Pakistan are already internally displaced due to climatic issues of flood and droughts, which is why there was also no mass exodus. Jafarey ended his talk by contradicting with the view that “we are all in this together” by pointing out the obvious inequalities which already existed and exacerbated due to the pandemic.

(‘Pakistan reports 4,471 new COVID-19 cases, 89 deaths’. Source:  The Hindu, 22nd June, 2020)

A robust question and answer session followed the speeches by the four panelists with the first bout of questions being directed towards Amena Mohsin. There were questions regarding the state of the Rohingyas and how the government responded to the category of the ‘New Poor’.  Mohsin pointed out that local authorities in confluence with NGOs such as Doctors without Borders along with the UNHCR were trying to look after the Rohingyas. She was also asked about the response of the trade unions and the state of the LGBTQIA+ community. To that, Mohsin spoke of the trade unions who were quite vocal with demonstrations and protests as they demanded full wages. Along with that, she also spoke of the charities for transgender people and ‘Hijra’ community of the Bangladesh. The sex workers’ network also played an important role in their survival during the trying times.

Next, Hari Sharma was asked about what could be done as a South Asian community, people’s perception of the returning migrants in Nepal. To that, he eloquently laid down the emerging problems of the developmental state with its new ideas of governance that converted its citizens into consumers and robbed them of political agency. The democratic neoliberal state exercises fear instead of sympathy, leading to the creation of a coercive state that is leading towards a humanitarian crisis. In the times when Covid-19 has eroded the rights of citizens by increasing border fortification, Sharma emphasized on the need for an anarchist resistance that encourages local politics and social solidarity beyond borders.

(‘Hundreds of Nepalese stuck at India border amid COVID-19 lockdown’. Source: Al Jazeera, 1st April, 2020)

Reza Hussaini was asked some interesting questions regarding the role of US military during the pandemic as well as about the situation of migrant women in the current scenario. He strongly set aside the American notion that the US military was there to “liberate” the people of Afghanistan as the citizens only want to be left alone even as the US government signed a peace treaty with the Taliban without considering the democratic ethos of Afghanistan. He stressed upon the need to build a strong Civil Society as people heavily depended on personal networks instead of the state since the government is not accountable at all.

Migrant women and IDP women are also a vulnerable minority to him. During the pandemic, these women lost their rights due to economic problems and other rules. With no governmental help, raising awareness about the pandemic becomes futile as most of these migrants and women do not have access to the basic resources such as water and soap that is required to protect themselves from the pandemic.

Responding to questions about the effects of Covid-19 on the climate and militarization issues of Pakistan, Jafarey delved into Pakistan’s healthcare system and its workings. According to him, centralized contact tracing did not work due to lack of trust and community involvement. The taboo and stigma attached to the patient further isolated them from the social fabric. Due to the overwhelming presence of the military, democratic rights and discourse in Pakistan is also perpetually in peril. In such a context, many human rights and civil society activists face large amounts of threats. The climatic issues in Pakistan are also increasing due to the lockdown and in an increasingly commercialized neoliberal and globalized world.

The discussion and the following question and answer session succeeded in breaking the idea that South Asia in itself is a homogenized region with more or less similar characteristics. Even though the issues of poverty, insecurity, migration remain the same in all these countries – how each state and government chose to deal with the pandemic, how the people reacted to it are all quite unique in their own way. In addition to that, a variety of other factors, such as the military in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the civil society in Nepal and the structure of labor in Bangladesh have also impacted these nations to react in their own ways. While none of the South Asian nations would be praised on a global level for managing the pandemic efficiently with the least amount of threat to human life and livelihood, the pervasive sociopolitical and economic problems that each of them face makes it apparent that a pandemic is just an added crisis to an already ongoing livelihood crisis in the region. With populist regimes gaining currency again due to the pandemic while civil society is being stifled – it is urgent that an immediate cross-border dialogue is conducted that extends from official foreign policy to micro-level discussion that aims at building up solidarity and leads to an exchange of ideas.

The moderator – Paula Banerjee ended the session by quoting author Ana Castillo, “all working for a world without borders and to all who dare to cross them.” The quote reinforced the notion of a world which would transcend beyond national boundaries and borders, the demarcations becoming surprisingly more relevant than ever during a global health crisis as millions of people struggled to find their place within the unyielding borders.

Sukanya Bhattacharya has just finished B. A. in Political Science from Presidency University, Kolkata. She can be reached at

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