Covid-19 in South Asia is everyone's problem

No government should ignore India's rising infections

NEW DELHI, INDIA - APRIL 17: A man wearing PPE suit (personal Protection Equipment) waits to transfer the body of his relative who died of the Covid-19 coronavirus infection from an ambulance amid  burning pyres of other covid deaths at a crematorium on April 17, 2021 in New Delhi, India. Covid-19 cases are spiralling out of control in India, with over 200,000 new coronavirus cases on recorded on Thursday alone, according to health ministry data, bringing the nationwide tally of infections to 13.9 million. The latest wave has already overwhelmed hospitals. (Photo by Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images)
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The first hotspots of Covid-19 were an early surprise of the virus. Developed countries, not poorer ones, seemed to be the hardest hit. Memories of Sars and Ebola had arguably fooled these governments into thinking pandemics were only a risk in distant lands, and this in part delayed the response of Europe and North America.

Today, South Asia is among the regions suffering most from Covid-19. India now has 260,000 new daily cases. The speed of infection has led to the Red Cross describing the surge there and in neighbouring states as “truly frightening”. Once again, policymakers across South Asia are forced to weigh the costs and benefits of new lockdowns in economies already so damaged by earlier ones.

Authorities in both Delhi and Mumbai have ordered almost all businesses to close. The states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka have now implemented limits on travel. There are still fears about ongoing levels of movement between regions, however. Just last week about 4.6 million people travelled to Kumbh Mela, a huge festival that this year is taking place in the state of Uttarakhand. There are even plans for the country's rail system to start running "Oxygen Express" trains to transport canisters to hospitals where stocks are running low.

Relatives of a patient who died of COVID-19, mourn outside a dedicated COVID-19 government hospital in Ahmedabad, India, Saturday, April 17, 2021. The global death toll from the coronavirus topped a staggering 3 million people Saturday amid repeated setbacks in the worldwide vaccination campaign and a deepening crisis in places such as Brazil, India and France. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
India has recorded almost 14.8 million cases of Covid-19. AP
If the virus runs amok, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and even the Arab world could be next

For India, the virus has also complicated geopolitics. Vaccines are in short supply, and authorities have now imposed an export ban on the privately-owned Serum Institute of India, the world's largest manufacturer of Covid-19 vaccines. Some see this as vaccine nationalism, but the move is better understood in the wider context of this worrying trend, with India pinning the decision on an earlier American ban on exporting raw materials. In such a complicated crisis, there is never one party at fault – only the systemic difficulty of acting decisively and in global coordination. This is particularly understandable in a country as strained as India. But if the virus does end up running amok in the region, a chain of transmission spanning into Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and even the Arab world could be next.

The consequences are already being felt abroad. The UK government now fears that a potentially vaccine-resistant mutation that originated in India could endanger Britain's otherwise successful inoculation drive. There is no better image of this difficult fact than Queen Elizabeth sitting alone at the front of St George's Chapel in the town of Windsor, separated from her family during the funeral of Prince Philip, her husband. With fears of a new strain, particularly as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans a trip to India to deepen trade ties, the two countries are once again aware of their historic and complex relationship.

Covid-19 continues to remind us of the inter-connectedness of our world. There is is a tendency to read maps detailing infections as separate pockets of success and failure. But without a more integrated, global approach, the virus will keep bleeding across the map, no matter the location of today's hotspot.