While my regular rounds of visits to South Asia have ground to a halt, I have never felt more connected to the region. I’m reminded every day that the unfolding COVID-19 crisis threatens to erase the development gains we fought so hard to achieve.
With India now under nationwide lockdown and other South Asian countries implementing social-distancing measures, the coronavirus crisis requires a strong response to limit loss of life and facilitate a rapid economic recovery.
South Asia will be hit hard as COVID-19 strikes
True, the scale of the deadly epidemic across South Asia seems smaller compared to Western countries: India, the world’s second-most populous country, reported 3,219 active cases as of today; Nepal has recorded zero official deaths. But since testing is limited, these numbers do not reflect the full extent of the crisis.
The worst is yet to come. In India alone, millions of migrant workers are spilling out of cities, spiking fear they’ll carry the infection back to their villages; hundreds of millions of informal workers are left without a job and are at risk of starving.
As it continues to spread, COVID-19 is triggering an economic fallout that will drive millions into poverty. We will announce our growth projections for South Asia on April 12, along with policy recommendations to manage the economic and health impacts of the pandemic.
Faced with the sudden COVID-19 health shock, low-income families across South Asia are especially vulnerable. Should the virus hit a relative or loved one, many will be struggling to afford adequate treatment and medications—a chilling prospect considering that an estimated 60 million South Asians already fall into poverty each year because of high out-of-pocket health costs.
Rolling out $1.4 billion in emergency support for South Asia
In this fast-changing environment, the World Bank just rolled out its first wave of emergency support to fight the spread of COVID-19 in 25 countries across the globe. Of that support, more than $1.4 billion will help governments across South Asia respond to the immediate health consequences of the pandemic and protect their people.
Unprecedented times call for fast action: It took a mere two weeks to prepare COVID-19 support packages for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Maldives, India, and Sri Lanka. Projects for Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal are well underway.
Crucial to our approach is constant coordination with finance ministers and government officials from the region to ensure support is tailored to country circumstances and meets their specific needs.
Last week, our team joined by phone finance ministers and central bank governors from South Asian countries as well as our partners to discuss the pandemic’s impact and calibrate our support to strengthen countries’ ability to act quickly.
As it turns out, these testing times have also provided new opportunities for South Asian countries to join forces, strengthen regional institutions, and pool resources to fight a deadly pandemic that knows no borders and spreads indiscriminately through communities.
For India, our $1 billion financing is the Bank’s largest-ever health sector support for the country. It will cover all Indian states and union territories and address the needs of infected people, at-risk populations, medical and emergency personnel, and service providers, and medical and testing facilities.
Given that India’s overall performance in health care remains lower than in countries of comparable income, our priority is to make the country’s health system more resilient to respond to COVID-19 and future outbreaks. This involves turning hospital beds into intensive care units and purchasing personal protective equipment, ventilators, and medicines, particularly in district hospitals and designated infectious disease hospitals.
In Pakistan, while focusing on the health sector, our $200 million package will also help the poor and vulnerable cope with the immediate impact of the pandemic through social protection measures, food supplies, and virtual classes for children, so they don’t stop learning during school closures.
The COVID-19 situation in Afghanistan is quickly evolving as the country shares a porous border with
Iran, which has a large and growing outbreak with serious transmission implications. Our $100.4 million grant will help all 34 Afghan provinces and reinforce essential health care services to slow the spread of COVID-19 and deliver optimum care.
Farther south, a $128.6 million Sri Lanka COVID-19 emergency response will benefit the entire nation’s population and help reduce case numbers and prevent outbreaks in communities. This support will also raise public awareness about handwashing, hygiene, and social distancing.
In Maldives, a fast track package of $7.3 million will help provide optimum care to patients, procure personal protective equipment and medical supplies, maintain hospitals’ essential services, and strengthen intensive care units.
Altogether, this urgent support will mitigate some of the immediate impacts of COVID-19 and strengthen countries’ responses. And while the duration and impact of the pandemic are difficult to measure, our broader economic program could provide up to $160 billion globally over the next 15 months to further protect the poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery.
The pandemic’s emergency needs are immense. But we’re prepared to fight with equal strength to help South Asian nations recover with better health care for the future.