As COVID-19 took over the world in 2020, densely populated South Asia became one of the hardest hit regions, with India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal surpassing China in terms of the number of coronavirus cases.
The economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic has been just short of catastrophic, as progress was halted, and prolonged lockdowns and inadequate government support pushed millions of people to slip below the poverty line. Global Voices coverage highlighted the devastation and uncertainties COVID-19 caused in South Asia, with vaccines yet to be available for use in any of these countries.
As the news about the SARS-like virus was unfolding in late December 2019 and January 2020, China announced the shutdown of the city of Wuhan on January 23, 2020, and flights were suspended. Bangladesh and India arranged special flights to bring back stranded people; however, Pakistan was slow to respond. Pakistani students stuck in Hubei province in Central China took to social media to appeal to the government of Pakistan to make arrangements to send them home.
For many migrant Nepali workers, both within the country and abroad, the lockdown imposed on March 24 proved to be deadlier than COVID-19. Stranded workers, especially in the Middle East and Malaysia, had to protest to appeal to the Nepali government to bring them back home.
The lockdown in India from March 24 left hundreds of thousands of vulnerable domestic migrant workers stranded without pay and the ability to sustain themselves or their families. Left with no other choices, and with the public transport shut down, a large number of workers and their families had started walking enormous distances to reach their homes.
Image by Rajesh Balouria from Pixabay, used under a Pixabay License.
On May 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a belated Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan (Self-reliant India) relief and recovery scheme to help the migrant population. However, the poorer section of the population was reported to be left in the lurch and many struggled to survive without enough support from government and non-government initiatives.
Frontline workers
Frontline workers in health and social care played a significant role in the fight against COVID-19 in many South Asian countries and they faced considerable risk of infection.
In populous Bangladesh, such workers faced an unprecedented level of hardship, along with some criticism. Many hospitals, clinics and testing facilities lacked the required resources, implementation of quarantine measures was lacking and there was not enough time to train workers. The inadequacy of public healthcare systems in many parts of the country and insufficient protection for frontline medical professionals complicated the fight against COVID-19.
Hospital beds with oxygen support. Image by Silas Camargo Silão from Pixabay, used under a Pixabay License.
On April 6, 2020, Pakistani health care workers protested in Quetta, Balochistan province, demanding personal protective equipment (PPE), appropriate quarantine and other safety measures—resulting in the arrest of about 150 of the protesters.
In India, several healthcare workers were attacked by local mobs because of fears that the workers would contract COVID-19 from infected patients and spread the virus in their communities.
Struggling economies
Most of the economies in South Asian countries were hardest hit by the social distancing/lockdown measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the first signs of the economic “tsunami” triggered by the lockdown measures was the closure of many shops, including bookshops, in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital.
Nilkhet second-hand book market in Dhaka. Image from Flickr by Francisco Anzola. (CC BY 2.0).
Countries like the Maldives, which are solely dependent on tourism have felt the immense economic strain as tourist arrivals dwindled.
In India, the unemployment rate increased to 24 per cent in May, and day labourers like tea plantation workers faced poverty and hunger through the scarcity of work and lack of government assistance.
Government response
Most governments in South Asia have responded to the crisis to the best of their efforts, imposing lockdown and social-distancing measures, rolling out relief packages to vulnerable communities to secure access to food. They also deferred payments on utilities, rents, taxes and debt services, providing some relief to ordinary people.
Bhutan was one of the first nations to temporarily shut their borders, as early as the first week of March. Subsequent prompt measures made Bhutan one of the successful countries in tackling COVID-19 with over 600 infected and zero deaths at the time of writing the report.
Nepal took early measures by postponing International Film Festivals and cricket tournaments, but these were criticised as inadequate, and an activist walked thousands of kilometres, started a nationwide campaign (#EnoughIsEnough), and went on hunger strikes to protest the poor government response.
Activist Iih being taken to a press conference on August 9, 2020. Photo by Sanjib Chaudhary, used with permission.
On April 2, 2020. the Indian government launched Aarogya Setu, a mobile app that alerts users when they are within six feet of a person infected with the coronavirus. This triggered major concerns about potential digital security issues. Activists were also irked by the news that the government was considering the use of “Digital ID-integrated cameras” for surveillance of potentially infected persons, and this raised further privacy concerns.
Pakistan claimed that they were under control amidst rising figures, but in June 2020, the World Health Organization sent a letter reminding Pakistan that the infections were rising at an alarming rate and suggested imposing fresh lockdowns. In terms of the number of infections and deaths, they are now behind India and Bangladesh.
The Sri Lankan government went ahead with its parliamentary elections in August this year after postponing them several times.
Authorities in Bangladesh arrested several people for their social media posts and cartoons criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic.
Shift to virtual environments
The social disruptions of the pandemic affected a lot of creative people like artists, filmmakers, sportspersons as they stayed home during prolonged lockdowns. Most people turned to internet-based solutions like virtual and streamed events.
The works of 19 Nepali artists were showcased in the virtual exhibition in May. Cartoonists used illustrations to depict the challenges Nepalis faced during that time of lockdown.
Home internet usage in Bangladesh surged as many resorted to watching YouTube and Facebook videos in the local language. Several YouTube channels and entertainers emerged catering to this increased audience. A film collection entitled “Tong Isolation Diary” was released featuring short films portraying the lives of different characters during the pandemic.
Short films of the “Tong Isolation Diary” series captured people’s lives during the pandemic. Screenshot from the Tong-Ghor Talkies site.
A photo contest was launched this year asking the Rohingya community taking refuge in camps in Bangladesh to document their lives during the pandemic.
Kashmiri medical student Tabish Aijaz became popular on social media for sharing paintings she created on leaves to beat COVID-19 related stress and boredom during lockdown.
Some educational institutions in South Asia went online to teach students at home virtually but students from remote areas and low-income families who lacked internet access, like these students in Pakistan, faced tremendous challenges in keeping up with their studies. In India, a non-profit start-up from the city of Cuttack, in the state of Odisha used pre-Internet techs like phone calls, SMS, and radio to reach those students.
The pandemic has been both a bane and boon for the environment. Initially, the lockdown had a positive impact on wildlife in popular national parks in Sri Lanka which have long complained about too many visitors. However, reserves devoid of tourists and workers presented the opportunity for poachers—often local people affected by the lockdown—to increase illegal poaching.
There were many positives of the lockdowns. The COVID-19 restrictions have caused a reduction in pollution in many cities. A number of videographers from South Asia uploaded videos to YouTube depicting how the cities’ activities had come to a halt. In Nepal, pollution reduction created a favourable environment for birds and Mount Everest became visible from the capital Kathmandu.
The blog Everest Today tweeted:

Remember that viral picture of Mt Everest during lockdown? Once again, today, crystal clear sky makes Everest visible from Kathmandu. More:
— Everest Today (@EverestToday) October 30, 2020
We look forward to more stories from South Asia, hopefully from a post-COVID-19 world in 2021.