Covid 19 in South Asia – Lessons from Oceania.

India Coronavirus
Around 67 thousand have tested positive for coronavirus in India. The nation observed complete lockdown for 49 days and is phasing out in steps. (Image from Pixabay)

Ian Inkster, SOAS, University of London.

In an earlier contribution to The South Asian Express (Wednesday 6 May), I suggested that the region was on the cusp of an invasion of the coronavirus. I also argued that a good measure of both the seriousness of that invasion and the effectiveness of official management lay in the mortality rate over time – that is, the number of deaths as a percentage of the number of identified cases since the beginning of the virus invasion.

Today (10 May) the mortality for the major Covid19 countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan remains low, at respectively 3.4%, 2.2%, 1.6% and 2.8%. Although things can look very hard in local communities, at this stage these rates are very good news indeed. The global figure today is 6.8%, that for all Asia is 3.4%, despite South Asia being the poorest region within all Asia. The richest continental grouping, Europe, is 9.4, and the USA stands today at the better 5.9% on an enormous base of cases totalling 1,347,318. Clearly, wealth, or income per capita, is not the defining line for death by Covid. At present total cases in the 6 major South Asian Covid nations (Nepal has only 110 cases registered to date) is 112,731, less than 10% those of USA.

It follows that South Asia still has good time to learn and adopt best management strategies, and to formulate these as direct, clear messages to the mass of the people, many of whom are seasonal and casual workers on the move from large cities to home villages and townships. The much smaller setting of Oceania yields some clues.

The mortality rate for all 6 major nations of Oceania is today at 1.4%. Total registered cases are 8,537. The example is therefore small, but highly exemplary of a type of region that through contrast illustrates lessons that can be applied.

The largest cases by far in Oceania are Australia and New Zealand. It can not be argued that they are especially late arrivals to the scene – Australia had confirmed cases by 25 January, that is before Italy, Spain, Sweden, Netherlands, UK, and Belgium, all nations of very high mortality rates, and with the one exception of the UK, all sharing borders and with high rates of tourism and commercial interrelations.

The outstanding contrasting characteristic of Oceania is its low level of connectivity in terms of distance from areas of mass population, absence of land frontiers, low interrelation commercially and through tourism, and very strong virus management policies, setting very early the firm targets of maintaining effective isolation and identifying, tracing and isolating all incomers.

Compared to the West, Oceania has relatively low ratios of foreign trade and tourism as with South Asia, but much higher levels of urbanism, air pollution per capita, and median age (around age 35, compared to 25-7) and per capita. In other words, its connectivity is low, as well as its geographical distance from others. This seems of more importance than even incomes or internal distributions of population. Thus with its population of 8.3 million and an effective purchasing power per capita income of only $3,656 Papua New Guinea has no Covid death registered ; Belgium with a population of 11.4 million and an effective per capita income of $44,755 has recorded 53, 081 cases and a mortality rate of 16.3%. But Belgium has land borders with France, Luxembourg, and Netherlands, nations of very high mortality.

In effect locking-down incomers is the obvious early strategy, not locking down nations. The notion of ‘lockdown’ for the great South Asian cities is a classic inappropriate technology. It has probably not worked very effectively even in the West, it was never overplayed in East Asia, the most successful of the early Covid regions, nor has it been relied on in Germany, which today boasts the lone low European mortality rate of 4.4%, and it is costly and inflexible. It should be rejected as the major strategy by all 4 of the large South Asian nations, who should surely focus on the flexible and ground-level strategies of identification, quarantine and isolation of suspected or known cases of Covid 19. This requires spending effort, ingenuity and time, not disabling whole economies and millions of livelihoods by spending money.

Use should be made of existing local facilities, and governments must face the problem of a huge amount of internal migration, that can only be matched by social distancing and isolating, perhaps mostly in less populous local communities. Rather than spending enormous effort and policing/military resources or resisting, countermanding or criminalising the massive movements of people, both central and local governments might focus on easing the travel of people towards safer destinations, helping in providing basic equipment along major routes and in key community sites. The incomes of very many people will be devastated by loss of remitted incomes, so rations need to be provided as well as local quarantining.

Dealing with huge transient populations who in themselves may spread the virus in attempting to escape from it, may not substitute for provision of urban facilities; rejection of total lockdown still allows much in the way of curfews, social distancing and self-isolation. But a sense of such reality will hopefully put ‘lockdown’ in its proper place and hasten the move towards appropriate localism and attention to distant communities.

Ian Inkster is Professorial Research Associate, Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, London; a Senior Non-Residential Fellow at the Taiwan Studies Programme and China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham; and editor of History of Technology (London) since 2001.

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