COVID 19 in South Asia: A Turning Point – By Ian Inkster

By, Ian Inkster, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 31 May 2020

Even now (May 31), the four major nations of South Asia do not suffer from the worst of the COVID-19 virus. Compared with the four COVID centres of USA, Brazil, Russia and Spain, with their total number of cases standing at 3,009,014 and their mortality from the virus at 163,224, South Asia seems well away from the centres of disaster. But on 3 May, only four weeks ago, those totals for those same four centres stood at 1,638,350 and 100,589. Covid happens fast.

So, for South Asia the recent acceleration in cases and mortality is what is worrying, measuring a descent towards the middle of the Covid global experience. Today the four South Asian nations have registered 322,275 cases and 7714 deaths from the virus. On 3 May these figures stood at 71,242 and 2,025 respectively. This is a growth of around four-fold in both cases.

The acceleration of the Covid 19 in South Asia is illustrated more alarmingly in today’s figures as just released. In the last 24 hours the total of cases for the four nations rose by 7,427, representing 22.6% of the world’s total of new cases. This is a very speedy acceleration of Covid 19 in South Asia. The mortality rate in the last 24 hours for South Asia is only 1.9% compared to the global figure of 2.6%, reflecting the very recent character of the acceleration of cases. If the northern hemisphere is any sort of a guide, then mortality rates should now start rising quite speedily as the virus infection time lengthens. That is, it takes time for Covid infection in vulnerable groups to move from infection to death.

But we must add that there are three strong reasons why mortality might not accelerate in South Asia as fast as it has in the West. The ages of the populations are very different. The median age in South Asia is around 26, that for the world is 30, but for the leading Western Covid nations such as the USA, UK, Spain or Italy it is over 40. More specifically, the proportion of people in the Covid-vulnerable age group over-65 is much higher in the West and in Japan than in South Asia – around 24%, compared to 5%. This very great difference will not in itself affect infection much (though children do not seem to measurably suffer the virus), but it could have a very heavy dampening effect on any tendency to a rising mortality.

Secondly, degrees of pollution probably affect infection levels, but almost certainly hasten the pneumonia-like illness in its move towards morbidity, especially when compounded by age. The large urban conurbations of the northern hemisphere thus become the incubi of Covid. By 2017 the proportion of the global total of production-based emissions (ranging from carbon dioxide to sulphur hexafluoride) created by the USA was 14.75%, by the European union 9.33%, by Russia 4.86, and by Japan 2.99%. For comparison, the 4 very large nations of South Asia in total produced 7.61%, by far the largest coming from India (6.43%).

More importantly, per capita emissions of carbon dioxide were as high as 16 metric tons for the USA, or 12 for Russia compared to less than 2 for India or 0.6 for Bangladesh. Such dramatic contrasts may well mean the difference between illness and death in a Covid world.

Thirdly, as suggested above – but more problematic in that evidence is really needed here – the lower degree of urbanism in South Asia could be of importance. One of the very few things that the USA and Russia today have in common is the much greater number of cases and the greater mortality that they suffer in their large cities. In the global north the highest cases of Covid morbidity are associated with very high degrees of urbanism ranging from 70% in Italy to 80-82% for USA, UK and Spain. In South Asia urbanism ranges within around 33-36%. Again, this is a massive difference, and of direct relevance, for highly urbanised living generates high levels of contagion that are often very difficult to identify, isolate and treat. Untreated cases are more likely to lead to death.

It can be seen quite easily that these three elements work together to produce sites of mortality in the global north, but they should be far less potent in the global south, particularly in South Asia. In conclusion, it might be suggested that South Asia is about to undergo an acceleration in the incidence of Covid 19, but a much lesser increase in mortality rates when in comparison to the global north.

We can at least wonder if government policies could influence this. Locking down large numbers into highly populated virus sites might not be a good choice. Movement into sparsely populated areas, often associated with the homelands of today’s urban workers might be an astute option for a large proportion of the population, but risks increasing infection rates on heavily used routes and transport systems. However, it does increase the chances of the development over time of strong local and familial supply lines for food and rest. But as a solution it would depend on government policies that covered rural areas far distant from population centres, providing grass-roots techniques of testing and isolating as well as drug and medical treatments and translation and other services.

There seems to be no panacea for the mitigation of the effects of the turning-point for the great nations of South Asia. But the acceleration of infection rates does not mean an inexorable acceleration of mortality rates. Elements listed above – and doubtless others – should however be taken on board by government and used as guides to management strategies that can productively deviate from the policies used widely in the global north to date. One thing seems certain, high incomes and plentiful funding have not so far been the solutions to effective management of COVID 19.

Professor Ian Inkster is a global historian and political economist who has taught and researched at universities in Britain, Australia, Taiwan and Japan. Author of 13 books on Asian and global dynamics with particular focus on industrial and technological development, and the editor of History of Technology since 2000. Forthcoming books are Distraction Capitalism: The World Since 1971, and Invasive Technology and Indigenous Frontiers. Case Studies of Accelerated Change in History with David Pretel. Twitter: inksterian.

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