COVID 19 in South Asia: The Battles are not the War – By Ian Inkster

In the Western media a great deal is being made about the sudden rise of Covid cases in India, often stressing the possible inability of the entire region to withstand the Covid attack. This primarily Western perspective is at best ill-informed, at worst it could be quite dangerous and divisive.

India’s first spike in mortality was on 16 June with 2,006 deaths in one day, and the second was on 22 July with 1,120 new deaths. But such mortality spikes do seem to fall away quite quickly towards the daily 500 mark in India and we must hope this is happening now and over the next few days.

Such spikes in cases and mortality are seemingly random disasters for any nation and have put a great strain on basic civil society in India, and this is so throughout the whole of the South Asian region. When hospitals’ facilities fail in sites of crisis and organisations flounder, then confusion reigns in communities and wards and families, the anxiety becomes a national syndrome. When the statistics of newly recovered cases fall behind the new cases of infection for more than a few weeks – the situation for India today – this is a measure of national emergency and requires of a civil society modes of behaviour that are all but impossible to maintain in any circumstances.

None of this can or should be downplayed by any politician, academic, or commentator. Great need is felt everywhere and must be addressed by all those able to fund, organize and develop the best strategies and sites for alleviation of suffering and worry. In the social, climatic, and infrastructural conditions of India the responses will not necessarily follow those already adopted by the richer northern nations as they hit their early spikes months ago.

What is most important to remember, is that India and South Asia generally have not reached anything like the infection and mortality levels of Europe and North America when population numbers are considered. And they must be so considered, for it would be clearly and stupidly unfair to expect the Covid absolute numbers in India or Pakistan (combined populations over 1,601 million) to be the same or better than those for say Germany and Britain (combined populations around 194 million). The numbers are clear enough. The total cases since first inception for Britain and Germany in combination is today registered as 506,167; the number for India and Pakistan combined is 2,043,468. But, in the proper population context, cases per million for Britain and Germany respectively are now 4,409 and 2,467, but for India and Pakistan they are much lower at 1,043 and 1,240 respectively.

Despite the lack of facilities and low incomes, the performance of South Asia is even clearer when we turn to the statistics for mortality. In some ways these are more a measure of the longer-term reality – a spike in cases might be bad luck or result from external circumstances such as movements across borders or even derive from an institutional feature such as homeward movements of migrant workers; or it could be a result of better or increased testing – which was considered a strong possibility in India. But the mortality rate surely reflects better the conditions within the nation concerned, and these can include a range of elements from Covid management policies and strategies, to community care of the sick and civil compliance with practical self-help behaviour such as social distancing, hand washing, and wearing of masks.

Taking population into account, the mortality figures for Germany and Britain are 110 and 674 per million respectively, for India and Pakistan they are much lower at 24 and 26. This is a tremendous difference and can surely not be explained away by either Trumpian-style claims of ‘false facts’ or the somewhat more rational notions of administrative confusion in poor nations, or through an argument around racial distinctions etc. If anything, poorer communities should be more liable to greater mortality. Britain and Germany have both had as many problems as any nation in getting facts right or in including all institutions – the terrible omission of care homes for older folk in the British case. Finally, medical experts have, if anything, argued that non-white people in Europe are more likely to die from Covid than native Europeans. In a world facing COVID, all such notions are distractions.

Hence, given that so much is now stressful and often appalling in the state of things, we can at least feel that India and its neighbours are in fact doing well by any global or comparative standards – today’s global averages for registered cases and deaths per million since inception of the virus attack are 2,109 and 83.7 respectively. The figures for the most powerful and medically advanced nation on earth, the USA, now stand at 13,033 and 451. These figures are far higher than the South Asian region as a whole – for instance Bangladesh and Afghanistan have mortality rates since inception of 18 and 33 per million respectively.

I hope I am forgiven in stressing that this column is not promoting some argument that minimises the hardship, illness and death that now pervades South Asia as a result of the attack by Covid 19. I am saying that the western media ‘shock-horror’ reportage is not justified. Furthermore, it may well lead to notions of ‘we and they’ or ‘us and the other’ that are wholly inappropriate to the reality of the Covid world. As it crosses borders the virus does not consider such things, nor should we, for this approach is ultimately divisive and dangerous. Wherever it is, this virus is nasty to us all, and politicians dealing with international institutions and addressing their own people would do well to fully recognise this.

We might add that this column is optimistic and follows an argument I have developed over some months in South Asian Express [Ref 1,2]. There are good reasons to believe that ultimately the region will not face the very worst of Covid. As I have previously argued, poor nations are ones with a high proportion of young people and a small proportion of the elderly. Rich nations have fewer young and many more old people in their demographic make-up. Given the character of this virus as exhibited so far, this, in itself, lowers the risk from Covid in poor nations when compared to Europe, North America and East Asia. The exceptional performance of East Asia so far is therefore something of an anomaly and might well be due to superior policy and civil acquiescence.

Other factors also operate in favour of poorer nations – with the exception of large cities they are less air polluted, with more distant borders and lesser densities. They are disproportionately situated in hot and often humid regions, which not only may – the jury is still out on this – be directly detrimental to the virulence of the virus but also tends to greater outdoor living and less recirculated air-conditioning. All of which favours effective social distancing and renders organised gatherings less dangerous. Such nations are also more familiar with virus pandemics in recent years, and their populations have been very markedly much more alert and responsive to practical and inexpensive defence measures such as mask-wearing and personal distancing. Whatever the quarrels and distractions over governance and policy, such elements could well combine to reduce the ultimate impacts of Covid 19 in South Asia.

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 global dynamics and history, with a focus on industrial and technological development, and the editor of History of Technology (Bloomsbury, London) 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.

(Views are personal)


  1. Ian Inkster, ‘Covid 19 in South Asia: Population and Borders in Global Context’, The South Asian Express, 3 July.
  2. Ian Inkster, ‘Covid 19: A Malthusian Argument for South Asia’, The South Asian Express, June 7.