Notes from the Sub-continent: Responses to COVID-19
Mayuri Mukherjee

In this latest compilation of some of the big ideas being debated in the media across the Indian sub-continent, we look at the coverage of the coronavirus (CoVid-19) outbreak over these past two months. It’s interesting to note the similar strands of concern that have emerged, as well as to see how the coverage and commentary has evolved with time as the crisis became a global pandemic. Initially, the crisis was largely viewed as an external problem--with certain internal manifestations, such as the status of citizens stranded abroad. Over time, as the crisis came home, we see the change in coverage --with more editorials focusing on local issues such as the lack of adequate testing, and the impact on the subcontinent’s already distressed healthcare systems and economies. We also see some interesting perspectives from commentators seeking a silver lining -- from urging the people to recognise the crisis as a timely warning to advising governments on how one can leverage the world’s current distrust in China to establish oneself as a major global exporter. This set then closes on a positive note of sub-continental solidarity -- with coverage of the SAARC leaders’ meeting to combat the Covid19 pandemic.

Bangladesh: Be Alert and Open

Without being unnecessarily alarmist but at the same time, highlighting the scope of the problem at hand, the Prothom Alo editorial rightly noted that, “In a densely populated country like Bangladesh, it will be very difficult to stop the spread of such a disease. We have already seen how China is struggling. We have to remain very very alert.” On similar lines, the Daily Star editorial called upon the government to “go on full gear on the public information mode to make people aware of the ways to take precaution against a virus that causes mainly respiratory illness”. Interestingly, in an op ed. in the same newspaper, commentator Meer Ahsan Habib took a line that was critical of China. He said that while its efforts to combat the outbreak are praiseworthy, “China had failed its people” -- in particular, the likes of Dr Li (who had first flagged the virus and was immediately shut down by the government). Habib noted that how this showed that there is a price to be paid for “censorship” and “the lack of freedom of expression” -- even if this was only to be expected in an “authoritarian state” like China.

More testing, please!

As the virus spread and it became clear that the crisis had come home, the coverage focussed more on domestic needs and initiatives. For example, across the commentariat in Bangladesh, there has been a call for more testing. The Dhaka Tribune noted that, “When it comes to testing for the coronavirus, currently, there are two methods worth noting: The Indian model that does symptomatic testing, i.e. testing people travelling from a country with a high rate of coronavirus or those who have come into contact with someone who has tested positive. And the South Korean model, which is far more indiscriminate and widespread as it tests anyone who shows symptoms, regardless of their travel history, contact history, or indeed age. Bangladesh’s current criteria for testing -- which resembles the Indian model but throws in the added limitation of only testing symptomatic people aged 60 and above -- is nowhere enough”.

The Daily Star also had several editorials on this issue, repeatedly calling upon the government to “make coronavirus testing a high priority”. “The government must now pay heed to the virologists who are saying that many more tests have to be conducted. As experts have pointed out, the government needs to estimate how many people may get infected, how many need hospital care, and ensure ICU and other interventions, as well as protective gear for healthcare professionals, on an emergency basis”, said one of the editorials. The newspaper also drew attention to non-governmental initiatives that could help tide over the crisis: such as the testing kits being developed by scientists at the Gonoshasthaya Kendra, and the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) being manufactured by the garment industry to be freely distributed among healthcare providers.

Sri Lanka: The Cost of ‘Coronimics’

In Sri Lanka, there was a lot of focus on the economic impact of the China-centred epidemic--which is of course not surprising given the close trade and tourism ties between China and Sri Lanka. In op ed. in the Financial Times, Ajith de Alwis coined the term “Coronimics” and argued that, “The new coronavirus has tipped the scale of discussion to an emerging global pandemic and a consequent economic meltdown as well. Along with lives, economies across the world too are likely to tumble”. However, de Alwis noted that, “Once the situation comes under control China will rebound quite faster while the economies that are dependent may not find the rebound to be quite that easy”. Another issue that the commentator flagged was that those in Sri Lanka “who may solely rely on tourist arrivals for their cash flow – China today provides the biggest outbound tourist numbers to the world in addition to being the biggest spender as well! – would have suffered quite a few non-reversible setbacks during this period.” He noted, “Our economy has only a few eggs and most of them are in one basket.”

Another commentator, Ameen Izzadeen, used the outbreak as a peg to talk about biological weapons. He noted that the UN convention on biological and chemical weapons “lacks a formal investigation mechanism to deal with violations” and that now is the time “to reinforce the convention”. However, he also took care to add that “This is not to imply that the latest coronavirus outbreak is a biological weapon test going wrong at a Wuhan laboratory -- or an enemy nation has released a deadly virus in a highly populated Chinese town with the aim of sabotaging China’s global ambition”.

Taking a similarly global outlook to the issue, commentator Harinda Vidanage, in the Daily Mirror, compared the epidemic to Brexit and said that, “both are symptomatic of a turbulent 21st century which is rigged with shocks and disruptions to the global political and economic systems”. He added that, “The virus has generated a massive negative image campaign” for China, and that even though “China always managed its social media sphere with a carrots and sticks approach rewarding self-censorship among citizens and aggressively controlling content online, yet it is facing a global netizen community and brunt of a disinformation campaign that depicts negativity, especially on its food culture.” He concluded that the “outbreak has exposed a rare chink in the armour of Modern China”.

Lessons learnt (and unlearnt) from COVID-19

Like in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka too, much of the early commentary offered a global view of the situation. However, as February gave way to March and the impact was felt more acutely at home, the spotlight turned inwards. The Island, for instance, had an excellent editorial on fighting back fake news during such a crisis. It noted that, “It is imperative that the health authorities win public confidence by disseminating information about COVID-19 in a credible manner” and also reminded that, “people should be assured that there are enough supplies so that they won’t resort to stockpile food and other essential goods.”

In another, more philosophical, editorial, the paper reminded its readers that while, “Lessons are usually learnt from disasters; the problem is that they are soon forgotten. When the threat of Covid-19 is overcome, sooner or later, the world will be complacent until another pandemic shakes it awake. Disasters don’t usually occur without early warnings. The sea rolls back and animals flee before a tsunami occurs. Covid-19, which has brought the world to its knees, is no doubt a pandemic that must be fought, with might and main, but it can also be considered a warning of sorts”.

The Financial Times offered a slightly less bleak view--even if of the economy only. It noted that though “Maintaining strong macroeconomic fundamentals in such an environment could be challenging”, Sri Lanka’s next major loan repayment of $1 billion is only due in September, “giving the Government some breathing room”. It also noted that, “The relative smallness and the insular nature of Sri Lanka’s economy could assist it to weather this storm better…”, even if the crisis had taken off some of the sheen from a much awaited economic turnaround.

Pakistan: Be Pragmatic

In Pakistan, there was much heartburn over its citizens in China whom the government had decided not to bring back home. The Express Tribune justified the government’s decision in its editorial titled, “Our Response”. It noted that, “It’s indeed not an easy situation for Pakistan to be in. The choice is between ‘leaving its citizens in China at the mercy of the mysterious coronavirus’ and ‘bringing them back, risking the deadly infection to spread in the country’. Pakistan’s refusal to evacuate its citizens is being interpreted as an admission of its incapacity… and a sign of its callousness towards the terrified countrymen stranded in China”. Then the editorial asked: “The question is: how far can Pakistan realistically go about taking care of the plight of its citizens?”

The Dawn newspaper also argued on similar lines. In its editorial, it said that, “the Pakistani government has taken the position that it will not bring these expats home in light of the risk that unwitting carriers of the virus could lead to a spread of the disease in this country. Certainly, the state has valid reasons to be concerned… pragmatism must dictate the state’s response”. It highlighted the fact that, “Given our shambolic health infrastructure and far from robust infection-control practices, our high population density and hospitals teeming with people, the conditions are ripe for an infection to spread like wildfire”.

Interestingly, in a separate editorial, the newspaper also criticised China, Pakistan’s all-weather benefactor, for shutting down Dr Li Wenliang who had first warned against the epidemic. It said, “Instead of paying heed to his warning, the Chinese authorities tried to silence him for ‘rumour-mongering’ and began an investigation against him for having ‘severely disturbed the social order’. It highlighted, “There is a lesson here: when states do not listen to experts, and instead, persecute them for speaking up, or when they try to control the narrative to such an extent that it glosses over harsh realities, problems do not disappear. They only fester and return in the shape of a bigger monster.”

A hostile takeover

As the weeks passed and the virus quickly became a major domestic challenge, the previously highlighted issue of Pakistanis stranded abroad remained on the agenda -- and seemingly without any resolution. A Dawn editorial observed that, “Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant curbs on international travel, the question of bringing back Pakistanis stranded overseas poses a major dilemma. The reality of authorities’ capacity to deal with the huge number of citizens who want to return was evident in the case of the Taftan returnees and poor quarantine facilities”.

Notably, the Express Tribune published an interesting oped on the future of trade in a post-Covid19 world. Written by Ahmed Kiani, an engineering scholar, it argued that Pakistan should leverage the current crisis to dethrone China and “position itself in the international market as a major goods supplier in the long run”. Kiani writes, “China’s manufacturing is crippled at present, with not only the factories being shut and investor confidence at an all-time low, but most importantly, the consumer trust in Chinese goods has vapourised... It would take years before China can restore its supply-demand equilibrium.” He urges Prime Minister Imran Khan to establish a comprehensive futuristic plan for how “Pakistan’s exports can conduct a hostile takeover of the Chinese market share after the corona crisis is over”.

Nepal: ‘What about our border with India?’

The issue of bringing home stranded citizens from foreign shores was a major point of discussion across the subcontinent in the early weeks of the crisis. In Nepal, the commentariat seemed to largely agree that its citizens stuck in China should be brought back. The Rising Nepal urged Nepal and China to “work in close coordination for the early evacuation of Nepalis from Wuhan” and also called upon Nepali citizens to “show kindness and warm support to the Nepali students who are set to return home. We must stop negative reporting about them”. Similarly, The Kathmandu Post said in its editorial that, “Nepal cannot, and must not, fail in its duty towards all its citizens—even the ones stuck in China. At the same time, it cannot afford to fail in quarantine and treatment measures.” The newspaper also used this opportunity to call upon the government to improve the country’s healthcare infrastructure. It reminded its readers that, “Nepal’s approach to preventative measures in public health has always been suspect. It is suspected that a lackadaisical approach to dengue in the 2000s brought the virus into the country through tourist carriers, since the health posts failed to catch carriers and quarantine measures were not implemented effectively, and the country has been struggling to keep a check on dengue outbreaks ever since.”

The Himalayan Times brought in an India-factor and noted that, “it is necessary to thoroughly screen all visitors coming to this country by air or land. At times like this, regulating the long open border with India at short notice is a major challenge... But there is no alternative.”

South Asian solidarity

As the crisis became a global pandemic over a relatively short period of time, the issue of closing borders and stranded citizens has, however, remained a cause for concern in Nepal. The Kathmandu Post, for instance, published a stinging rebuke of the government’s decision to keep out Nepali citizens, particularly the large number of those seeking to return home from India. The editorial said, “This has caused Nepali citizens to suffer, without protection, in a country (India) where the majority of society has openly become xenophobic as it faces its own lengthy battle with the Covid-19 crisis”. The editorial also noted that, “Countries across the world are rescuing their citizens, with France, Germany and the United States chartering flights to take their citizens back from Nepal. It is true that Nepal lacks the wherewithal to do exactly what the developed countries are doing. But that said, the state cannot shirk from its duty towards its citizens.”

Other issues that were highlighted in the media included the lack of testing -- the Himalayan Times wrote and rightly so that, “The only way to keep the country safe is to screen and test every suspected case as advised by the World Health Organisation. In a separate editorial, the newspaper also took note of the SAARC summit organised to discuss the pandemic. Describing it as “a show of rare solidarity,” the editorial commended the initiative for “setting aside the existing bitterness between some member states for the moment”. It also lauded Prime Minister Narendra Modi for “his initial offer of US$ 10 million for the COVID-19 Emergency Fund” and his proposal to raise a “well-equipped rapid response team of doctors and specialists, to be placed at the disposal of the member states”.

Afghanistan: the Chinese model?

Throughout January as the number of novel coronavirus cases rose rapidly, Afghan media expressed concern about its impact on the country’s battered healthcare system. Afghanistan Times noted that, “Afghanistan already has a host of viruses to battle against – ranging from the Polio to the Congo virus – and its deficient and scanty healthcare system cannot afford new infections”. In a separate edit, the paper also criticised Beijing for its initial efforts to suppress news of the outbreak, and observed that the “government’s glossing over harsh realities has come at a price of hundreds of deaths”. Interestingly at this time, as concerns mounted about the wellbeing of Afghan students in China, the Chinese Ambassador in Kabul wrote in the Afghanistan Times that, “the Chinese government will take good care of every foreign student as parents taking good care of their children”.

Managing a Peace Process and a Pandemic

By March, Afghanistan had already reported its first infection, and had begun desperately looking for solutions. Interestingly, it found answers in China. In a glowing editorial, the Afghanistan Times wrote: “China has been a paragon of a systematic fight… Afghan authorities need to learn from China’s experience”. Like other countries in the subcontinent, Afghanistan has also had to deal with the prospect of many of its citizens returning home, possibly with an infection. In this context, the Kabul Times noted that while it had been suggested that, “no one would be allowed to pass through”, Afghan citizens should not be “stopped behind the borders”.

Another major issue has been with regard to spreading awareness about the pandemic. Herein, several commentators referred to the role of religious leaders. In an op ed. for Pajhwok, Azeem Zmarial Kakar of Kandahar University, wrote: “the involvement of imams and other religious leaders could play a great role in raising public health awareness”. However, he also added that, “traditionally, religious leaders have shown apathy in engaging in the health awareness programmes”.

Finally, commentators, especially those from foreign countries, have also been drawing attention to the fact that Afghanistan is still very much an active conflict zone, even as it must fight this deadly virus. In an op ed. for Tolo News, Afghan expert Barnett R Rubin underlined that, “The pandemic makes it even more important to end the war. The virus makes no political, national, religious, or sectarian distinctions. But the measures to control the spread of the pandemic will make it even more difficult to end the war.” On a similar note, Kai Eide, a former UN official who had served in Afghanistan, also wrote for Tolo news: “Afghanistan is facing a deadly virus – in the middle of a deadly war. But there is now an opportunity to end the war. The first step should be to stop the violence and concentrate on the fight against the virus… Handling a pandemic and a peace process at the same time is a tremendous challenge. But the alternative is infinitely worse.”

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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