The South Asia Collective Online Bulletin #2

Main Page | Latest Developments in South Asia | Impact of COVID-19 on South Asia's Marginalised | Other Major Stories

In this section, our researchers in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka take an in-depth look at how COVID-19 and resultant government-enforced lockdowns have impacted the lives of the poor and the marginalised. We also take a look at how, in some countries, COVID-19 has provided a convenient backdrop for increased religious polarisation and targeting of vulnerable minorities.

 

Afghanistan

The COVID-19 crisis has caught Afghanistan at a critical juncture, as the country is grappling with political tensions between President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah over the result of the 2019 presidential election and the country’s peace talks with the Taliban. The initial recorded cases of COVID-19 stemmed from Iran and have steadily spread in the west and western provinces of Afghanistan such as Herat, Nimruz, and Farah. According to the UN, the country hosted an average of 9,000 returnees from Iran on a daily basis. This sudden burst of returnees made it hard for the country to provide them the necessary settlement in the context of COVID-19 spread. For the time being, unlike many other countries in the region, the overall number of infected individuals remains low, however, due to the country’s lack of capacities, resources, broken economy, and widespread poverty, the cases are expected to register big growth.

In a country of over 35 million, with widespread poverty, the majority of citizens started to become more concerned about the side effects of the COVID-19 rather than the pandemic itself. According to estimates, one person out of two in Afghanistan is below the poverty line which will increase with COVID-19’s exponential spread. Lack of stable employment opportunities along with insufficient daily income have made the impoverished and low-income families more susceptible to the fallout of COVID-19. As Abdul Qadir, a 45-year old vendor in Kabul said, “I am concerned about my income rather than the coronavirus.” Following the quarantine and business shutdown, most wage earners, including roadside vendors, shopkeepers, and others who are entirely dependent on daily livelihood will face starvation and hunger if the situation continues as it is now.

This situation has further been exacerbated by a sharp soar in the price of basic necessities including food, fruits, water, and sanitary materials. As trade restrictions are shrinking supply lines in Afghanistan, it has raised fears that millions of Afghans already facing emergency levels of food insecurity will be further prone to risk as the coronavirus spreads. For example, a kilo of lemon - source of vitamin C, contributing to protecting the immune system against the coronavirus, now costs more than $5 - a fifty percent increase in the price. Additionally, the price of wheat flour has surged by 20 percent across the country. Therefore, the situation has created serious concerns in Afghanistan about COVID-19’s spillover effects on food security and the exposure of poor and needy families to the pandemic.

In addition, the poor state of the country’s health service is another source of concern, further raising risks. As of April 16th 2020, with 840 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 30 deaths, the country’s health officials anticipate that as many as 25 million Afghans could eventually be infected, leading to some 110,000 deaths. Currently, the country’s creaky, fragile health system under the strains of decades of war is not capable of tracking cases. Afghanistan has only one laboratory (test hub) for COVID-19 in Kabul. Two new have been set up in Balkh and Herat provinces. All suspected cases from the neighboring provinces are transferred to these three centers for testing. The process is lengthy and complicated. Several cases have been reportet of samples sent to the test centres, returning confirmed reports after much delay, only after the patients had already died. According to a report, the test centre in Herat has stopped altogether as testing kits have run out. It is feared, given this state of things, that powerbrokers and influential leaders will monopolize and use available health facilities in the Ministry of Public Health for their own personal gains, while depriving the marginalized majority, once the situation deteriorates further in the country.

Moreover, the spread of COVID-19 in Iran and Pakistan, and the return of thousands of Afghan refugees from these two countries have raised concerns of transmission locally. According to local officials, close to half of the 115,000 Afghan refugees who have returned from Iran since late February this year, might be COVID infected. Government’s insufficient capacity management in their safe resettlement has undermined the efforts against the pandemic. Most refugees from Iran and Pakistan are themselves living in desperate conditions. They have no sufficient savings, food, sanitation, shelters, and jobs, and the government seems to have no programme to deal with their situation.

The pandemic also threatens the lives of child workers on the streets of Kabul and other parts of the country. Due to poor economy and poverty, a large number of children in Afghanistan are working on the streets - according to the UN, around 60,000 children, on the streets of Kabul only. Although the capital has been brought into quarantine, a large number of children are still working and begging on the streets. This condition not only exposes them to the virus, but also affects their families and others they have contact with. Over the past years, the government has failed to create the right condition for children in the country. As a result, in such circumstances, they are one of the victims of this negligence.

It seems like the coronavirus could not have come at a worse time for Afghanistan, as the country is suffering from political tensions, security deteriorations, and economic crisis. The unexpected spread of COVID-19 has further loomed over the country’s fragile situation. marginalised communities at the grassroots level, and thousands more have recently flown in from Iran and Pakistan, are the prime and most vulnerable in the face of the pandemic spread in the country. For those dependent on daily means of livelihoods, without a stable income, well-being, health services, and food security, COVID-19 pandemic is a double-burden - not the risk of death due to the spread of the virus but also sirs kill them but also because of hunger. The government’s low capacity and inability in providing basic needs for the poor families and marginalized communities further exacerbates the struggle against the COVID-19 in the country.

Bangladesh

Rohingya Refugees

Around a million Rohingya in the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, along with aid workers there, are likely to be among the worst sufferers if COVID-19 spreads in the region. Lack of medical facilities, extremely unhygienic living conditions, and the dense population of the camps could potentially cause widespread havoc. The displaced community is already struggling for clean drinking water and flowing water in toilets, let alone masks, liquid soaps or hand sanitisers.

Indigenous Communities

The Unrepresented Nations & People’s Organisation (UNPO) reports that indigenous peoples from different corners of Bangladesh are suffering from severe starvation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Engaged in low-income occupations as house guards or drivers, most have lost their jobs. Moreover, public and non-governmental development programmes have been limited and many villages are no longer receiving any relief. This has resulted already in starvation like situation in several pockets of indigenous groups: Some 1200 Santal families in Gaibandha and 200 Santal, Pahariya and Oraon families in Rajshahi; over 30,000 persons belonging to 800 families of indigenous Hajang and Banai communities in Netrokona and Sherpur; 300 Koch-Burman families at Fulbaria in Mymensingh district; more than 200 Garo persons of Kalighat Union of Srimangal Upazila under Moulvibazar district of Sylhet region; more than 50 Rakhine families of remote Baidyapara of Eidgarh union in Ramu upazila of Cox’s Bazar; around 5,000 families of Mro, Khumi, Chak, Tripura and Marma in the remote villages of Lama, Thanchi, Alikadam, Ruma, Naikhyongchari and Rowangchari upazilas of Bandarban district; about 800 Tripura families living in different hills of Sitakunda in Chittagong district; at least 7,000 families of Tripura, Marma and Chakma in the remote villages of Panchari, Matiranga, Guimara, Mahalachari and Ramgarh of Khagrachari district including Rangamti’s Sajek union.

Dalits

Bangladesh’s Dalits, who are mostly daily-wage earners, have been rendered unemployed as a result of COVID-19-induced lockdown. Due to their caste and the prevalence of untouchability, Dalit households do not have enough access to government and non-governmental agencies, and are thus largely deprived of emergency relief. Their crowded living conditions puts them at particularly high risk of COVID-19 infections.

Urdu-Speaking (Bihari) Community

Around 30,000 Urdu-speaking persons (known as Biharis) live in 116 camps across Bangladesh. Almost all of them are daily-wage labourers, or are involved with small-scale business. Due to the COVID-19-induced lockdown, the community has been facing widespread unemployment and starvation. Due to their resistance against independence of Bangladesh in 1971, they are still not welcomed by mainstream Bangladeshis. As a result, their concerns about COVID-19 infections remain largely neglected. A camp inhabited primarily by Urdu-speakers in Dhaka's Mohammadpur area - considered one of the COVID-19 hotspots in the city - recently witnessed three camp dwellers testing positive for the infection.They were allegedly turned away by local hospitals, citing a shortage of beds.

India

On 24 March, 54 days after India reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that ‘every state, every district, every village and every gali (alley)’ in the country would have to be shut down to prevent the further spread of the virus. The lockdown, he declared, would come into effect under four hours after his speech. Most experts concurred that such a lockdown, reportedly the strictest in the world, was necessary to contain the pandemic in a country that has historically underinvested in its healthcare system. However, the shoddy planning and hasty implementation of the restrictions have resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis, with scenes of chaos and pandemonium unfolding across the country. India’s marginalised communities, including its religious, caste, tribal and gender minorities, have borne the brunt. As of 19 April 2020, a total of 507 persons had died in India, from a total count of 15,712 persons reported to be affected by COVID .

Exodus of Migrant Workers

With all non-essential business establishments shutting down as a result of the lockdown, India’s $2.9 trillion economy came to an abrupt halt. While Modi urged employers to allow their workers to work from home and not to reduce their wages, that was hardly a solution for India’s domestic migrant labourers, most of whom immediately found themselves without a job or a social safety net. Migrant workers - numbered at 100 million, by one estimate - became overnight refugees in their own country. Fearing the possibility of starving to death, migrants especially in large cities immediately thronged to crowded train and bus stations, hoping to make their way back home in the rural hinterlands. Realising that train and bus services too had shut down, thousands of migrant families attempted the journey on foot, walking, in several cases, hundreds of kilometres while braving scorching heat and, on many occasions, ruthless police violence.

Facing criticism over his government’s inability to foresee this domestic exodus even as it arranged several special flights to transport professionals and students stuck abroad, Modi apologised, but reiterated that there was no other way to ‘wage war’ against the virus. A $22 billion relief package has been announced by the central government, and provincial counterparts have scrambled to arrange shelter and food, but a survey of just workers engaged in the construction section revealed that up to 94% of them may be ineligible for relief measures. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has warned that up to 400 million Indians are now at risk of being pushed deeper into poverty.

As the country awaits further support measures from the government, harrowing stories of human suffering continue to emerge. A study published on 13 April, when India’s COVID-19 death toll stood at 331, revealed that at least 195 more people have lost their lives due to the lockdown.

Alongside, the Indian government has tried to make use of the COVID emergency to restrict press freedoms. Hours before PM Modi announced the nation-wide lockdown on 25th March, he asked editors and owners of more than 20 news outlets, in a private conversation with them to refrain from any negative coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. And on 31st March the government approached the Supreme Court seeking a directive to news outlets to refrain from publishing any COVID-19-related news without clearance from the government – on grounds that ‘fake or inaccurate’ reporting could potentially cause panic. While the court denied the request for the blanket order, it directed news outlets to “refer to and publish the official version about the developments”, thus making the directive subject to misuse by authorities. Siddharth Varadarajan, a prominent news editor critical of the government, has already had criminal proceedings initiated against him, on account of a COVID-related news report he published.

Targeting and Vilification of Minorities

Meanwhile, actors allied to the ruling Hindu nationalist dispensation have seized the opportunity to further vilify and target India’s minorities, particularly its Muslims. After it emerged that a gathering organised in Delhi by an Islamic missionary movement, the Tablighi Jamaat, had caused a spike in reported COVID-19 infections across the country, a concerted campaign has begun to demonise the whole of India’s Muslim community as conspiring together to spread the virus. Similar infringement by Hindu religious groups and BJP politicians have attracted little attention, public or by authorities. Studies have unearthed a ‘pattern of targeted disinformation’ online, which has been spread by senior functionaries of the ruling BJP, and by the mainstream media. The campaign has spilled over into real-world violence and widespread social boycotts, with incidents being reported from across the country. Since the imposition of the lockdown, social boycotts of Muslims have been reported from Uttarakhand, Delhi-NCR, Karnataka, Punjab and Maharashtra, among other places. A hospital in Gujarat has reportedly segregated COVID wards on the basis of religion. Patients have been denied treatment in Andhra Pradesh, and a hospital in Uttar Pradesh advertised that it would not admit Muslims. In a village in Himachal Pradesh’s Una district, a Muslim milk-seller committed suicide after being subjected to a social boycott despite testing negative for COVID-19. Serious physical assaults of Muslims have been reported from Arunachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, and several places in Karnataka. Mosques have been attacked in Delhi, Haryana and Karnataka.

Earlier on, when the media had been blaming China for manufacturing the COVID-19 epidemic, several instances of targeting of people from India’s north-eastern states were also reported. In Hyderabad, two students from Manipur were denied entry into a grocery store for ‘looking like foreigners’. A similar story was reported from Mysore. Manipuri women were spat at and racially abused by passers-by in Mumbai and Delhi.

Dalits have also been targeted, besides facing the brunt of the impact of COVID-19. In Haryana, a Dalit family was assaulted for not partaking in a solidarity-building campaign called in PM Modi’s name. In Uttar Pradesh, a Dalit man committed suicide after being assaulted by a policeman for violating the lockdown. In Uttar Pradesh again, in Modi’s electoral constituency Varanasi, a report alleged that starving Dalit children had resorted to eating grass. The activist who highlighted the issue was later charged by the police. And across the country, sanitation workers - who are overwhelmingly Dalits - have complained of being forced to handle potentially hazardous medical waste, including from areas with confirmed COVID-19 cases, without adequate personal protective equipment.

The lockdown has also had serious consequences for India’s women, at least a third of whom, at the best of times, suffer physical or sexual violence at home. Now, when they are confined indoors with their abusers, there has been a sharp spike in domestic violence cases. National Commission for Women has revealed that it has received 123 complaints of domestic violence since 23 March. And an NGO that runs a helpline service for children has reported a 50% spike in cases since the beginning of the lockdown.

At the time of the writing of this bulletin, 16 people in Nepal had tested positive for the coronavirus, with no reported fatalities. Yet, the lockdown that has been imposed to limit the spread of the pandemic has revealed fissures in the country based on religion, caste, class, and sex.

There have been several reports of Muslims and Christians being singled out for their practices, and in some cases, simply assumed practices. On March 28, two pastors were arrested in Kathmandu separately on the charge of holding religious service. The police allegedly asked one of the arrested, ‘Will your Jesus save if you contract coronavirus?’ Both the pastors reportedly denied holding services, with one explaining that the people on the church premises lived there, and the other stating that he was trying to get the people gathered to understand the severity of the virus, and follow government orders. Two Christian women, and a pastor were also arrested for allegedly spreading false information on COVID-19.

On April 10, an altercation took place when some Muslim youths ‘manhandled’ a police officer who was trying to disperse a ‘large number of Muslims’ who had gathered to ‘recite Namaz’ in a violation of the lockdown. There has also been abundant coverage of Indian Muslim individuals who tested positive for COVID-19, and were in Nepal for a religious gathering. Indian media has also targeted a Nepali Muslim elected official with allegations that Nepal is trying to spread the virus in India. Additionally, there have been reports of poor treatment of Muslim Nepalis in quarantine in India after the Tablighi Jamaat congregation from March 1-15, and those who were able to return to Nepal are also in quarantine. Comments of readers on these online news reports also demonstrate an unprecedented degree of vitriol toward these communities. One commentator described the characterisation of this event as ‘corona jihad’ as a ‘deplorable lack of farsightedness’.

The contrast becomes visible when one takes into account the lack of polarised reporting of Hindu practices, with terms such as ‘auspicious’ and ‘revered shrine’, and ‘neutral reasoning’ used in their defense. Furthermore, an annual Hindu gathering in the capital valley which also defied the lockdown did not meet with a similar resistance by the authorities, as the people were only made to return home peacefully. In Western Nepal too, thousands defied the lockdown to observe a religious gathering but the government only imposed fines on the officials of the area as punishment.

The lockdown also continues to impact the marginalised groups of the community. Bhutanese refugees, who are still in camps in Jhapa, in Eastern Nepal are facing acute shortage of food. The daily wage labourers and low-income groups, who include Dalits, indigenous and other ‘low-caste groups’ continue to struggle to make ends meet. Relief provided by the government has also been nominal, inconsistent and sub-standard. There have been reports of low-income migrant workers such as vegetable vendors and construction workers walking for days in attempts to reach their rural households. The names released in news reports hints that these groups predominantly consist of lower caste individuals. News reports also warn of possible increase in cases of domestic violence against women during the lockdown. Reportedly, women’s responsibilities in the household during the lockdown has also increased, as women are mostly seen as caretakers, resulting in additional burden and stress for them.

Pakistan

The crisis as much as it has affected the entire world, has impacted vulnerable communities in Pakistan particularly strongly. Two religious communities, Christians and Sikhs have observed their religious occasions in isolation where religious leaders organised online observances and urged people to stay at home for Easter and Vaisakhi. However, the government struggles for the cooperation of Muslim clerics in this regard. Where the Tableeghi Jamaat COVID cases are at a high number where almost 250,000 people came together, it is being strongly advised that mosques remain closed during Ramadan and that Friday prayers are also said at home. Locally transmitted cases have been accounted to be at 59% as of 17 April.

Another group that is strongly affected are migrants and refugees who do not possess national identity cards and have not received any support from the government nor can they since the government schemes require national identity cards. Afghan refugees are therefore severely affected. With no source to a daily income, especially since the lockdown and closure of the local markets. The relevant authorities have requested UNHCR to intervene with cash transfers to registered refugees. However, the number that would be catered to would be only a fraction of the total refugee population in Pakistan.

Daily-Wage Earners

The curfew imposed in March curtailed movement, and therefore cut off employment access for the tens of thousands of Sri Lankans who work as informally employed daily-wage earners – labourers, caregivers, cooks – as they were no longer able to go out and work. Many of these individuals work in order to feed families that same day, and do not have savings that can be utilised to stock items before a curfew is imposed.

Workers in FTZs

A circular issued soon after the curfew was imposed stated that export-oriented industries would continue to function. However, several factories in the country’s Free Trade Zones also closed, some without paying their workers salaries for up to two months. These workers were then made to congregate in a large group as the government attempted to provide transport for them to reach their homes. The shortcomings in payments from the companies also meant that once they returned home, these workers had trouble accessing adequate essential goods to feed and care for their families.

Access to Essential Goods and Relief

While there is steady distribution of goods to certain suburbs and areas in the country, many remote areas remain cut off from supermarket delivery services, or from essential item trucks arranged by local grocery owners. There is a need to empower the local authorities such as the Grama Niladhari and Grama Sevaka to coordinate distribution as they have a knowledge of those most in need in their areas.

Government relief to those who are unable to afford items due to lack of employment has yet to come through, and many are still relying on private initiatives to obtain these items. A fund set up by the government to supposedly provide relief to those in need does not appear to be used to disburse this where necessary.

Targeting of Muslims and Muslim Burials

Despite WHO and Ministry of Health guidelines stating that burial of bodies of those who have died of COVID-19 is acceptable, Sri Lankan officials proceeded to cremate bodies of two Muslim persons who had passed away due to the disease. Scholars and citizens expressed their concerns at the complete disregard of cultural and religious sensitivities in these actions of the officials, asking that burial be allowed of Muslims. This, along with small clusters of transmission linked to Muslim individuals, contributed to an ongoing stream of hate speech and violent speech against Muslims. High-placed law enforcement officials were quoted on live media stating that a few Muslims were responsible for the restriction on celebrations for the Sinhala-Tamil new year, to take place soon after.

Four United Nations Special Rapporteurs wrote to the Sri Lanka government to give attention to cultural and religious sensitivities or traditions in the country in these burials.

On 12 April, a gazette notification was issued making cremations compulsory for all COVID-19 deaths, clearly disregarding the practices and concerns of the Muslim, and also Christian communities to a lesser extent.

Domestic Violence

The extended periods spent at home have proven to be vulnerable to mostly women who are living with abusive partners. 160 incidents of domestic violence were reported by the Colombo National Hospital between 21 March and 8 April.

Main Page | Latest Developments in South Asia | Impact of COVID-19 on South Asia's Marginalised | Other Major Stories

Subscribe to our mailing list

sac@thesouthasiacollective.org | thesouthasiacollective.org