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In this section, our researchers in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka continue their exploration of how the most recent surge of the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant government-enforced lockdowns in many countries have disproportionately impacted the region’s marginalised communities. (Previous updates are available here, here, here and here)

Since February 2021, every country in South Asia witnessed a fresh surge in COVID-19 cases: Afghanistan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka witnessed second waves, while Bangladesh and Pakistan saw third waves. The total COVID-19 caseload quadrupled in Sri Lanka – which had kept the outbreak somewhat under control in 2020 – while it almost trebled in India. The caseload more than doubled in Afghanistan and Nepal, and almost doubled in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Deaths too followed a similar pattern, with the total recorded death toll trebling in Nepal, almost trebling in India, doubling in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and almost doubling in Bangladesh. Sri Lanka saw a ten-fold increase in its death tally.

India faced the most overall devastation, recording almost 30 million cases in total (91% of the regional total), and according to government sources, around 400,000 deaths. This is understood to certainly be an undercount.

COVID-19 caseload and death tally in South Asia

Country Total confirmed COVID-19 cases* Total officially attributed COVID-19 deaths*
Afghanistan 120,216 4,962
Bangladesh 913,258 14,503
India 30,410,577 399,475
Nepal 688,805 9,112
Pakistan 957,371 22,281
Sri Lanka 259,089 3,077
TOTAL 33,299,316 453,410
Source: Worldometer *as of 30th June, 2021

At the time of writing, Bangladesh seemed to be in the midst of its third surge, with cases still rising sharply, while India, Pakistan and Nepal seem to be in the early stages of a fresh surge.

New confirmed cases of COVID-19 in South Asia
Seven-day rolling average of new cases (per 100k)
Source: Financial Times analysis of data from Johns Hopkins CSSE
New deaths attributed to COVID-19 in South Asia
Seven-day rolling average of new deaths (per 100k)
Source: Financial Times analysis of data from Johns Hopkins CSSE

Vaccinations too have been slow across the region, largely due to India’s decision to reverse its ‘vaccine diplomacy’ campaign and halt all vaccine exports to meet surging domestic demand. The overwhelming majority of the regional population remains vulnerable to fresh surges of the virus.

Progress of vaccination against COVID-19 in South Asia

Country % of population to have received at least one dose of any COVID-19 vaccine % of population that is fully vaccinated
Afghanistan 1.8% 0.5%
Bangladesh 3.6% 2.6%
India 19.9% 4.2%
Nepal 9.1% 2.6%
Pakistan 4.3% 1.4%
Sri Lanka 12.4% 4.6%
Source: Our World in Data *as of 30th June, 2021

During the period under review, Afghanistan was hit by a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with cases surging sharply since mid-May, 2021. As of 30th June, Afghanistan had reported a total of 120,216 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, and 4,962 cases. At the time of writing, the number of cases and deaths being reported daily was still rising.

Impact of the third wave

Amidst the third wave of the pandemic, SAC partner Civil Society for Human Rights Network (CSHRN) conducted fact-finding missions that confirmed that people in most provinces were struggling to access adequate healthcare facilities.

According to CSHRN’s findings, residents in Paktia, Bamyan, Takhar, and Ghor provinces continued to have limited access to oxygen; face poor health and sanitation facilities; and that COVID-19 hospitals across the country face a shortage of medical workers. In COVID-19 hospitals in Bamyan province (population of over 420,000), CSHRN found that there were only 10 nurses, 10 vaccinators, and 20 beds available, not adequate t meet the growing needs of the people. CSHRN’s focal point in Bamyan communicated the problem with the provincial authorities, as a result of which 20 more beds were provided to the hospitals.

In the Ghor province, the COVID-19 hospital caught fire on 5th February, 2021, resulting in the destruction of all medical equipment and documents in the administrative office and in the drug store. The slow pace of reconstruction of the hospital continues to deprive residents of adequate treatment. Two officials in the same hospital have also been referred to the Attorney General’s office for misappropriation of funds meant for the response to COVID-19. Ghor residents continue to face lack

Challenges in the implementation of Dastarkhan-e-Meli:

Several challenges marred the implementation of the Dastarkhan-e-Meli government programme aimed at providing relief to over 4.1 million Afghan households. Numerous instances of systematic corruption were uncovered during the implementation of the programme, which aims to provide grants to Community Development Councils (CDCs) to purchase food and sanitation and packages for households. According to reports by Afghanistan’s Supreme Audit Office, COVID-19-related and other health equipment have been bought about 30% to 40% higher than the actual price in the market.

In Bamian province, SAC partner Civil Society for Human Rights Network (CSHRN) and its local partners found that the internally displaced people from Lal-Sarjangal and Yakawlang districts to the central province were denied access to aid packages, including humanitarian assistance under Dastarkhan-e-Melli, in March 2021. The families also faced mistreatment by the provincial authorities while asking for aid assistance. CSHRN and partners also found that distributed food package included low quality and spoilt material, and that better-quality material may have been distributed to relatives of top government officials.

Security threats posed by Taliban:

The implementation of Dastarkhan-e-Meli has also been challenged by the Taliban across the provinces, mainly in Ghor, Paktia, Logar, and Helmand provinces, where the militant group has attempted to halt relief package distribution to the population. In several places, relief distribution has been suspended due to security threats from the Taliban. On 5th June, while distributing food items to poor households, two employees of the Rural Development Department (WDD) in Loga province were abducted by the Taliban. According to CSHRN’s findings, the Taliban demanded ransom of 10% of the Dastarkhan-e-Melli budget in each district of Logar.

Bangladesh has been going through its third wave of COVID-19 since March 2021, fuelled by the Delta variant, the most transmissible coronavirus variant documented so far. According to the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), the country's highest single-day tally and the second-highest death toll were reported on 30th June, 2021, and cases were still rising at the time of writing. The total number of confirmed cases was 913,258, and the total number of reported deaths was 14,503. In the last ten days of June, an average of 6,008 new cases and 135 deaths were recorded every day.

At the time of writing, Khulna and Rajshahi divisions had become the hotspots of the latest virus surge across the country. DGHS data showed that more than 50 districts across the country had recorded positivity rates above 20 percent. The capital city has been isolated from other parts of the country by suspending road, rail and waterway transporting, with the help that this would help slow down the virus transmission.

Vaccine crisis:

Despite purchasing 30 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, manufactured by India’s Serum Institute, Bangladesh has been facing an acute vaccination crisis, owing to the Indian government’s decisions to ban vaccine exports due to its domestic demand. The vaccination process in Bangladesh came to a halt on 26th April, soon after India’s ban was announced.

Bangladesh plans to vaccinate 80 per cent of its total population in phases, which would require around 263 million vaccine doses. At the time of writing, around 5 per cent of the total population had been vaccinated.

Bangladesh’s vaccination drive has faced criticism for being limited to urban settings, and for the online registration process that had made it hard for poorly educated and those with poor Internet, to access vaccines.

Impact on the Rohingya community:

In Cox's Bazar, which hosts the world’s largest Rohingya settlement across 34 camps, by 22nd May, 823 Rohingya were reported to have contracted the virus. Twelve deaths were reported. Since May 2021, lockdowns has been imposed several times in Cox’s Bazar’s Rohingya camps to curb the surge of COVID-19. By the end of May, the occupancy rate of the relief agency Food for the Hungry’s (FH) dedicated COVID-19 facility had increased from 13 per cent on May 17 to 84 per cent on May 26.

Impact on the indigenous peoples community:

The indigenous peoples of both the plainland and the Chittagong Hill Tracts are reported to be among the worst impacted by the pandemic. A study by Kapaeeng Foundation revealed that during COVID-19, thousands of ready-made garment workers and beauty parlour workers have lost their jobs, agricultural production has been hampered, small enterprises are struggling to survive, regular health services and education facilities have been disrupted, violation of indigenous peoples' human rights has been on the rise, and most alarmingly, indigenous communities are facing severe food insecurity. According to the study, Hajong families in Durgapur and Netrokona had to cut down on the number of meals eaten per day to only one. Many indigenous migrant workers who had returned home were also reported to be staying at their villages without any income and in desperate need of employment opportunities for their survival.

Another survey conducted by Indigenous People's Development Services (IPDS) last year had revealed that the pandemic pushed nearly 62 per cent of plainland ethnic minorities below the extreme poverty line. The survey also showed that 92 per cent of them – mostly workers with no job security – experienced reduced incomes. At least 500,000 indigenous persons were estimated to have become ‘newly poor’. Garo migrants were among the hardest-hit, with more than 60 percent of respondents saying that they did not receive any relief or assistance at the beginning of the epidemic from the government or NGOs.

Impact on the Dalit community:

A rapid assessment conducted last year by the Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement (BDERM) covering almost 20% of Bangladesh’s total area found that the pandemic has badly hit the livelihoods of the country’s Dalits. According to the study, over 130,000 Dalit families lost their livelihoods at least temporary. Less than 30% of these families received food or other kinds of support from the government and non-governmental organisations.

During the period under review, India was hit by a devastating second wave of COVID-19, much more destructive than the first. At its peak, India was officially reporting over 400,000 infections and 4,500 deaths every day, both roughly four times higher than the peak of the first wave. As of 30th June, 2021, India had recorded 30.4 million COVID-19 cases and 400,000 deaths. Epidemiologists the world over have said that India’s official statistics capture only a fraction of the real scale of devastation.

The new wave has been at least partly fuelled by a new, homegrown variant of the virus (dubbed ‘Delta’) that, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) scientists, is the ‘fastest and fittest’ coronavirus strain yet. The second wave is also reported to have ravaged rural India, which has notoriously poor healthcare facilities and is far detached from the ambit of official testing, infection or death statistics. Media reports from India’s countryside revealed that the situation was ‘like hell’, with ‘entire families being wiped out’ after contracting mysterious fevers.

As India halted the export of locally-produced vaccines, vaccination drives in the rest of South Asia – and indeed across much of the developing world – came to a grinding halt. Instead, India has become a major exporter of the virus to its neighbours, with the recent pandemic waves in Nepal and Bangladesh believed to be fuelled primarily by Delta.

With yet another coronavirus variant now being detected (dubbed ‘Delta-Plus’), and with less than 5% of Indians being fully inoculated, experts warn that a third and potentially stronger wave of COVID-19 is ‘inevitable’.

Missteps and majoritarian pandering in the lead-up to the surge

Analysts have pointed to various government missteps in the lead-up to the second wave: prematurely bombastic claims of victory over the virus, the dismantling of vital medical infrastructure, the delay in approving and rolling out vaccines, the ignoring of multiple warnings about the detection of a new virus variant, and the resumption of mass gatherings, including political rallies held by senior government figures led by the prime minister.

Among the mass gatherings that were allowed was the Kumbh Mela, a massive quadrennial Hindu pilgrimage and festival that government brought forward by a year for ‘astrological reasons’. Reports suggest that the Kumbh may have later turned out to be a major super-spreader event.

Senior government and BJP figures also promoted various kinds of medical quackery. Two central ministers, including the health minister, were present at the launch of an ‘evidence-based’ Ayurvedic medicine developed by a business conglomerate led by a Hindu yoga guru close to the BJP. The ‘medicine’ was denounced almost immediately by the WHO. A BJP parliamentarian – incidentally, also a terror accused – remarked that she was saved from the virus because of her daily consumption of cow urine. The claim was repeated by a BJP legislator in Uttar Pradesh. Also in UP, a BJP leader was seen taking to the streets carrying ‘holy smoke’ around on a cart to kill the virus. In Gujarat, several people were reported to have regularly smeared themselves with cow dung and urine for protection against the virus.

The overwhelming of India’s healthcare system

Faced with an explosion of cases, India’s creaking healthcare system all but collapsed, with hospitals quickly running out of beds, medical oxygen and other critical medicines and equipment. Visuals from across the country showed patients gasping for breath, and dying, outside packed hospitals that refused them admission. Social media teemed with distress calls for basic medical supplies. By 7th May, at least 178 COVID-19 patients were estimated to have died solely due to lack of medical oxygen.

As crematories and burial grounds ran out of wood and space, despite operating through the night, people across the country resorted to using roadside pavements, parking lots, public parks and the banks of the holy Ganges river as funeral spaces. Others who couldn’t afford wood dumped the bodies straight in the river, with over a thousand corpses washing up on the shore days later.

In the absence of the state, ordinary Indians stepped up to try to take care of each other. Civil society organisations were at the forefront, providing food and rations, oxygen and other medical supplies, even as they found themselves cash strapped due to the BJP government’s new foreign funding regulations for non-profit organisations, which has heavily restricted sub-granting to small organisations active in leading relief operations in far-flung areas.

By June, at least 776 of India’s notoriously overworked, underpaid and under-protected doctors had died during the second wave, adding to the 748 who perished fighting the first wave. Medical experts have also warned that the focus on COVID-19 and the collapse of India’s healthcare system during the second wave have already had grave knock-on effects, worsening even ‘routine’ ailments that India had largely managed to get under control over previous decades.

Government efforts to obfuscate facts and target critics

There were multiple attempts to silence critics of the government’s mishandling of the crisis.

BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh was the worst offender, announcing a crackdown on those ‘spreading panic’. A hospital that made a distress call for oxygen was threatened with the cancellation of its license. Around a dozen members of citizens’ volunteer groups engaged in distribution of life-saving medicine and equipment were reported to have been arrested, leading many volunteer groups to wind up their services in fear of government reprisal. Villagers who complained to the media about poor facilities were also booked, apparently for spreading rumours. Local journalists who reported oxygen shortage received notices.

Separately, the UP government announced help desks for the protection of cows, equipping cow shelters with vital medical equipment.

In BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, at least six journalists were booked under various sections after they criticised lapses by the local administration and BJP ministers.

In BJP-ruled Manipur, two journalists were booked under the National Security Act – a draconian law that provides for detention without bail or trial for up to a year – for writing social media posts dismissing the use of cow dung and cow urine as cures for COVID-19. At the time of writing, the two were still under detention, two months after they were arrested.

The national government was not much better, ordering Twitter and other social media platforms to take down dozens of posts by prominent individuals who had flagged concerns with the government’s handling of the outbreak.

Loss of livelihoods and rise in hunger and destitution

The second wave exacerbated the economic situation for tens of millions of Indians who had already been stripped of their livelihoods and forced into poverty over the past year. A study by Azim Premji University estimated that the number of individuals below the official poverty line may have risen by 230 million. The same study revealed that 90% of survey respondents had less to eat since the onset of the pandemic. Another survey estimated that 20 million jobs might have been lost during April and May 2021. As of June 2021, despite the easing of COVID-19 infections and resultant restrictions, the unemployment rate was continuing to rise, leaving India’s working class to face what is possibly its worst-ever crisis. Harrowing stories of acute hunger, destitution and desperation continue to be reported from across the country.

The pandemic as cover for targeting minorities

Many top BJP figures and allies carried forward last year’s ‘Corona Jihad’ campaign that sought to paint India’s Muslim community as being responsible for the pandemic. The recently published results of a survey conducted by Monash University researchers in June 2020 underlined that the BJP-led campaign was extremely effective at sowing division and deflecting blame from government missteps, with 93% of respondents – all in Uttar Pradesh – believing that ‘foreigners’ were responsible for the pandemic. 66% directly pinned the blame upon Muslims.

Like last year, these efforts were aided by pro-BJP news media outlets, which highlighted Eid gatherings that had occurred in some places. A massive, illegal church gathering in Kerala was also widely covered. There were also efforts to paint the farmers’ protests near Delhi – led by the Sikhs of Punjab – as the origin point of the second wave, despite there being no evidence to suggest the same. Hindu religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela did not receive the same level of media scrutiny.

There were several attempts to single Muslims out for blame for medical and other malfeasance.

In Bengaluru, 17 Muslim staffers at a COVID-19 helpline centre were dismissed from their jobs after being publicly and falsely accused of corruption by Tejasvi Surya, a top BJP parliamentarian. Surya had publicly read out all the Muslim-sounding names from among 200-plus staffers and falsely accused them of denying hospital beds to COVID-19 patients.

In UP’s Aligarh district, a Muslim nurse was dubbed a ‘vaccine jihadi’ and accused of administering fake COVID-19 vaccines. The nurse and her superior, also a Muslim, were booked under multiple provisions, including criminal conspiracy. The BJP’s Aligarh district chief accused the area’s Muslims of engaging in a ‘conspiracy’. In another similar incident from UP, a Muslim name was cherrypicked and highlighted by pro-BJP media outlets, from among three healthcare workers who were accused of irregularities while conducting COVID-19 tests.

In Assam, after multiple incidents of COVID-19 doctors being attacked by angry patients, the new chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma took to Twitter to share a list of perpetrators in one case that contained exclusively Muslim names. Sarma had used careful communal polarisation against Muslims in the lead-up to the recently-concluded state elections.

Muslims were also blamed – including by the chief minister of Uttarakhand, who had allowed the Kumbh super-spreader event – for vaccine hesitancy, though reports of the same have emerged from across communities, particularly in rural India.

There were also some reported instances of discrimination against Dalits, but the phenomenon is believed to be far graver than gets covered in the media. In one such reported instance from India’s tech capital Bengaluru, Dalits were reportedly denied vaccines at a vaccination drive organised by a BJP legislator. In another reported instance, an 18-year-old boy in Telangana was forced to take shelter atop a tree after being denied admission to COVID-19 isolation facilities. A spike in anti-Dalit discrimination since the onset of the pandemic had be

The second wave of COVID-19, facilitated by the unchecked cross-border movement with India and exacerbated by the delayed and inadequate response from the government on all fronts, had a grave impact on Nepal. As of 30th June, 2021, 636,916 people had tested positive for COVID-19, and there had been 9,071 officially recorded deaths. At the time of writing, Nepal seemed to be in the early stages of a fresh surge, after peaking during mid-May with 9,317 reported new cases on 11th May and 246 deaths on 19th May. The peak resulted in an acute shortage of hospital beds as well as oxygen and medical equipment, in all certainty contributing to a higher death toll. On 29th April, the country went into a complete lockdown again.

As of 30th June, 2021, due to a shortage of vaccines, Nepal has been able to fully vaccinate only about 2.6 per cent of its population. The country also seems unlikely to be able to procure more vaccines anytime soon as India has put a hold on vaccine exports while there have been complications in purchasing them from China. The overall procurement process has also been mired by stories of corruption and mismanagement. Not only has this resulted in a setback in Nepal’s battle with the pandemic, it has also left a majority of the people above 65 years of age, who have taken the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, in a limbo.

Political bickering in the time of pandemic

During these trying times, where the government of Nepal should have focused single-mindedly on containing the pandemic and providing relief to those affected, the country has slipped into political turmoil, with the House of Representatives having been dissolved on two separate occasions a few months apart, and the successive re-appointment of the same individual as Prime Minister. This political bickering was successful insomuch as it shifted the focus from the death toll and the ongoing crisis in the country to a crisis very much of Nepal’s politicians’ making.

There was also controversy regarding the equitable distribution of vaccinations, as those with influence and power reportedly jumped the vaccine line ahead of the delineated priority groups. Relatives of politicians, security personnel, and government officials were reportedly receiving vaccinations even though they did not fall in the age category or belonged to professional groups specified for priority vaccination. Furthermore, the first consignment of 800,000 doses of Vero Cell vaccine donated by China was largely administered in the capital Kathmandu, leading to an outcry among vulnerable populations outside of the capital.

Impact of the lockdown on the marginalised

A study conducted by the National Planning Commission estimated that 1.57 million people in Nepal lost their jobs and 1.2 million people were pushed below the poverty line during the 2020-21 COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown that lasted from 24 March to 21 July 2020. While all Nepalis have felt the economic effects of the closure, minorities have been disproportionately impacted.

It was reported in May that marginalised groups of Tarai are dying of starvation and have been unable to afford treatment. Their difficulties have been exacerbated by the fact that both the local and federal officials have not announced any relief packages, while claiming that there are not many people seeking relief this year. Even the NGO Federation Nepal stated in late June that they would think about providing relief only if the lockdown continues, too late to be of help to marginalised communities.

Likewise, a March 2021 study reports that students from economically disadvantaged and socially and culturally marginalised social groups, including women and Dalits, are disconnected and disengaged from online learning. This is likely to have long-lasting consequences on marginalised communities. Compared to others, ethnic groups in the Tarai also have significantly lower access of maternal and child health services during the pandemic, which is also likely to have catastrophic long-term consequences.

People living with disabilities losing their livelihood

According to an activist for the rights of people living with disabilities, the lockdown has been especially hard on visually impaired individuals because most of them depend on the informal sector for their livelihood, which has been greatly affected by the lockdown. In June 2021, he stated that he has received reports of numerous visually impaired individuals running out of food, or being threatened with eviction for not paying rent.

An individual living with disability further reported that they have been asking several non-governmental organisations to provide them with daily essentials, but had not received any help.

Violence against women and sexual and gender minorities

Instances of violence against women have reportedly increased during the pandemic. In June, the Nepal Police figures showed an average daily of 53 cases of violence against women and children reported during the lockdown. These include cases related to rape, attempted rape, allegations of witchcraft, polygamy, domestic violence, rape and murder, and kidnapping. The increase is similar to the COVID-19 related lockdown in 2020 when a total of 885 complaints of domestic violence were reported by National Women Commission from April to June 2020, more than twice the number of complaints received within the same duration of three months before the lockdown. Nepal Police adds that the cases are increasing despite the lockdown, as the majority of perpetrators involved in such cases are family members and acquaintances.

The situation of the transgender population is also dire, with the Blue Diamond Society reporting that the lockdown has resulted in social, economic, and mental problems for them mostly due to lack of income, and the subsequent need for them to move back with their families, many of whom were not accepting of their identities in the first place. The transgender population also continue to face medical complications during this time due to the lack of required health care facilities, such as hormonal medications, in the market.

Disparity in attitude towards religious gatherings

Though Nepal is frequently touted as an example of religious tolerance in South Asia, the targeting of religious minorities during the COVID-19 pandemic has firmly upended the idea. In 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, there had been unfounded generalised suspicion towards the Muslim community after news of some Nepali Muslims being quarantined in Nepal after the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi broke. Subsequently, some Muslim mill workers in Rupandehi district, southern Nepal, were laid off simply for being Muslim, and two Muslim women in Janakpur, also in southern Nepal, were baselessly accused of trying to spread the virus with infected currency notes. Two Christian women and a pastor had also been arrested last year for allegedly spreading false information on COVID-19.

The same vitriol in the coverage of these incidents involving adherents of minority religion was missing when the majority Hindus celebrated their own festivals with much more disastrous consequences. For instance, when a number of Hindus returned to Nepal after attending the Kumbh Mela in India as the COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing there, tested positive and had to quarantine, there was an absence of anger towards them. While those who had been suspected to have returned from the Tablighi Jamaat congregation last year had been arrested, people extended positive wishes of recovery to those returning from the Kumbh Mela, which included the former king and queen of Nepal. Similarly, several religious processions went ahead in the capital, Kathmandu, in March and April, such as the Tongue-piercing Jatra, Ghode Jatra, Seto Macchindranath Jatra, and Sindoor Jatra, and festivals such as Ram Nawami. In April, as the number of cases in neighbouring India was skyrocketing, the Supreme Court issued an interim order to not halt the celebration of the nine-day-long Bisket Jatra. The Supreme Court reportedly stated that it was the people's right to celebrate the festival in the way they wanted, allowing the festival to continue, while there was also massive pressure from the locals, who had warned that they would defy any restrictions placed on the festivities.

The second wave of the coronavirus pandemic hit Pakistan around November 2020, with mid-November seeing as many cases as the peak of the first wave in June-July 2020. In the February-July 2021 period, the second wave has somewhat subsided, but its disproportionate effects on minorities still prevail. The primary impacts on minorities or vulnerable segments of the population, and inequitable practices by the governments center around distribution of rations, programs around vaccine accessibility and lastly vulnerability around unemployment.

Faith-based discrimination during the pandemic:

There have been multiple reported instances of faith-based discrimination against Pakistan’s minorities since the onset of the pandemic. This included allegations of Christians being denied food rations, including by welfare organisations, and of Hazara Shias being blamed for the pandemic. (covered in our previous bulletins, available here, here, here and here.)

Rise of gendered violence:

A report released by Sustainable Social Development Organization indicated a rise in domestic violence cases during the pandemic, a phenomenon that affects women disproportionately. The report recorded 1422 cases of domestic violence and 9401 cases of violence against women during the last six months of 2020. The report also noted that the official number of violent incidents against women is missing from public record, which inhibits the policy development process. Two recent instances of violence against women that received major media attention included a viral video that depicted three brothers violently assaulting their mother and sister; and two men who were arrested for brutally torturing their sister and her mother-in-law over a property dispute.

A recent report by UN Pakistan lists the adversities that the transgender community is facing during the pandemic, including, but not limited to, limiting their mobility due to stigmatization and discrimination, difficulty in getting help for socio-economic and health concerns, living in cramped spaces that affects their health, and unmet long term medication needs. The assessment was conducted with representative sampling of 75 transgender persons, through transgender focal points of Islamabad and Rawalpindi that brought forward their list of concerns regarding mistreatment of their community.

Vaccine accessibility and hesitancy:

While Pakistan has been facing a serious crisis in vaccine supply, it has simultaneously had to tackle the issue of vaccine hesitancy, with studies suggesting that the phenomenon is much more pronounced in Pakistan compared to other low and middle-income countries. Vaccine hesitancy has been observed even among frontline health workers.

Vulnerability in the labour market:

The effects of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic have compounded the vulnerability of the labour class during the second wave. The reopening of the economy did not necessarily translate to all jobs being reinstated, with a Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) survey indicating that around 3 million citizens have been unable to find new jobs even a quarter after the end of the first weave. In November 2020, average incomes were estimated to be 5.5% below pre-lockdown levels.

At the time of writing, Sri Lanka had 63,120 total active COVID cases, with 2,985 deaths so far. The country was dealing with the third wave of the pandemic, with travel restrictions having been lifted after being in place for close to three weeks. The country had also identified the first cases of the Delta variant transmitted in the community, with numbers of this in particular also rising.

Reopening of airports to tourists

On 21st January, 2021, the same day the country recorded the highest daily COVID-19 case rate at the time, Sri Lanka’s airports were reopened for tourists. Mandatory quarantines were imposed only for travellers from the United Kingdom, and tourists were also allowed to travel between Tier 1 Safe and Secure hotels within their two weeks of ‘quarantine’. Independent experts were simultaneously alerting on the need to keep borders shut to control the local spread. Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East and their families expressed betrayal as entry into the country was now easier for foreigners than it was for residents who had been earning valuable foreign exchange for the country.

Tourist ‘bubble’ and transit hub

The first of the foreigners to arrive in Sri Lanka under a supposed tourism bubble were Ukrainian tourists. It was soon revealed that these groups had been brought in owing to political favour, considering that those outside their bubble came into contact with the group and the main tourism authorities were not made aware of their itineraries.

Owing to the amount of luxury hotels granted Tier One status for arrivals, and the lack of a minimum visiting period, Sri Lanka quickly became a quarantine hub. When travellers needed to visit a country that did not allow travellers from their home country, a certificate of quarantine completed in Sri Lanka would help them travel to these destinations.

A steep rise in cases after the holiday season

Before the week-long holiday for the traditional new year, the Director General Health Services noted that people should be careful so as to contain the spread of the virus. In the aftermath, there were increasing numbers of cases recorded, with clusters emerging among those who had travelled together on trips. The steep increase recorded began around this period.

Shortly after, biomedical researcher and academic at the forefront of Sri Lanka’s COVID research Prof. Neelika Malavige informed the public that the virus was now airborne and therefore posed a higher risk of transmission.

Inconsistencies in testing

In the period between mid-March and mid-April, there was a slow decrease in number of COVID positive cases daily. Late in April, Public Health Inspectors’ (PHI) Union President Upul Rohana made a statement that PHIs had been ordered by higher authorities in the Ministry of Health to reduce the amount of tests being carried out.

Testing increased again in April, but as cases continued to rise in May, the government ordered that testing be carried out only on the recommendations of a doctor, which saw a further decrease in the number of positive cases being reported.

Shortage in hospital beds and medical equipment

As cases continued to rise after the wave in April, there was a marked shortage in hospital beds as patients also began to present with more serious symptoms. Namal Rajapaksa MP arranged for 10,000 beds to be constructed along with the Army and public volunteers. However, with the growing numbers, the need for a sustainable solution was voiced by many.

Public donation drives to provide medical equipment to hospitals and other supplies to quarantine centres raised large sums of money. Doctors themselves issued these calls for supplies as they felt they could rely more on the generosity of the public to obtain these critical items.

Vaccinations

On 28th January, the first stock of vaccines arrived in Sri Lanka from India and the work to vaccinate frontline healthcare workers began soon after. The vaccination process however has been rife with complications. This was clear especially when the Health Ministry-formulated priority list was violated and when people with power, such as mayors, interfered in the vaccination drive.

Covishield, the version of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine produced by India’s Serum Institute was among the first administered to the general public, after health and frontline workers received doses. However, after India halted the export of the vaccine due to the rising local demand, many who received the first dose are now weeks overdue for the second. Only those who have connections to medical officials have been able to obtain the second dose due to unregulated distribution. This was while health workers in areas outside Colombo raised concerns that they had not yet been vaccinated. Approval was recently granted for Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to be used as a second dose for these cases in particular.

Due to several donations and state purchases of the Sinopharm and Sputnik vaccines, many residents in the Colombo district have received both doses. These stocks allowed the expansion of the vaccination process to other urban centres in Kandy, Kurunegala, Ratnapura and Jaffna. However, the Chinese manufacturer of Sinovac vaccines, which Sri Lankan had plans to procure in the millions, has placed a condition on its purchase contract: if the price of the jab is disclosed or even spoken about in public, the deal is off and could result in legal trouble.

Gag order on doctors

In May, the Ministry of Health issued a circular that in effect gagged doctors from speaking to the media in relation to the spread and control of COVID. Doctors thereafter spoke anonymously to news reporters to speak of struggles in responding to the disease to an overburdened and underfunded system.

Outbreaks in apparel factories

Apparel factories in many places in the country – Panadura, Thulhiriya, Kilinochchi, Puthukudiyiruppu, Batticaloa, Katunayake and Maskeliya – recorded positive cases in the hundreds, with factories only then being shut down to control the spread.

Having been declared an essential service, these factories are operating throughout travel restrictions. Reports from the Katunayake Free Trade Zone note that the proximity in which workers live with one another in boardings, while also being forced to quarantine in these settings, exacerbates the issue and contributes to the spread.

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Cover image credits: Mariam Zuhaib/AP (Kabul) | A.M. Ahad/AP (Dhaka) | Danish Siddiqui/Reuters (New Delhi)
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