Before the US became the epicentre of Covid-19, the virus wreaked havoc in China and Europe. What can happen to South Asia, the most populous region in the world, if it becomes the epicentre of coronavirus is the scenario most feared by many.
The most pessimistic scenarios proposed by scientists and research centres in similar circumstances suppose lax measures are adopted by authorities and societies.
Such is the case in India, taking up the bigger portion of South Asia together with its neighbours arch nemesis Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, with a total population of 1.7 billion.
These countries suffer from less than mediocre healthcare and social systems, and widespread poverty and illiteracy. These factors helped draw gloomy pictures about the spread of the coronavirus in this region.
The scariest scenario for India was announced by Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the US-based Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy. “If it’s as transmissible as in Italy and Iran, we’re looking at the 60 per cent mark. If it’s as transmissible as in some other countries, we’re looking at 20 per cent,” he cautioned.
India’s 60 per cent translates to 800 million people out of a total population of 1.35 billion, and 20 per cent means 300 million confirmed cases of coronavirus infection. However, he said the overwhelming majority of these infections would be “extremely mild”.
Until 29 March, Italy had recorded 92,472 cases of Covid-19, over 10,000 deaths, and 12,384 recoveries of a population standing at 60 million people, according to Johns Hopkins University.
In Iran, where the population is registered at 80 million, the majority of whom are youth, there were 35,408 confirmed cases, 2,517 deaths and 11,679 recoveries.
Until 29 March, not a single country crossed the 20 per cent mark of infections, although globally there are 665,164 confirmed cases, 30,852 deaths and 140,222 recoveries, reported Johns Hopkins University.
Nonetheless, Michigan State University pointed out that India may see coronavirus cases of 100,000 or as many as 1.3 million. Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the university reported on 21 March: “Even with the best-case scenarios, probably, you are in a very painful crisis.” Mukherjee’s study was published on Medium, a US publishing platform.
The study added that by the end of March, India’s confirmed cases will reach 4,000, although until 29 March there were 987 cases, 25 deaths and 87 recoveries. The study continued that by the end of April, India’s confirmed cases will record anything between 30,000 and 230,000.
Dhruva Chaudhry, president of the Indian Society of Critical Care Medicine, said India has 100 ICU beds and 40,000 ventilators. The figures are indeed ominous.
As part of the measures to protect Indians against the threat of coronavirus, the extremist Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a semi lockdown on India and the suspension of classes and domestic and international air travel. The majority of companies were ordered to halt their activities for three weeks and the giant railway network that transports nine billion Indians annually was shut down.
There will be repercussions, however, to these protective measures. According to the International Labour Organisation, the majority of India’s workforce is in the informal sector, such as domestic help, garbage collectors, vendors in crowded markets, security guards, etc.
These workers are not entitled to pensions, paid leave or insurance and they don’t have bank accounts. They primarily depend on cash to make their daily ends meet. Many of these workers have jobs in cities other than those where they reside; others move from one city to another seeking employment.
India’s shutdown has rendered workers without food, money or shelter, leading the government to send bus fleets to transport them to their home cities.
Pictures were circulated of thousands of Indians as they left urban cities on foot to get to their villages.
The migration of millions of Indian workers to their homes — be it by bus or on foot — hints of a catastrophic scenario for India that may unfold within the next two weeks.
Indeed, the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh isolated 20,000 villagers following the death of a preacher, over 70 years of age, who had returned from a trip to Germany and Italy. The preacher ignored the Indian Health Ministry’s instructions and visited a number of villages.
The coronavirus is a difficult test for the adequacy of healthcare systems, states and societies, said Laxminarayan.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly