MonitorsPublished on Apr 03, 2020
In a country where the healthcare system is already under-equipped to deal with a public health crisis as extensive as the coronavirus, continued hostilities would sabotage any chance of surviving the pandemic.
South Asia Weekly Report | Volume XIII; 13

Afghanistan: Evaluating the impact of Covid-19

Shubhangi Pandey

It is not surprising that it took a while for Afghans to come to terms with the reality of the fast-spreading novel coronavirus or COVID-19, as the country is struggling to cope with the fragile political situation in the country, in the midst of a resurgent Taliban and continued violence as a result. Initially, while many brushed aside the news of the emerging pandemic as a rumour, others termed it a godlike intervention to “punish disobedience and other sins of mankind”.

It was only when the number of infected individuals began to rise by the day that the Afghan establishment realised the severity of the situation and adopted a more proactive approach to tackling the crisis. The first positive case was reported in the western province of Herat that borders Iran, on 24 February 2020. The infected individual had recently been to Qom in Iran, a country that has emerged as an epicentre for the disease in the region. Since then, the total tally of confirmed cases in Afghanistan as on March 26 has reached 94, and will likely cross the century mark in less than a day.

Tracing the trajectory

The large of number of Afghan migrants returning home from Iran everyday, through the Herat and Nimroz borders, threatens to compound transmission rates of the disease manifold. Even though health workers and officials of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) are educating the migrants crossing over into Afghanistan about protective measures to maintain personal hygiene, and screening them for COVID19 and other potential respiratory diseases, the long incubation period of the coronavirus limits the utility of such preventive actions. According to the IOM, over 115,000 Afghan migrants returned from Iran between March 8-21, and thousands continue to make the long, crowded journey back home every day.

Although Iran initially refused to comply with the repeated requests made by the Afghan government to restrict the flow of people on the border, the border was finally sealed on Monday, 23 March, and air travel to and from Iran was suspended, as stated by the National Security Council of Afghanistan. Even so, it would be difficult to entirely put a stop to people fleeing to the other side, given the extensively porous nature of the border.

Further, efforts by the Afghan government to implement the global call of exercising ‘social distancing’, has not been accepted or even acknowledged by the majority of Afghans. Recent returnees, in particular, have been seen unabashedly flouting safety guidelines issued by the government, resulting in crowded parks, local bazaars and social hubs, creating the ideal environment for the community transmission phase of the virus to kick into gear. Religious leaders across the country, too refused to comply with the official directive of closing down mosques and suspending communal prayers, saying they would not keep Afghans from practicing their faith.

While daytime lockdowns have been observed in some of the most hard-hit provinces such as Herat, Nimroz and Farah, the government has hesitated to order a comprehensive lockdown, owing to the potentially devastating consequences for the already struggling economy. A lockdown would certainly cripple the ability of small and medium sized businesses thriving in commercial centres such as Herat, to carry on as usual, given that they are primarily, if not entirely, dependent on cash transactions for daily functioning.

State preparedness 

The steadily rising numbers of positive cases has brought into focus the grossly limited capacity of the war-ravaged health system of Afghanistan. There is only one medical facility in the entire country, based in Kabul, which is equipped to run tests for COVID-19, and moreover, can only treat 150 patients at a time.

In a country of 35 million people who could have potentially contracted the virus, the lone testing lab in Kabul only has three testing machines at its disposal, a figure both infuriating and worrying. There is an increasing demand by health workers in the country, to decentralise testing to the regional level, particularly due to the four to six - hour time period for calculating test results.

The political impasse in country has not only contributed to growing fears and uncertainty about the political future of Afghanistan but also raised serious questions about the state’s ability to implement a concerted plan of action to cope with the looming health crisis. The US’ decision to cut $ 1 billion in aid, given the fact that the Afghan economy is heavily dependent on US funding to stay afloat, will hit the Afghan healthcare infrastructure hard, that too when it is at its most vulnerable. US aid accounts for almost 37% of the annual budget of Afghanistan. The billion-dollar aid cut by the US is expected to decelerate the Afghan economy by  11 per cent, as per the report of a recent survey conducted by the Biruni Institute.

While the Taliban has pledged to ensure free passage to health workers in Afghanistan, and has instructed its cadres to comply with the global health guidelines issued by the WHO in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, violence has ensued in spurts. The latest attack took place in a Gurudwara in Kabul that killed 25 people, and was claimed by the Islamic State, although the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is also suspected of being a party to it.

In a country where the healthcare system is already under-equipped to deal with a public health crisis as extensive as the coronavirus, continued hostilities would sabotage any chance of surviving the pandemic. Echoing similar concerns, was the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) that exhorted “all parties to further reduce levels of violence and work towards a ceasefire, to facilitate intra-Afghan negotiations and enable better preparations for the impact of COVID-19.”

The COVID-19 crisis has brought governments the world over, to their knees. Afghanistan, a country that is already a melting pot of grave crises, has faired no better. Along with the debilitating impact on public health, the virus has also forced the Afghan establishment to reorient its strategic dispensation, by expediting the decision to release Taliban prisoners in government captivity, starting 31 March, for instance.  The only reason for the relatively low number of cases in Afghanistan is the unimaginably limited ability to test and treat the virus, owing to poor health infrastructure in the country.

The ground reality is likely to be far scarier than official figures indicate. In order to adequately respond to the challenge posed by COVID-19, the Afghan government must implement comprehensive isolation procedures, ensure that ‘social distancing’ is observed across the board, initiate quick contact tracing, allocate sufficient funds to the health sector to boost capability, and ensure transparent media reportage, among other measures.

Bhutan: Nation prepares for the pandemic

Mihir Bhonsale

Like the entire world which is in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bhutan is also preparing for the worst. The Himalayan kingdom had detected its first case on 5 March when a 76-year-old American tourist, who had flown to Bhutan from India, tested positive. By 2 March, the number of cases rose to three.

This tiny nation with a population of under a million is fortunately led by Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering who himself is a medical practitioner. He is looking towards the world and its special friend India to overcome this  challenge.

Emergency measures

The government and the king have promptly responded to the emergency that the country faces. The King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, in his address to the nation announced the closing of borders from 23 March. At least a week before the shutdown, Bhutan had anticipated the necessity of sealing the borders with India and hence Prime Minister Tshering ensured stocking of fuel and essential food items to last for at least 12 days. Considering the limited infrastructure and paucity of resources, sealing of borders was its best bet to prevent community spread of the virus.

But, no nation can be immune to the virus, and Bhutan is not taking any chances either. It has put in place quarantine facilities in at least a dozen of its towns across the country and is testing people with a travel history to affected countries. The Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital is also being readied with an isolation ward for admitting COVID-19 positive patients.

Bhutan is particularly alarmed by the number of COVID-19 cases in India that is surging towards 1000, besides deaths of 18 patients. Since Bhutan shares an open border with India, the chances of contracting the virus are higher. Given this reality, the border town of Phuentsholing is having the highest number of quarantined people.

The king has also deployed the Royal Bhutan Army for the construction of quarantine facilities. The army has also evacuated 5,000 Bhutanese from Jaigaon, India,  adjoining Phuentsholling.

Mitigating the impact

The government has also asked the Gross National Happiness Commission to rework on the budget for the fiscal year under 12th Five Year plan, so that certain budget is made available for the contingency programmes.

In this time of crisis, India is doing its best to help its northern neighbour, Bhutan. India has already handed over personal protective equipment to Bhutan from the SAARC Emergency Fund. Earlier, India had committed US$10 million to the emergency SAARC fund for dealing with the pandemic and appealed to all SAARC member nations to contribute voluntarily to this fund. Bhutan has contributed US$ 100,000 to the fund.

Bhutan expects to scale up its preparedness through contributions from international agencies and friendly nations. The United Nations has contributed $ 1.14 million to support Bhutan’s national Covid-19 preparedness and response.

Apart from preparedness and response to the crisis, the economy is severely affected and livelihood of people are at stake. To keep the essential services functioning, the government is taking care that essential supplies of people are not affected due to the lockdown.

GDP worst hit

Tourism, the second largest contributor to Bhutan’s GDP, is the worst hit. There is uncertainty over when the country would be able to welcome tourists again. Stakeholders claim that about 50,000 jobs in tourism and allied sectors are at stake.

The government, meanwhile, has announced that an economic stimulus package is under preparation to address the economic slowdown. The government claimed that this package is expected to entail several fiscal and monetary measures and would benefit the overall economy and the losses will be minimised at an individual level too.

As the world awaits the cessation of the spread of the contagion that has already entered stage 3 i.e. community spread in many countries, Bhutan hopes that its measures would see that the virus do not go beyond Stage-Two.

Country Reports


25 killed in Gurudwara attack

On 25 March, Islamic State militants stormed into a crowded Sikh Gurudwara and housing complex in Kabul, and killed at least 25 people in a siege that lasted for about six hours. The attack took place even as the country had seen a two-fold jump in the number of coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours. Several women and one child were among those killed, along with a Muslim, who was guarding the temple. Although the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, many suspect that the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) may also have had a hand in orchestrating the attack.

Prisoner release

The Afghan government announced on 26 March 2020 that it had decided to release up to 10,000 prisoners, including women and children, to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus in detention centres. The government declared that those to be released have only committed small crimes, and will not pose a threat to the society. Those who have committed crimes against national and international security, or have had terrorist linkages, on the other hand, will continue to remain in captivity.


Begum Zia freed 

Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chairperson and former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia was released from prison on humanitarian grounds this week. Begum Zia is released for six months and will undergo medical treatment inside the country since her release has been granted on the condition of her not travelling outside Dhaka. Begum Zia released after two and a half years of her prison term. She was serving a five-year prison sentence for her conviction in a case of financial misappropriation in an orphanage named after her husband military dictator General Ziaur Rahman. Her party, however, claim that the case was to meet political vendetta by the political parties.

India’s aid to fight Covid-19

Standing firm on its policy of Bangladesh first in ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, India donated 30,000 surgical masks and 15,000 head covers to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Indian High Commissioner Riva Ganguly Das handed over the materials to the Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen. Also, the two countries considering holding of video conferences between health professionals and other stakeholders for special measures and best practises to deal with the Covid-19 virus. 

Lockdown to fight virus

The government has declared nationwide lockdown to fight the spread of Covid19 virus beginning this week. In this regard, a ban has been imposed on all passenger movement through road, rail, waterways. Around five people have died due to spread on the disease in the country. Earlier World Health Organisation (WHO) had suggested the government to consider imposing lockdown and announce an emergency to prevent the spread of the Covid19 virus. 

National Day in the shadow of Covid-19 

March 2 marked the 49 Independence Day of the country. Normally, the day is marked with much pomp and fanfare. However this time, the celebrations were curtailed due to the outbreak of the Covid19 pandemic. Many of the government functions had to be cancelled due to the global health disaster. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina delivered an addressed to the nation on eve of the Independence day. On 26th March 1971, leader of the country’s freedom struggle declared impendence of the country that led to a major crackdown by the Pakistani army which was followed by a nine-month-long bloody war. The country was liberated from the Pakistan’s occupation in 16th of December 1971.


First national tests positive

The first Bhutanese national to test positive for COVID-19 is a female student who had returned from Europe on 22 March. With the confirmation, now Bhutan has detected three cases in a of 20 days. However, the situation remains the same and the threat level is still Orange for the country. Health Minister Dechen Wangmo has said that the female student started having mild fever and cough while at the quarantine centre and was screened and health officials subsequently carried out a confirmatory test as per the set standard operating procedure. The patient, according to the health minister, is in stable condition and has not shown any more symptoms for now.

UN agencies pledge support

The United Nations contributed $ 1.14 million to support the national Covid-19 preparedness and response and other immediate assistance. According to a press release, a contribution of $ 50,000 was provided to support Bhutan’s immediate needs of the quarantine facilities across the country. USD 10,000 each came from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office (UNRCO). The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has provided USD 100,000 to support the government’s response to Covid-19 through UNICEF.

King inspects readiness

The King visited Phuentsholing to inspect the plans put in place to ensure uninterrupted supply of essential goods from India, in light of the closure of our borders, and the 21-day lockdown in India. On His Majesty’s command, the Royal Bhutan Army has deployed about 1,300 soldiers and officers for the construction and Over 5,000 Bhutanese have been evacuated from Jaigaon, and are currently sheltered in schools. Schools nationwide are closed since March 18 until further notice to prevent Covid-19.  His Majesty is on a tour of Samtse and Phuentsholing.


Lockdown for 21 days

In an unprecedented move, India has gone into a lock-down for 21 days, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi called upon the people through a second national address in five years, to check the possible spread of Covid-19 virus. The Centre ahs also announced a Rs 1.70-lakh crore package under the ‘Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana’ for the poor who have lost their family incomes. As the central and state governments are preparing to face the the pandemic, COVID-19 positive cases have reached more 700 with 17 deaths as on 27 March

Joining global efforts

India has decided to join World Health Organisation’s (WHO) “Solidarity trials” which is making an attempt to search for drugs for treating COVID 19. The trial is supposed to test four different combinations of drugs and compare those with the current standard of care that is being used for the COVID 19 patients now. In the meantime the nation has also started procuring Coronavirus testing kits from various countries including China to expedite the process of detecting the infections as effectively as possible.

BJP Govt in MP

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Shivraj Singh Chouhan returned as Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister for the fourth time on 23 March after the BJP staked claim to form the government in the State after the Congress led Government fell following the resignation of Chief Minister Kamal Nath ahead of the Supreme Court directed floor-test in the State Assembly. The Congress Government lost its majority in the State Assembly after Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia resigned joined the party and 22 of his supporters quit the State Assembly, bringing down the cut-off figure.


No mass prayers

In the face of Covid-19 corona virus attack, mass prayers in mosques and other places across the country have been suspended until further orders. In the meantime, officials have reported a slowdown in new cases and also recovery of some suspected patients. With the recovery of two more ‘active cases’, the total in the country has risen up to 11. There are still three more active cases.


COVID 19 cases increase

The Health Ministry confirmed at 1:45am on 27 March two new cases of COVID-19 infections, bringing to five the total number of people suffering from the disease detected within the week. One of the new COVID-19 patients is a 33-year-old Myanmar man from Mandalay, who is now an American citizen. He arrived in Myanmar from the United States on March 19 and developed symptoms of the disease, including fever, coughing, and tiredness, four days later.

Ethnic groups cautious

On 26 March, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) shut all border checkpoints with China in the Wa Self-Administered Region in Shan State as a precaution measure. The National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), which governs nearby Mine Lar Township, introduced virus protection measures in its self-administered zone at the end of January. In February, the ethnic armed group shut down all karaoke bars and restaurants, ordered people to wear masks, and urged them not go outside if possible.


SAARC video conference

Given the present situation of COVID-19, the health officials of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) participated in a web conference to cooperate with each other. A common domain named ‘’ has also been created, specifically to share information and mechanisms to combat the corona virus. In this situation, Nepal has been playing a very active role in containing any further spread of the virus along with structuring precautionary measure.

China border opened

China has been one of the most vital trade partners for Nepal. With the escalating COVID-19 situation, that has its epicenter in Wuhan, China, the borders had been completely sealed to prevent the spread to Nepal. However, the government has decided to reopen to continue with the easy flow of the essential goods. The supply chain had been highly pressurized. This was specifically affecting the availability of cooking gas in the market. Though risky and apprehensive, Nepal government had to take this stance to prevent an economic breakdown.


Relief for poor 

The federal government of Pakistan has announced a Rs 144 billion package under the ‘Ehsaas’ poverty alleviation programme. The package will provide relief to ten million poor in the country. The low-income families will get Rs. 12,000 under this relief package for four months. The federal government also announced that Rs 200 billion will be given to provinces to be distributed among daily wage workers. According to Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Poverty Alleviation Dr Sania Nishtar, the money will be distributed through Short Messaging Services (SMS) by notified banks.

Chinese aid to fight virus  

As the number of coronavirus cases in Pakistan crossed the four-digit mark, China has requested Pakistan to open the border to facilitate transport medical equipment through the Khunjerab Pass. A letter written by the Chinese embassy stated that governor of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China wants to donate medical protective clothes, masks, ventilators and testing kits to Gilgit Baltistan.

Pharma crisis

Pakistan’s pharmaceutical sector is facing a severe shortage of raw materials. Within days, the industry will close down its operations. Pakistan imports most of the raw materials for its pharma industry from China. The fear of the outbreak of the coronavirus has led to hoarding of medicine stocks, and the pharma sector is not in a position to manufacture more drugs owing to the raw materials shortage. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, pharma industries have already suspended their operations. India too exports medical raw material to Pakistan, however, owing to the ongoing lockdown that supply has stopped. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had assured the pharma industries that it will step in to resolve the matter, but nothing has come about yet. 

Economy hit

The surge in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan have forced the country to reach out developed nations for debt relief. After Prime Minister Imran Khan, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi also started diplomatic outreach for rescheduling debt and stressed for economic support for developing nations. Recently, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have also stressed for such measures from developed countries to allow poor countries to deal with coronavirus.

Sri Lanka

Presidential pardon

President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has granted special presidential pardon to Staff Sergeant R M Sunil Ratnayake, convicted and sentenced to death in 2015, for the murder of eight Tamil civilians, including a five-year-old child, at Murusuvil, after a decade-long trial. The trial court acquitted four other accused, but the High Court upheld the ruling in the case of Ratnayake. The Tamil National Alliance has since condemned the President’s decision. In Geneva, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said they were ‘troubled’ by freedom for Ratnayake.

First death nearer home

Even as over 300 persons under quarantine were allowed to go home after following the necessary protocol, the first death of a Covid-19 person has been reported in the country. After a couple of days of lull, fresh Covid cases have also been reported, but the numbers are not as alarming as in the earlier stage. The Government has opened a website for Sri Lankan nationals outside the country to contact the authorities, while a couple of deaths of Sri Lankans outside the country have also been reported.



Opinion Pieces

Catherine Putz, “Via Video Conference, Afghan Government and Taliban Discuss Prisoner Releases”, The Diplomat, 27 March 2020

Todd Carney, “International Humanitarian Law Should Have Been Part of the Taliban Deal”, The Kabul Times, 26 March 2020


The Kabul Times, “Public Awareness a Must to Contain COVID-19 Outbreak”, 26 March 2020

The Daily Outlook Afghanistan, “Fears of Taliban’s Regime Haunt Afghan Women”, 25 March 2020


Opinion Pieces

Mustafizur Rahman, “Navigating Covid-19 impacts on Bangladesh’s external sector”, The Daily Star, 27 March 2020

Julian Francies, “Conorna Virus thoughts on Independence Day”, Dhaka Tribune, 27 March 2020



Kuensel, “In wake of the India lockdown”, 26 March 2020

The Bhutanese, “Royal birth and hope”, 21 March 2020


Opinion Pieces

Rajeev Gowda, “The need of the hour is for Centre to release funds for states to fight COVID-19”, The Indian Express, 27 March 2020

Harsh Mander, “State’s measures to fight coronavirus are stripping the poor of dignity and hope”, The Indian Express, 27 March 2020

Parameswaran Iyer, “Handwashing is a habit that can and must be sustained even after coronavirus”, The Indian Express, 27 March 2020

Chinmay Tumbe, “In times of a lockdown, support migrant workers”, hindustantimes, 26 March 2020


The Indian Express, “Pause and play”, 27 March 2020

The Telegraph, “Dual challenges facing the nation”, 27 March 2020

The Telegraph, “Pandemonium after lockdown”, 26 March 2020

The Indian Express, “A double atrocity”, 26 March 2020


Opinion Pieces

Zarni Mann & Zaw Zaw Htwe, “Apartment Blocks Under Quarantine After Myanmar Finds Two More COVID-19 Cases”, The Irrawaddy, 27 March 2020

San Yamin Aung, “Myanmar Medics Volunteer to Combat COVID-19 Menace”, The Irrawaddy, 26 March 2020

Lawi Weng, “Myanmar Army Seizes Shan State Militia Chiefs Over Drugs Bust”, The Irrawaddy, 26 March 2020

Kavi Chongkittavorn, “COVID-19: ASEAN Must Act More Boldly”, The Irrawaddy, 26 March 2020


Nan Lwin, “Myanmar Orders Half of Govt Employees to Stay Home Over COVID-19”, The Irrawaddy, 26 March 2020


Opinion Pieces

Sujit Mainali, “Duty in time of crisis”, Republica, 26 March 2020

Mahendra P. Lama, “Covid-19: The better side of the devastation”, The Kathmandu Post, 24 March 2020

Prem Singh Basnyat, “The war Nepal won”, Republica, 23 March 2020


The Kathmandu Post, “Essentials may run out, the government needs to ensure supply”, 25 March 2020


Opinion Pieces

Sara Hayat,” Climate lockdown?“, Dawn, 27 March 2020

Dr Moonis Ahmar, “Crisis management skillsThe Express Tribune, 27 March 2020

Fahad Husian, “Red zone files: Politics of the virusDawn, 26 March 2020

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, “Global vaccine”  Dawn, 20 March 2020

Eric Shahzar, “Facing pandemics in today’s worldThe Express Tribune, 26 March 2020

Arhama Siddiqa, “Seventeen years laterThe Express Tribune, 25 March 2020

S. Aijazuddin, “Numbering deathDawn, 26 March 2020

Usman T. Malik, “Curse of Covid-19Dawn, 26 March 2020

Sri Lanka

Opinion Pieces

Kamanthi Wickremesinghe, “Govt, private sector struggling to balance supply-demand balance”, Daily Mirror Online, 28 March 2020

Malinda Seneviratne, “Prioritise the poor and vulnerable”, Daily Mirror Online, 27 March 2020

D B S Jeyaraj, “How will TNA fare at parliamentary election?”, Daily Mirror Online, 24 March 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Covid curfew and after”, Colombo Gazette, 23 March 2020


Easwaran Rutnam, “Sri Lanka must ensure that China is held accountable: US lawyer”, Daily Mirror Online, 27 March 2020


Daily Mirror Online, “We need a united front to fight Covid-19”, 24 March 2020


Afghanistan: Shubhangi Pandey

Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale

India: Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy

Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee

Nepal: Sohini Nayak

Pakistan: Ayjaz Wani

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