India, the second most populous nation, has 137 confirmed cases of Covid-19. Pakistan is reporting just 236 cases. Those low, low numbers spell trouble for the Indian subcontinent, South Asia, and the rest of that overpopulated region.
If community spread of the coronavirus is already underway across South Asia, the region’s health care system will come under unprecedented stress. Consider hospital beds, for example. According to data from the OECD, India has just 0.5 hospital beds for every 1,000 people. The United Kingdom has five times as many per capita (2.5), Italy has more than six times as many per capita (3.2), and South Korea has over 24 times as many per capita (12.3). If the number of infections in India rises exponentially, the country’s hospitals will struggle to cope. India has just 0.8 doctors for every 1,000 people, while the corresponding numbers for the United Kingdom, Italy, and South Korea are 2.9, 4.0, and 2.3 respectively.
Other South Asian countries have just as much cause to worry. In an interview this week with the Associated Press, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan candidly expressed his fears: “If [the coronavirus] spreads, we will all have problems with our health facilities. We just don’t have that capability. We just don’t have the resources.”
As Sumit Ganguly writes in FP, India’s emergency response systems sometimes hold up remarkably well. In 2018, the state of Kerala curtailed the spread of the Nipah virus, and the nation has a history of successful contact tracing in influenza outbreaks. But the question now is whether the number of coronavirus cases will grow too high, too quickly, and overwhelm the country’s hospitals. Have South Asia’s countries missed their chance to flatten the curve?
It will be several weeks before we’ll have real data and answers. Whatever happens, the pandemic will be a reminder to South Asia’s governments that they have long neglected health care infrastructure, especially for their lower-income populations. As the chart below shows, South Asian nations have among the lowest rates of spending on health care as a proportion of their GDPs.And what of the poorer nations of Africa, i.e. "Ebola Alley"? They certainly have ample experience of lethal viral epidemics but has that sapped their resources to bear another, Covid-19?