Standing with the people of South Asia in the fight against COVID-19

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As COVID-19 ravages lives and economies across South Asia, millions of women and men in the region are engaged in a relentless fight to curb the spread of the coronavirus and support their communities.  

Among these countless extraordinary people, four have inspired me recently.

Najibullah, a community health specialist in Afghanistan, is working with mullahs and community leaders, helping provide basic but vital knowledge on how villagers can protect themselves from COVID-19.

Farhat, a young apparel factory worker in India, is part of the vast Women Self Help Groups network, who are meeting shortfalls in protective equipment in the country by producing masks—more than 19 million so far.

Arefin, a genetics engineer in Bangladesh, is using his 3D printer to develop cost-effective face shields to protect doctors and nurses in his community.

Shanti, a secondary school teacher in Nepal, prepares and delivers lessons through the local radio station so that poor and vulnerable children in her community can have access to learning.

There’s a lesson to learn from these four courageous individuals: to stay resolute as we help South Asian countries protect their people and recover their economies.   

Overcrowded cities and homes have made it easier for the virus to spread. The region is now approaching close to 800,000 reported cases and over 19,000 deaths.

While COVID-19 hit South Asia later than most regions, infection rates are now spiraling upward. 

Overcrowded cities and homes have made it easier for the virus to spread, and new cases are increasing exponentially. The region is now approaching close to 800,000 reported cases and over 19,000 deaths.

Besides the dire human toll, the pandemic has triggered an economic fallout across the region. Our latest estimates show that South Asia will likely experience its worst economic performance in the last 40 years. Growth is projected to contract by 2.7 percent in 2020.

When the pandemic first hit South Asia, the World Bank responded rapidly, rolling out $1.6 billion of emergency support by the beginning of April to help governments address the immediate health consequences and protect their people. 

A doctor treats a patient in Mumbai, India - April, 2020. Photo: Akella Srinivas Ramalingaswami / Shutterstock.com
A doctor treats a patient in Mumbai, India - April, 2020. Photo: Akella Srinivas Ramalingaswami / Shutterstock.com

Since then, our support has grown to more than $4.2 billion, and more than $1.9 billion of these funds have been disbursed already. This support has helped governments buy vital protective equipment and medical supplies for frontline workers, provide learning to children, and deliver cash transfers and food to the most vulnerable. 

  • In Bhutan, we are helping train frontline workers; procure test kits, medical goods and supplies; acquire laboratory equipment; and support laboratory experts as well as communications campaigns that promote good health habits.
  • In Pakistan, we helped the government expand its national safety net, the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP): 4.5 million existing beneficiaries received an increase in transfers, while 7.5 million new beneficiaries received a one-time transfer to help with COVID related issues.
  • In Sri Lanka, we are helping scale up emergency response mechanisms, as well as strengthen the capacity of laboratories and hospitals.  This includes developing the first Bio Safety Level 3 laboratory at the National Medical Research Institute.

World Bank support has helped governments buy vital protective equipment and medical supplies for frontline workers, provide learning to children, and deliver cash transfers and food to the most vulnerable.

Migrant workers head home during coronavirus lockdown, India. Photo: Ajay Aggarwal / Shutterstock.coh
Migrant workers head home during coronavirus lockdown, India. Photo: Ajay Aggarwal / Shutterstock.com

As we look beyond the immediate impacts, it is certain that the pandemic will increase poverty and worsen inequality. Among world regions, South Asia may see the largest increase in the number of poor because of COVID-19.  Low-income people, especially informal workers, are at great risk, as they lack access to health care and are more likely to have lost their jobs. 

We are aiming to provide additional funding of close to $2 billion in the coming days. This support will help South Asian governments revive economies, jump start businesses and jobs, and protect their people. 

Throughout my country visits in South Asia, I have met many remarkable people like Najibullah, Farhat, Arefin and Shanti, who embody the resilient and innovative spirit of the region. The World Bank stands alongside them as the battle against COVID-19 intensifies. Together, we can overcome the worst impacts of the pandemic and build back better.

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