Unemployed Indians shining shoes. File Photo: AFP / Ravi Raveendrain

In less than three months, Covid-19 has made a serious impact on our lives. Worldwide almost 2 million are now infected and more than a hundred thousand have died.

Governments of advanced economies are struggling to maintain a balance among lockdown, economic downturn and rising joblessness.

In a recent interview to the Financial Times, French President Emmanuel Macron said he saw the Covid-19 crisis as “an existential event for humanity that will change the nature of globalization and the structure of international capitalism.”

We agree with Macron.

The signs of changing globalization are already here, as nations are turning inward, closing down borders and thinking aloud about reforming the existing model of a global supply chain. 

How in the face of this rapidly changing world South Asia is dealing with the crisis is a pertinent question.  

We offer three scenarios and propose that the primacy of politics in South Asia will require radical reform to cope with the post-Covid-19 world. 

Economic impact

First, the South Asian economy will be hit hard. In an interconnected, globalized world, the region was thriving on exports of textiles, services and manpower to the Middle East and the West.

As most states of the Middle East and the West are now undergoing lockdown and many markets are closed, the number of unemployed is growing in South Asia. 

For example, in Pakistan according to a conservative report, the unemployment rate is projected to surge to 8.1% in fiscal year 2020-21. In India the unemployment rate under the lockdown is already 23.4%, with the urban unemployment rate over 30%. 

In Bangladesh, hundreds of out-of-work migrant laborers have returned from the Middle East and Europe, and thousands of textile workers are now out of work; some have taken to the street to get their unpaid wages. Recently a British Broadcasting Corporation report claimed that even the Bangladeshi lower middle class is in need of relief.

Sri Lanka’s unemployment rate is already ranked third in South Asia, and sluggish growth in the tourism industry in Maldives is taking a big toll on that country’s economy. 

A recent World Bank report made a grim projection for this year’s GDP growth in South Asian states, with India projected to post 1.5-3% growth, Bangladesh 2-3%, Nepal 1.5-3%,  Sri Lanka negative-3% and Pakistan negative-2%. The projection for 2021 too is not encouraging.

Social relations

Such a bleak economic scenario will put a heavy strain on South Asian social relations, and that is our second point. 

In general, apart from India, none of the South Asian countries have strong institutional democracy. Even in India, which many would argue used to be a beacon of democracy in the region, this Covid-19 crisis is testing its pluralist, secular and democratic bedrock.

Reports of allegations about irrational xenophobia against India’s Muslim minority are rife in international media, as one of the sources of virus contamination in India was an assembly held by Tabligh Jamaat, a Muslim missionary movement. 

 With already-existing social tension around Kashmir, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the forthcoming economic slowdown in India could push it to further social breakdown and division. 

Though it is also plausible that India will pull out of this mess and emerge stronger, as we all know democratic institutions in India are still stronger than in any other country in the region, how India emerges will depend on its leadership. 

Underlying inequality

Our third point is that the Covid-19 crisis in South Asia will bring to the forefront an underlying existing crisis that used to be ignored under the carefully crafted neoliberal agenda of “growth.” South Asia is one of the world’s most unequal regions.

According to a World Bank report, the well-being of people in this region, including “opportunity in childhood, mobility in adulthood, and support throughout life,” is poor. 

In other words, South Asian systems serve the rich, elites and politically connected groups better. Worse, as another report claims, “the health expenditure in South Asia as a percentage of GDP is low at 3.5% while [the] global average stands at 10.02%.” 

We conclude with a call to reform priorities for South Asian politics after the Covid-19 crisis. The primacy of politics should be focused on improving the quality of lives, reducing inequalities and promoting pluralism. Because history has taught us that politics of greed, hate and suppression are not going to get us into a good place. 

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Mubashar Hasan

Mubashar Hasan is a researcher at the University of Oslo, an adjunct fellow at the University of Western Sydney and an assistant professor at North South University, Bangladesh. He is the author of Islam and Politics in Bangladesh (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and co-editor of Radicalization in South Asia (Sage, 2019).

Kenji Isezaki

Professor Kenji Isezaki runs the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies and the Global Campus Program at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. He is a co-editor of Radicalization in South Asia (Sage, 2019). He has served in several UN peacekeeping missions and when Japan became the lead country for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program for Afghanistan security sector reform.