India and Pakistan try to keep a fifth of humanity at home


March 28, 2020    |   By: SAM Report


On march 17th Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, declared that there would be no national lockdown to block the spread of covid-19. “If we shut down the cities,” he said, “we will save them from corona at one end, but they will die from hunger on the other side.” Barely a week later, not only have 210m Pakistanis been confined to their homes; on March 24th next-door India shut in all 1.3bn of its citizens, too.

The unhappy neighbours did not co-ordinate these moves. Indeed, the two scarcely communicate. Earlier this month, arguments over Kashmir nearly wrecked a top-level virtual meeting to plan a regional response to covid-19. Their approaches to the epidemic itself have been different, too. Whereas India’s order for a strict 21-day lockdown came directly from Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an 8pm speech, Pakistan’s de facto ban was enacted haphazardly at the provincial level, and then grudgingly acknowledged by Mr Khan.

The details of the restrictions differ, too. India’s are strict and no-nonsense. Multiple videos have captured police thwacking anyone they catch on the roads, including doctors trying to reach hospitals, delivery men and people looking for food. The ban includes all religious services, of any faith. Pakistan is wary of going so far. Although it has nearly twice as many covid-19 cases as India, and despite glaring evidence that the return of Shia pilgrims from Iran, as well as a jamboree that brought tens of thousands of Sunni missionaries to Lahore, were big sources of infection, the government has merely urged imams to discourage communal services and to suggest that the faithful pray at home instead.

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Yet for all the differences, the reasoning behind the unco-ordinated drive to lock down a fifth of humanity is shared. In mid-March, as the number of cases in both India and Pakistan began to rise into the hundreds, the inadequacy of both countries’ medical infrastructure stood alarmingly exposed. China, for instance, can muster 18 doctors and 42 hospital beds per 10,000 people, according to the World Health Organisation. India has just eight doctors and seven hospital beds for the same number of people, and Pakistan ten doctors and six hospital beds. India has at most 40,000 or so working ventilators, equipment that has proved life-saving for the most severely affected covid-19 patients. In contrast America, with a quarter as many people, has four times as many functioning ones. Pakistan has only 2,200 ventilators and these are poorly distributed: the 12m people of Balochistan make do with 49 machines, fewer than a single hospital in Lahore.

Simply put, both countries needed to put a stop to the spread of the disease by any means possible, or risk being swamped by dying patients. Curfews and lockdowns, backed by police muscle and softened by government handouts, as well as by calls to patriotism, are the cheaper option. The Indian Council of Medical Research, the government body that has led India’s effort, estimates that strict social distancing may reduce the total number of expected cases by 62%. More crucially for India’s health system, it would reduce the peak number of sick people by nearly 90%.

Rewarding idleness

This will not come cheap. Mr Khan on March 24th announced a 1trn rupee ($7bn) support package, cutting fuel prices and earmarking money for the poor. Mr Modi is spending $23bn to provide free food and cash transfers to India’s poorest. He is also boosting funding for health care and support for farmers. State governments in India have been more generous still, with some paying pensions in advance and others paying a month’s wage to all migrant construction workers. Such fillips are vital, say economists. The lockdown has brought most factories to a standstill, including the entire car industry.

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But the pain is felt hardest in the informal sector, which accounts for over 70% of the workforce in both countries. For the middle class in both India and Pakistan, the lockdowns have meant nothing worse than claustrophobia and doing without servants. For the poor they are devastating: within hours of the closure thousands of homeless had collected outside free kitchens in Delhi, India’s capital, not knowing where else to go.

Mr Khan has expressed anguish for the poor and Mr Modi has repeatedly asked employers to be kind to workers, as well as suggesting that each wealthy family take care of nine less fortunate ones during the 21-day lockdown. He even asked citizens to look after stray animals that are no longer being fed. Yet many Indians question why, despite such shows of sympathy, the prime minister neglected to say that groceries and pharmacies would remain open. The predictable result was a mad rush to stock up on food. Although understandable as a means to curb the epidemic, the prime minister’s decision not to give migrant workers time to return to their home villages sowed further chaos and misery as hundreds of thousands of poor labourers with nowhere else to go struggled to cross the country despite the closure of air, rail and bus services. Thousands have ended up walking long distances. Pakistan has seen a similar flight to villages, with impoverished workers caught riding in ambulances and in the cargo holds of buses to escape the travel ban. In India as many as 500,000 truck drivers were also stranded with their vehicles, blocked from crossing state boundaries, says a research group. Ironically, the stalled deliveries have included vital medical supplies, such as parts for ventilators.