10 things to know about South Asia’s surging COVID-19 crisis
Why it’s not over anywhere until it’s over everywhere.
But these countries now face some of the worst infection rates of COVID-19 so far. We’ve broken down 10 things you need to know about the current crisis:
1. The numbers are huge.
South Asia as a region, home to 2 billion people, now accounts for half the world’s new cases (as of 11 May). Families are losing loved ones, and behind every big statistic or number is a grieving daughter, sister, friend or colleague.
Nepal has experienced case positivity rates as high as 47 per cent, which means almost half of all tests are confirmed COVID-19 cases. There are reports of nurses taking care of 20 critically ill patients on their own. Sri Lanka cases have increased by 275 per cent in the last month and cases have never been higher in the Maldives.
2. A new variant has emerged.
Many of us will have heard of the ‘Brazil variant’ or the ‘UK variant’ and India is the latest country to have seen COVID-19 mutate and develop a new variant, known as ‘B.1.617’. These emerging variants are often much more contagious and therefore spread faster around communities and families.
The UK has now reported cases of this new variant, showing how fast the virus can spread across borders, countries and territories. For the pandemic to be over, we must end it everywhere for everyone.
3. Vaccine coverage is low.
Many of us in Australia are waiting to have our vaccines, but we know we will be vaccinated in phases during 2021.
Coverage in South Asian countries is incredibly low, meaning people are not protected against COVID-19. Though the COVAX Facility has touched down with vaccine doses, the rollout is far from finished, leaving families vulnerable.
Less than 10 per cent of the population in India, less than 8 per cent in Nepal and less than 5 per cent in Sri Lanka have had a vaccine. This shows us just how critical it is for COVID-19 vaccines to reach these destinations quickly to stop the crisis spiraling out of control.
4. Health systems are on the brink of collapse.
Unlike India, some of the latest countries to see an outbreak do not have the same number of health clinics or doctors to respond to a crisis of this scale. The Maldives, for example, is a tiny island nation battling the highest number of daily cases per million people in the world.
“It’s health system is under severe strain,” says Paul Rutter, Regional Adviser, Maternal and Child Health, UNICEF South Asia. “80 per cent of COVID-19 treatment facilities in the capital are already occupied.”
5. It’s not just those with COVID-19 at risk.
As with any national emergency, it is also those in desperate need of other emergency health care who suffer.
“As resources are diverted and services become saturated, the essential health services that children and mothers so heavily rely on – including routine immunisation services, treatment for diseases like pneumonia and malnutrition and prenatal care for pregnant women – are once more at risk of being compromised, if not shuttered entirely,” says Mr Rutter.
Recent estimates suggest that in 2020, 228,000 children under 5 and 11,000 mothers died due to disruptions to essential health care services in South Asia.
6. Children are in danger.
“As COVID-19 cases have increased, the direct impact on children in contracting the virus has also increased,” says Mr Rutter. “Fortunately, most cases of COVID-19 in children are mild.”
As UNICEF closely watches the growing number of children getting COVID-19, we are also concerned about the secondary impacts on their physical and mental wellbeing. In this surge, we are seeing entire households falling ill, meaning some children are losing entire networks of parents and caregivers.
This not only endangers their own health, but also exposes them to neglect and abuse.
7. This is not a short-term outbreak.
In Sri Lanka, the number of daily new cases has reached record levels and is increasing sharply. Initial WHO modelling projects a 10-fold increase in daily cases in the next few weeks if the current trajectory continues.
The sheer speed and scale of infection is pushing health systems in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives to the brink – with fears that Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan and Afghanistan could face similar devastating surges. The speed of the virus is outstripping countries’ ability to treat patients and save lives.
8. It’s not just about vaccines.
The deadly spike in India, and now South Asia, is a warning to us all about what can happen if we let our guard down. Vaccines are part of the solution, but they are not the whole solution.
Wearing face masks, practicing social distancing and handwashing continue to be our critical shields against the virus. These practices are here to stay as long as the pandemic is around, and it’s all of our responsibility to protect our neighbours and communities.
9. Our teams are on the ground.
Over the last few weeks – and since the start of the pandemic – our teams have been on the ground. They are working fast to respond to the crisis in India, delivering oxygen supplies and critical support to health centres. This growing crisis is no different.
Our teams are already on the ground in countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka, with strong relationships with local government and partners. Thanks to generous donations from the Australian public, UNICEF teams are always ready to respond in an emergency.
10. You can make a difference.
UNICEF is run entirely on voluntary donations, meaning everything we do is possible because of you. Every donation, no matter how big or small makes a difference in emergencies.
No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.
With just $115 you could help supply 290 face masks to provide essential protection for health care workers. With $66 you could contribute towards an Oxygen Generation Plant which can provide oxygen for a 500-bed hospital.
We are currently in a race between the virus and the vaccine. Until vaccination coverage improves, we will continue to see outbreaks like this.
In Australia we are fortunate to have low community transmission, but families in South Asia need our support. This virus knows no borders or boundaries. We are in this together and will only get through it together.