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How India turned floor zero of the pandemic

Welcome to the South Asian Foreign Policy Letter.

This week's highlights: India sags under the weight of the world's worst Coronavirus surgePakistan is doing a different deal religious hardlinersand a new report highlights the deterioration Freedom of the press in the region.

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India's coronavirus nightmare

India is now the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. Just a few weeks ago, around 50,000 new cases were registered every day. On Thursday, the country registered nearly 315,000 new cases in 24 hours – a new pandemic world record. India's COVID-19 curve has become almost a vertical line. Thursday was also India's deadliest day yet, and concerns about underreporting mean the toll may be higher. A new Lancet study warns that if the situation in India does not improve, the situation in India could result in 2,300 deaths a day through June.

Critics have blamed New Delhi in part for the authoritarian management of the current crisis, which appears to be being driven by the spread of a new variant. The government was slow to react, knowing that a cruel second wave was possible late last year. As Kunal Purohit writes in Foreign Policy, "India is racing towards a public health emergency."

The public health situation is already dire: India is collapsing under the weight of disease and death. Hospitals are dangerously low on oxygen and patients share beds. In Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the crematorium ovens are melting from overuse. And although India started a mass vaccination campaign in January, it is now facing major shortages, in part because it exported millions of vaccines abroad earlier this year.

When the pandemic first hit India last year, New Delhi acted swiftly to declare a nationwide lockdown, and its initial wave was relatively modest. During the first peak in September, the new daily cases never exceeded 100,000. India didn't appear to have nearly beat the virus until February, which makes its current peak all the more surprising. During that month, India recorded an average of 11,000 new cases every day. In March, the Indian health minister declared that it was the "final game" of the pandemic.

So what went wrong? Experts cite the spread of the British variant and frequent large-scale events with unmasked crowds. There were state election rallies and a Hindu festival drew millions of people to the Ganges this month – resulting in more than 1,000 new cases. But the emergence of a more contagious Indian strain seems to be the biggest factor. In March, a government statement warned of new variants that "confer immune escape and increased infectivity". In fact, the Indian tribe may have been in circulation as early as October.

Shamika Ravi, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Foreign Policy that both the new burden and the increasing number of people leaving their homes explain the current surge. She said the high rate of mobility could also indicate why more and more young people are becoming infected in the current wave: they are the ones who expose themselves by leaving their homes for work and play. The mobility rates of the elderly were lower during the pandemic.

The recent surge doesn't necessarily suggest the government's earlier pandemic response was ineffective, according to Ravi. In the past few months, new cases and deaths had declined, and hospitals and crematoriums weren't as crowded as they are now. The second wave is a "new animal, given its speed, size and strain of virus," she said.

Almost 20 million Indians have been fully vaccinated, but in a country of over 1 billion people, that barely makes up 1 percent of the population. Although New Delhi has announced that on May 1st, people over the age of 18 will be eligible, bottlenecks could limit the benefits of this expansion. On Tuesday, Modi addressed the nation pledging to increase oxygen and other critical supplies, but his speech gave few details on a broader plan. Meanwhile, leaders of the ruling party have mocked opposition offers of cooperation, boasted about the crowd at state election rallies, and berated journalists for expressing concerns about the crisis.

Without urgently needed supplies, Indian vaccine production lines could come to a standstill in weeks. The government hopes the US will ease export controls on vaccine raw materials so India can boost production, as outlined in a call from the head of India's leading vaccine maker. The Biden administration suggests that it is personable but not ready yet.

India's coronavirus crisis is also having an international impact. Indian travelers have brought the virus to places with low infection rates like Hong Kong, and the government's cut in vaccine exports has let down intended recipients, including many developing countries who are relying on the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access initiative.

The rate of new cases shows no signs of slowing down. Scientists ominously fear that another variant discovered this week in West Bengal could eventually become India's most contagious strain to date. Although some states have announced brief curfews, Modi has stated that bans should only be a last resort. With India still struggling to tame the beast, its pandemic nightmare is unlikely to end anytime soon.

Thursday and Friday, April 22nd to 23rd: The Biden administration houses a virtual climate summit with more than 40 world leaders, including senior officials from four South Asian countries.

Thursday, April 29th: The Wilson Center hosts a virtual launch of Pakistani journalist Zahid HussainNew book on how the war in Afghanistan shaped US-Pakistan relations.

Protests in Pakistan canceled. Persistent Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has announced that it will end protests that have killed four police officers and injured more than 800 people since last week. The move came after the government agreed to one of the core demands of the TLP: to table a parliamentary resolution to expel the French ambassador after French President Emmanuel Macron was classified as Islamophobic in October 2020.

The government also agreed to remove all criminal cases recorded against the TLP during the protests, although the group remains banned. Islamabad's concessions are not surprising, as the state often appeases religious hardliners. The absence of the Pakistani military is more noticeable. The armed forces, which are heavily involved in Pakistani politics, previously participated in negotiations with the TLP. His silence can mean that she is unhappy with the government and unwilling to help them in a difficult moment.

White House climate summit. After a last-minute invitation to Islamabad, four South Asian countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Pakistan – are attending the White House climate summit this week. The region definitely deserves a place at the table, as it is one of the regions hardest hit by the climate. The large, densely populated urban areas of South Asia – many of them in coastal regions – highlight the risks in particular: in the past ten years, almost half of the South Asian population has been affected by at least one climate-related disaster.

As I wrote last week, the United States will soon be realigning its policy in South Asia. While rivalry with China will fuel future thinking, climate change is likely to be another focus. This poses a threat to Washington's greatest interest in the region: stability.

Declining freedom of the press. Reporters Without Borders released its World Press Freedom Index 2021, and the ranking paints a bleak picture for South Asia. Every country in the region except Bhutan (65) and the Maldives (72) falls in the lower half of the index. Bangladesh ranks worst in the region (152), and India (142) and Pakistan (145) are not far ahead. Only Bhutan, the Maldives and Nepal have improved their rankings as of 2020.

Freedom of the press in the region is under attack on all fronts. In Afghanistan, journalists are in the crosshairs of targeted killing campaigns. They were kidnapped and shot dead in Pakistan, including one who survived a shootout on Tuesday. In India, reporters were accused of rioting only for reporting anti-government protests. And in Bangladesh, they are victims of the draconian application of a digital security law.

This week, the first buses of a Japan-made subway train arrived by boat in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This was the final step in bringing the country's first metro system to market. The government plans to open it to passengers next year. Dhaka is the most densely populated city in the world. The new rail system is designed to reduce traffic jams, reduce vehicle emissions and make the streets safer for pedestrians – an issue that has sparked mass protests in the past.

In addition, better infrastructure in Bangladesh is a prerequisite for stronger economic growth. The question is whether the subway is running smoothly – and whether people are willing to pay for it. Officials plan to bill passengers about 3 cents per kilometer.

"We try to control our emotions, but it's unbearable."

– Kamlesh Sailor, the president of a crematorium in Surat, India, speaks to the Washington Post about receiving 100 bodies a day during the coronavirus wave

Environmental expert in the Himalayan Times Basant Subba writes about successful efforts to conserve the endangered unicorn rhinoceros population in Nepal. He attributes the achievement to measures against poaching, a "network of informants" to monitor illegal activities and "relentless patrol".

An editorial in the Dhaka Tribune argues that the country should ensure that it remains globally competitive because clothing is likely to remain Bangladesh's main export item for a while: "The last thing Bangladesh needs is its primary export industry to become complacency."

Obaidullah Baheer, a university professor in Kabul, writes in Tolo News that Afghan political elites are "much more conflictual and divided" than the Taliban. Their inability to reach consensus on peace could undermine negotiations and lead the United States to "abandon the project and withdraw from the peace process," he writes.

No-Win War: The Paradox of Relations between the US and Pakistan in the Shadow of Afghanistan, Zahid Hussain, Oxford University Press Pakistan, 372 pp., April 2021.

No win war by Zahid Hussain

This new book by the Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain provides an exciting account of the effects of the war in Afghanistan on the volatile relations between the US and Pakistan. The broad outline will be familiar to keen observers, but the author relies on recent interviews with key players in Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul to reveal some fascinating and little-known details.

For example, shortly after September 11, when the Taliban were under pressure to give up Osama bin Laden, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar wanted to hand him over to a group of Chechen leaders – only to be informed that the Russian forces "deposed" them. had.

As US forces prepare to leave Afghanistan, No-Win War casts a throwback to an era that marked one of Washington’s most complex bilateral relationships.

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