Welcome to Foreign Policy's South Asia Brief.
This week's highlights: What COVID-19 has meant for South Asia Taliban offensives further in Afghanistan, and Nepal's Supreme Court fires a contested prime minister.
If you would like to receive the South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please register here.
Explanation of the COVID-19 surge in South Asia
On Monday, Bangladesh counted nearly 14,000 new COVID-19 cases, setting a new daily record and bringing the total number of cases in the country to more than a million. A seven-day lockdown imposed on July 1 has been extended until this week, but authorities have announced that it will be relaxed for next week's Eid al-Adha holiday – despite health experts advising the government having warned that overcrowded Celebrations could turn into superspread events.
Bangladesh is only the youngest South Asian country to experience a major surge in pandemic. Nepal, Afghanistan and especially India have also been hit hard. South Asia has become pandemic ground zero, although it appeared relatively unscathed last year when the virus took its greatest toll in the United States and Europe.
When COVID-19 turned into a pandemic in March 2020, some public health experts feared the worst for South Asia. Poverty is deep, health infrastructure is fragile and under-resourced, population density is high, there is significant migration between regions and, in some areas, violence and conflict are hampering vaccination campaigns. Communicable diseases are widespread in South Asia; in recent years it has been 40 percent of the world's tuberculosis cases. Polio, largely a disease of the past, has also been diagnosed in Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years, albeit in small numbers.
But by 2020, much of the region appeared to have avoided a bullet. The number of cases and deaths were lower than in many developed countries. At the time, experts offered various explanations for the less severe pandemic crises in South Asia: young population, warm weather and natural immunity to COVID-19 through tuberculosis vaccines. (All of these speculations ultimately turned out to be false.) Others cited effective government policies – from a long lockdown in India to closely coordinated responses from state and society in Bhutan.
In 2021 the tide turned. A highly infectious version of COVID-19 known as the Delta variant was first discovered in India last December. It wreaked havoc across the country that spring, although the Indian government did not act quickly and encourage large political and religious gatherings.
The Delta variant has spread like wildfire across the region and beyond. This is the main reason why so many South Asian nations are experiencing such devastating waves of COVID-19 16 months after the pandemic began. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Delta variant is present in 104 nations. In South Asia, the crisis is exacerbated by vaccine shortages. Earlier this year, many South Asian countries were promised, and in some cases received, deliveries of syringes from India, the world's leading vaccine manufacturer. But when India's catastrophic upswing cut exports in the spring, its neighbors were left in the lurch.
Even with the COVID-19 battles in South Asia this year, experiences in different countries are different. India and Nepal faced widespread health problems. Bangladesh may not be far behind. But Bhutan has managed to record just two reported COVID-19 deaths in total this week. Meanwhile, Pakistan's numbers have remained relatively low despite regular flare-ups in new cases – although this week brought ominous news that an estimated 50 percent of cases are delta. Pakistan's achievement was praised by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, and most recently ranked 3rd on the Economist's Global Normalcy Index, which measures how nations have returned to pre-pandemic life.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has played right into the region's tensions, from democratic relapses and communal divisions to conflict and geopolitical rivalry. Dhaka cracked down on those who were critical of its COVID-19 response. New Delhi criticized overcrowded Muslim gatherings and encouraged Hindu ones. Colombo briefly called for cremations to be compulsory for all, including those belonging to religions that prohibit them.
At the height of the pandemic, the Taliban escalated violence, and India and China were fighting their deadliest border conflict in decades. COVID-19 has also become a battleground for Indo-Chinese competition. After India stopped exporting vaccines, China increased its own. This week, Beijing announced an emergency COVID-19 stockpiling initiative for South Asia.
The good news? The pandemic has inspired a certain amount of cooperation in a region marked by diplomatic disputes. India made vaccines available for a short time. The region's governments met to discuss common responses. Pakistan offered to send relief supplies to India.
Such steps are modest. Still, any silver lining during a pandemic is a good thing.
15.-16. July: Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi Participation in a conference in Uzbekistan on regional connectivity in South and Central Asia.
July 19th: The Wilson Center is hosting a discussion on the future of US-Pakistan relations.
The Taliban's attack continues. An angry Taliban offensive continues. The fighting remains particularly intense in the north, and on Monday the Afghan government announced that 5,600 families have been displaced in the past 15 days. The Taliban claim they control 85 percent of Afghanistan's territory. This is probably wrong; the insurgents often exaggerate their achievements on the battlefield. However, they have occupied dozen of districts since President Joe Biden announced the US military's withdrawal in April. On Wednesday the Taliban occupied an important border crossing with Pakistan. In the past few days, the insurgents have also captured border crossings with Iran, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Also earlier this week, CNN released a video allegedly showing Taliban fighters executing 22 Afghan soldiers who surrendered. (The Taliban condemned the video as a fake.) The footage emerged just days after it became known that the Taliban were attacking off-duty Afghan military pilots. It is a reminder of the uncompromising brutality of the Taliban – despite repeated declarations by the group's leaders to support peace and reconciliation. It also raises worrying questions about what the lives of Afghans will be like who will live under the control of the Taliban after the US administration. Retreat. On July 8, Biden said the US withdrawal would be completed by August 31.
Consolidation of a family dynasty in Sri Lanka. Last week, Basil Rajapaksa was sworn in as Sri Lanka's new Minister of Finance. This is a significant appointment given the country's economic struggles. But there was also another case in which a Rajapaksa family member assumed a senior position in government. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is President and Minister of Defense, and his brother Mahinda is Prime Minister and Minister of Religious Affairs. Her brother Chamal is the minister of irrigation and holds a high post in national security. Mahinda's son Namal heads the Ministry of Sports. And Chamal's son Shasheendra oversees policy on a long list of groceries – a "portfolio", in the words of the New York Times' Mujib Mashal, "too long to fit on a business card."
The deep imprint of the Rajapaksas in the government testifies to the continued presence of family dynasties in South Asian politics. In some cases – the Bhuttos and Sharifs in Pakistan, the Gandhis in India – they have had hard times and are in opposition. In Afghanistan, the Karzai family – led by former President Hamid Karzai – retains strong influence. In Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the country's founding leader, has been Prime Minister since 2009.
Nepal's prime minister overthrown. On Monday, the Supreme Court of Nepal approved the embattled Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli from power and ruled that he acted unconstitutionally when he dissolved the country's parliament for the second time earlier this year. The court ordered Sher Bahadur Deuba to replace opposition leader and four-time former prime minister, Oli. The Election Commission of Nepal has also postponed the elections planned for November.
Deuba was sworn in on Tuesday but has to win a vote of confidence in parliament within a month to keep his new job. If it perseveres, it could initiate a major geopolitical shift. Nepal, which has long been a close partner of India, has strengthened relations with Beijing in recent years. But Deuba is a strong proponent of India-Nepal relations. His return to power could turn Indo-Chinese competition to New Delhi’s advantage.
Two weeks ago, in a speech on the new Bangladesh budget, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stated that her government is providing Sri Lanka with loans totaling US $ 250 million through a currency swap. She was referring to a decision made a few months ago that did not attract much attention outside of South Asia. In May, Bangladeshi officials announced they were drawing on the country's $ 45 billion foreign exchange reserves – fueled by remittances and clothing exports – to respond to a request from Colombo to help build its reserves.
Some Bangladeshi economists downplay the importance of the move – the country's first currency swap – as the loan amount is relatively small. But it is a great symbolic achievement for Bangladesh, which has arguably become South Asia's greatest economic success story and positions the country as a donor rather than a recipient. The World Bank is forecasting GDP growth of more than 5 percent for the fiscal year beginning this month, despite the pandemic. In addition, Bangladesh's per capita income has recently surpassed that of India. The $ 250 million support demonstrates the country's growing status as an influential economic player. The move followed similar – if more generous – loan packages to Sri Lanka from China and South Korea, two of the world's leading economies.
"One day I just thought, I'm pretty confident that I can draw Tintin, so I just drew Tintin in Dhaka in front of the National Parliament of Bangladesh."
–Bangladeshi cartoonist and radio personality R.J. Apu spoke to NPR about his decision – while recovering in isolation from COVID-19 – to sketch cover artwork featuring the famous Belgian comic book hero visiting different areas of Bangladesh.
What we hear
In the latest episode of The Hidden Economics of Remarkable Women (HERO), a new podcast from Foreign Policy, we examine why many women in India work informally or under the table and what can be done to give them more rights. Income and support. Listen.
The Indian analyst Jelvin Jose describes in South Asian Voices how India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sees social media as a central platform to advance its Hindu nationalist goals. "As the BJP tries to advance its Hindutva agenda," he writes, "the digital space is its most fertile soil."
Anuradha Goyal, an Indian author and blogger, complains on the New Indian Express how companies in India are selling new products to consumers rather than simply repairing existing ones. "Waste in general and electronic waste in particular cause devastation for the environment", she writes, even if these "very companies" use the slogan "Reuse, Recycle, Upcycle".
Roshan Kumar Chhetri, a mechanical engineer in Nepal, writes for the Kathmandu Post about the country's civil protection policy. He praised its digital elements and their completeness, but criticized inadequate technology, poor coordination and models based on historical assumptions that "have now become obsolete on almost all fronts".