Insights and Analysis

Coronavirus Dispatches, April 15

April 15, 2020

By our staff in Asia

Social distancing will be a challenge in Myanmar’s crowded urban spaces. (Photo: James Owen / The Asia Foundation)


Myanmar Braces for the Impact

By James Owen

Despite its proximity to China and extensive cross-border exchanges, including a newly established direct flight to Wuhan, Myanmar did not record its first official case of Covid-19 until March 23. Such a delayed onset, and the limited number of reported cases, may reflect gaps in the public health system and limited testing capacity, but it may also be that Myanmar has had a lucky start.

Heading into the New Year festival of Thingyan, Myanmar’s biggest public holiday and normally a week of nationwide celebration and water-fights, the Myanmar government has taken serious steps to manage the spread of the coronavirus, including closing border crossings, limiting air access, requiring people to stay indoors except to buy food and medicine, and establishing testing and quarantine centers. The government also declared Covid-19 to be a “reportable” disease, making it illegal for anyone to knowingly fail to inform the government of new cases.

A municipal Facebook page in Myanmar, showing steps they are taking to reduce transmission of the coronavirus. (Photo: James Owen / The Asia Foundation)

Regardless, Myanmar’s subnational governments are soon likely to face a health and economic crisis. The Covid-19 epidemic is expected to have a dramatic impact on people’s lives and Myanmar’s healthcare system, as it has in other less-developed countries. The first-order effects will be followed by second- and third-order impacts on people’s livelihoods and well-being, the economy, the social order, and government operations.

Strong interventions to enforce social distancing may lower the rate of transmission and reduce the burden on the healthcare system, but they are difficult to implement in densely populated areas of Myanmar and will disrupt livelihoods. Our Myanmar 2018 City Life Survey found that people were not well prepared to handle financial shocks like sudden job loss. And while the medical crisis alone may bring tragedy, what will happen to families who find themselves without a principal earner for weeks or months?

Good governance will be more important than ever to meet these challenges. Extremely difficult trade-offs will have to be made at an unprecedented pace. The government is wisely reaching out to the mass of volunteer groups that have mobilized. And in a country still riven by ethnic conflict, coordination by the Ministry of Health and Sports with ethnic healthcare providers will be critical to manage the pandemic.

James Owen is a program manager for The Asia Foundation in Myanmar. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

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Maintaining social distance at a vegetable shop in Kathmandu, Nepal, on the fourth day of a government-imposed lockdown (Photo: Skanda Gautam)


Nepal: The Covid-19 Lockdown Blues

By Ashray Pande

As social distancing swept the globe last month, Nepal followed suit with a weeklong stay-at-home order on March 24, later extended to April 15 as stepped-up testing and contact tracing brought new cases to light and India, a powerful neighbor and indispensable trading partner, established its own three-week lockdown. While the pandemic has exposed structural weaknesses in Nepal’s current healthcare system, the government has made a difficult but important decision at a time when leadership and administrative competence are imperative.

The lockdown has brought Nepal to a standstill, with borders closed, business activity suspended, and travel restricted across the country. Confidence in the economy is plummeting in the face of supply-chain disruptions, market volatility, and rising prices for goods and services. Security has been beefed up.

A policeman patrols the streets in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19 in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photo: Skanda Gautam)

With world economies already anticipating a slowdown amid growing uncertainty at the end of last year, Covid-19 has given countries like Nepal an unceremonious shove towards the economic cliff. The OECD’s Interim Economic Outlook Report has lowered its 2020 growth forecasts for the world economy from 3 percent to 2.4 percent, and the Global Risk Outlook 2020 report now ranks the risk of infectious diseases second only to climate change. Economic interdependence and international trade flows have further ensured that the impact of Covid-19 will be shared globally.

As governments across the world rally to respond to the sudden economic downturn, Nepal has come up with short-term relief measures that include tax deferments and waivers until the next fiscal quarter, assistance to families and vulnerable groups, and refinancing facilities for the business and financial sector. Cash transfers are being channeled through existing social security mechanisms to speed funds to the public. Key sectors like the tourism and hospitality industry, which contributes 8 percent of Nepal’s GDP, will require additional support.

The double whammy of inflation and unemployment is now emerging as a serious long-term risk. Nepali workers returning from abroad are flooding the domestic labor market, and the Nepali rupee is declining against the dollar, driving up consumer prices. Falling consumer confidence and increasing reluctance to spend have a domino effect on businesses, which then refrain from hiring and expanding, leading to a vicious cycle that may spiral out of control.

Nepal is still in the early stages of Covid-19 transmission, and global trends suggest there is much worse to come. Great effort will be required to expedite the relief package and get the money out the door and into people’s hands, and the federal and subnational governments will have to quickly sidestep or resolve a number of political and bureaucratic issues that have perplexed Nepal’s young federal system.

In the worst-case scenario, a prolonged economic shutdown, more heavy lifting will be required in the form of an economic stimulus package to support businesses and keep people at work to prop up the distressed economy. The outbreak will test the ability of Nepal’s unfolding federal policy infrastructure to reassure the public and restore confidence to financial markets and the economy.

Ashray Pande is a senior program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Local Governance Program in Nepal. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

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Pakistan: Livelihoods of the Less Privileged

By Robina Khattak

The city of Bannu is located in a small district of the same name in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Normally thronged with people—both locals and visitors, who flock to its large markets—Bannu is now in a state of lockdown, its public spaces virtually deserted.

Despite official attempts to prevent profiteering, local traders are raising prices to exploit the public’s anxieties. Grocery stores have hiked prices on essential commodities. While some in white-collar professions are able to work from home, the lockdown is taking a toll on the economically vulnerable, from waste pickers to street hawkers, rickshaw drivers, construction workers, and maids. Some 3,838 poor and low-wage citizens of Bannu have received funds from the government’s Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program, announced March 25. This cash relief will help with food, but many are still anxious about rent and bills.

After years of hard work, I suddenly have no income. Plus, there is this staggering price inflation. I’m under a lot of stress, and I don’t know how I’ll manage.

Safeer Khan, a construction worker by trade, yearns for a return to normalcy as he sits hopelessly, confined in his residence with his family. “After years of hard work, I suddenly have no income,” he laments. “Plus, there is this staggering price inflation. I’m under a lot of stress, and I don’t know how I’ll manage.”

Members of vulnerable groups such as the transgender community have been disproportionately affected. Transgender individuals lead a precarious life in many places, and certainly in Pakistan, beset by problems such as social stigma, lack of resources, and inadequate healthcare services. The pandemic has deepened their plight by depriving them of their livelihoods—usually begging, prostitution, or performing at weddings and parties.

A transgender woman from Bannu, adorned in a shimmery, bright pink dress, shared her ordeal with a sullen countenance. “I was performing at parties before the lockdown, and my earnings were enough to support me. The lockdown has changed my life. My friends and I are confined to our house and are struggling through these difficult days.”

Financial deprivation is closely linked to poor health, hygiene, and nutrition. The government’s relief package appears to be inadequate, and there is still a dire, unmet need for subsidies for the most destitute. Charity organizations, philanthropists, and NGOs have stepped up to provide some relief to the most desperate groups. The month of Ramadan, starting later this month, will only put further pressures on vulnerable families.

The current crisis is likely to persist for some time, and a long-term strategy is imperative. As financial ruin spreads despair and desperation, crime rates are likely to climb, and communities under lockdown in cramped conditions are already reporting a spike in domestic violence.

As the pandemic continues to disrupt lives and livelihoods, it is the least privileged who will bear the greatest burden. The government must devise a strategy to identify the most vulnerable among us and provide relief where it is most needed.

Robina Khattak is a senior program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Program in Pakistan. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan


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